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Chicagoist Grills ... Chef Charlie Socher

By Erin in Food on Apr 12, 2005 9:23PM

2004_04_chicagoistgrills.jpgOne need not be a foodie to know who are the big dogs on the Chicago culinary scene: Achatz, Trotter, Tramanto, Bayless, Kahan, Pluton, and on and on and on. They're talented, gifted, and their impact on the way the we all eat is immeasurable. These chefs, quite simply, are as important as any artist who calls Chicago home.

But truth be told, Chicagoist is sort of sick of hearing about them.

If they're not calling each other names, they're shilling for fast-food corporations. For those who aren't partaking in such shenanigans, we're just not eating at their restaurants often, if ever. We adore them, but these aren't the places we bring our out-of-town friends when we want them to sample a bit of our fair city; they are the places we visit maybe once a year if we're lucky.

So where are we going? We're going to the intimate, lively places in our neighborhoods. The restaurants that, from the moment we walk through the doors, cause our shoulders to relax and a smile to break out over our faces. These spots are our homes-away-from-home, the joints that give our respective communities their color, and some of the greatest reasons to never leave the city limits.

Chicagoist Grills is our new series, a Q&A with the chefs who run the kitchens of our favorite restaurants. Each month we'll talk with these chefs who keep our bellies full and learn more about them and their menus.

2004_04_charliesocher.jpg This month we begin with Chef Charlie Socher, known for his French
culinary skills at the six-year old Café Matou, and now for his newest venture, Charlie's on Leavitt, a contemporary American restaurant in Lincoln Square.

1) How long have both Cafe Matou and Charlie’s on Leavitt been open?

Café Matou has been open eight years in August and Charlie’s on Leavitt has been open for seven months.

2) Why Lincoln Square for your newest spot, Charlie’s?

Simply I picked out three areas that I thought would support restaurants from what the market was like in particular areas with their demographics. I looked at the South Loop, and I looked at Andersonville and Lincoln Square. I wouldn’t have minded downtown but we prefer to buy the real estate and real estate was a bit prohibitive downtown for our budget. So that’s why we looked in those three outlying areas. We saw as an opportunity there.

3) Tell me about the cuisine served at Charlie’s and what makes it different from your previous endeavors?

At Cafe Matou we’re doing French food and if I were to generalize, some of the tendencies in French cuisine are that you’re dealing with subtleties of flavor. At Charlie’s, on the other hand, we didn’t want to make it even a close clone to Matou. What we wanted to do was make things much more aggressive, more in-your-face flavors. We’ve got the cabbage salad that we serve warm with bacon and blue cheese and those flavors are very prominent in the makeup of the dish.

4) So Charlie’s allows you to be a bit more adventuresome with your cooking?

In a way. My training has been in the French tradition, and not that I’ve stayed French at every place I’ve been at it. But there are certain things you can’t do if you’re going to respect the traditions of French cooking. There is some heat used in French cuisine, if you’re looking at the south of France, but even there it’s nothing when comparing with something like Thai or Mexican cuisine. It doesn’t get quite that spicy. And I like using those flavors, too. On my off days, if I’m dining out I’m doing on of two things: I’m checking out restaurants that are competing with me or, which is much more often the case, I’m going out to have flavors that have nothing to do with the kind of food I make.

5) What are some of your favorite restaurants in town?

I like to Opart Thai House, that’s one of my favorites to go to for my palate. There’s a lot of other Thai restaurants I like, Arun’s Restaurant, but obviously that’s a major dining experience. Sushi is another favorite. I typically got to the neighborhood place in walking distance from home, which for me is Paradise Café.

6) Who inspires you?

In terms of any reading I do, I would say that one of my favorite guys is Jacques Pépin and I’ve always enjoyed Daniel Boulud.

7) What do you think defines Chicago’s food scene right now?

That’s a good one because I think Chicago is searching for something right now. There is really nothing that I would say is dominating anything. I think there would just be probably a little more expanse of the American side which what we try to do at Charlie’s. I think that’s where the biggest push is right now. We’re starting to bring in some of the Asian elements and bringing them together.

The other thing that’s starting to happen now is that we’re finally starting to get some locally produced products. There’s more of a reliance on the local farming community in the growing season, which is something that’s always fun for me that and other chefs who are doing it. I think there is more of a push for that. I don’t think its much different here than in the rest of the country.

I think one of the problems everyone is having is that there are a lot of restaurants out there and one of the trends is to differentiate your product than what the food actually is. Whether it’s coming up with promotions that you can do and you’re seeing more places doing a daily prix fixe [fixed price menu].

8) Have your prix fixe menus been successful for you?

The prix fixe has worked but that’s a function of what it is. It’s a low-cost menu, ours is a $22 menu and it depends on what I have on the priz fixe. If I do a fish, the fish sells well and if I do a stew, the stew doesn’t. If I had a slighty different kind of restaurants, with a little lower-level cuisine the stews would sell a lot better. We’re sort of a cusp restaurant in that we’re not quite a bistro, but we’re not in the upper echelon in terms of what you’re spending.

9) Is that indicative of the neighborhood setting or is that price point what you were aiming for?

We’ve developing here. When we first opened up we were shooting a little lower than the lever we are at now. I was finding that we were having a much better reception for things when I pumped it up a bit. I’ve got experience in the top-end so when I started pulling things away from the lower end and pushing them to be more sophisticated, I was finding better reception for the product. Basically we've found this niche where we create a balance.

10) What are some of your favorites?

My favorites are not necessarily the favorites of the customers. I have a chicken dish, which is whole chicken breast, bone in, with wing attached that’s stuffed with under the breast with a panade of main flavors. There is some garlic and tarragon with a good amount of other things, though those are the dominant flavors. And I can’t take it off the menu! I’ll do other chicken dishes and people will ask if we have that one in back to do for them. It does have nice flavor but it’s a simple preparation that’s around for years.

11) Do you find your audience challenges you as much as you try to challenge them?

Without a doubt you see things that people probably wouldn’t eat years ago that they’re eating more and more now. When I first started out I tried to do certain things that wouldn’t sell but now I have no problems selling. Years ago when I first became a head chef, I put skate one on the menu and no one would buy it. And now if I have 20 orders on Friday chances are that they’re not available on Saturday. On of the things that has helped with us too is I did an apprenticeship in France and one of things I found is that real Francophiles who spend a lot time there are always quite pleased with what I do. I probably stick much closer to the French tradition than some of the other French restaurants, though I’m not making a blanket statement about all of them. The people who do appreciate that sort of thing are the ones who are now coming here more.

12) As a chef, product is of the utmost importance. Where are places you recommend in town for the best products?

If you’re talking for produce, if you don’t want to pay a lot of money ... well, you can go to Whole Foods but you’re going to spend a lot of money there and that’s pretty much across the board as far as quality of their products. You’re going to get good stuff but you’re also going to pay.

If you’re willing to spend the time, you can buy comparable product for less. But you have to be willing to go up to Sherwyn’s up on Diversey to get the different grain products, actually getting unsweetened coconut. Going to your local fruit market is one of the best things to do, and that includes up to Devon up to some of the Indian and Pakistani markets. You can find incredible products up there, and that includes sausages. If you’re willing to look for those things, that’s where you can find them.

Go up on North Harlem Avenue when you’re looking for some Italian things. You’ll typically pay a little less for things there and get the same product that you would over in the Taylor Street area. Treasure Island is good, too. They’ve got a good meat market and seafood selection and you’re going to pay a little less there than you would at Whole Foods.

Charlie’s on Leavitt, 4352 N. Leavitt St., 773/279-1600, Tuesday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m., Sunday 5-9 p.m., Closed Monday. Average Dinner Entrée - $8-$15, carryout is available. Reservations are not necessary and street parking is available. Brown Line Train (Western Ave stop) and cabs are plentiful.