Brian Huston

F&W Star Chef

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Restaurants: Publican (Chicago)

Chef Brian Huston has worked his way through some of Chicago’s most beloved restaurants. He got his start working for Jimmy Bannos at the Cajun spot Heaven on Seven, later taking a position at Spiaggia. “The chef at the time, Paul Bartolotta, took me aside and asked me if I loved Chicago,” recalls Huston. “When I said yes, he told me the best thing to do was to leave, travel and bring something new back to the city I loved.” Heeding this advice, Huston took off for San Francisco where he worked with Judy Rodgers for two years at Zuni Café. He visited Europe and spent a few years in kitchens in Colorado before returning to the Windy City to work with Paul Kahan at Avec. The two opened the gastropub Publican in 2008, with Huston as chef de cuisine.

Here, Huston discusses grilled cheese, smuggled sourdough starters and ham in hay.

What’s your signature?
Ham in hay. When we were getting ready to open Publican I was doing a lot of research on beer-centric food and gravitating toward English pub cookbooks. I kept seeing mentions of “ham in hay”—when you would go out hunting you would pack your ham in hay to keep the meat warm and moist. For our take on that we brine a pork chop, smoke it, then cook it in hay with hay butter, bay leaf and thyme. It makes for a great piece of succulent meat.

Who is your food mentor?
Paul Kahan. He taught me about acid and seasoning, and he was the first chef who I could have a conversation with that wasn’t about food. Right now he is trying to teach me to be cleaner. He is fanatical about it.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
Spaghetti. I had a streak in middle school where I would come home and make spaghetti with Prego sauce and ground beef. Then I got a little creative and I started grilling the beef—we called it barbecue spaghetti.

What is one cooking technique that everyone should know?
How to make a grilled cheese. It seems really simple, but it’s the simple things that are the hardest to do right. Personally, I like to stick it in the oven to melt the cheese and to prevent the bread from burning.

What’s the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Multitasking. A timer is your friend—when you stick those pine nuts in the oven to toast they may only take about 10 minutes, but if you are doing other things there’s a tendency to forget.

What’s your favorite store-bought ingredient?
Canned Burgundy snails. We sell them at the Publican butcher shop. They have an earthy quality, so you can use them like you would a mushroom. We confit them in a little olive oil with aromatics. You can put that in a pasta, and they are delicious with steak or in a ragù.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
Sourdough starter from the guys at Acme Bread in San Francisco. I smuggled it onto the plane and put it underneath my seat. I did so much with it. I got really into Nancy Silverton’s bread books and I made sourdough pancakes for months.

Where would you take Thomas Keller out to eat?
Bill’s Drive-In for cheeseburgers. It’s a little burger stand right on the Evanston-Chicago border, and there are no seats. You get a burger, fries and a shake—I get a double cheese with everything. There are all these cool burger places opening up right now, but I tell everyone Bill’s is the best burger in Chicago.

What is your current food obsession?
Steel-cut oats. I get here pretty early in the morning and all the prep cooks and I used to do these big egg, cheese and bacon breakfasts. But now we’ve gone healthy. We make oats with almond milk and have it every day with golden raisins and cashews.

What is your favorite snack?
Popcorn. We have this cool popper that looks like a funnel. The popcorn pops up and the seeds fall down. We’ll make it with two tablespoons of olive oil and one of coconut oil, then finish it off with brown butter and salt. Every once in awhile we’ll add cheddar cheese powder or Parmesan.

What is your go-to cocktail?
What I drink most is tequila—Sauza or Don Julio—on the rocks with lime, or a margarita. I got into a lot of trouble at the Christmas party this year because there were unlimited margaritas.