Chicagoist Grills - Chef Bruce Sherman, North Pond

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jan 10, 2011 5:00PM

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Photo courtesy of North Pond Restaurant
I have a confession to make - this interview isn't even a little bit objective. North Pond has been one of my favorite spots in Chicago for years, and it was the first fine dining restaurant I ever wrote about. When I got a chance to interview Bruce Sherman, the chef and co-owner of North Pond, I screamed like a little girl at a Justin Bieber concert - though not in front of the chef. Despite my enthusiasm, I had some serious questions for Chef Sherman. I talked to Chef Sherman about staying relevant, the challenges of owning a restaurant on park district land and why he is not a locavore.

Chicagoist - North Pond has created an environment that sustains itself without tons of buzz, without tons of news, but with plenty of customers. Everyone I know who goes tells everyone else to go. How do you pull that off?

BS - I think that it’s a challenge. We’re going to be going into our twelfth year in a few weeks and it becomes harder to keep things as interesting, as buzz worthy, as fresh, after a few years. But we’re not going anywhere. We’d love to extend even longer with the park district.

Chicagoist - Most restaurants aren’t going for old-fashioned, Arts and Craft style - people want modern, with big name interior designers. Heritage doesn’t seem to be the name of the game. You did it and have had a lot of success.

BS - It seemed natural in this setting - it seemed inconsistent to go uber-modern, black and white, neon lighting, sleek and uncomfortable. It only makes sense to do it that way. The fact that the food fits with that atmosphere was somewhat coincidental.

Chicagoist - Do you think it attracts a different demographic?

BS - Yes.

Chicagoist - Is that a good thing?

BS - It’s good if you can make it work. If you’re looking for the buzz, it’s going to be disappointing. It’s in Lincoln Park, which is a different demographic, the atmosphere and the style are different, and that just attracts a different type of character. It’s generally a little older, more affluent, more established, and that can be tricky to navigate in the dining room.

BS - Think about Lincoln Park - I’ve got people walking through the park who help themselves to the herbs and vegetables in my garden! There is a sense that it is public property, that they have a right to be here. They feel a sense of entitlement to take what they want.

Chicagoist - Does it change the food you can serve?

BS - I think it does change things. I’m certainly sensitive to who is in the dining room, relative to what I offer. The crazy scientific stuff isn’t my thing, so my style is often compatible with what people are looking for.

Chicagoist - You have one of the best locations in town, on Park District land. How does your property arrangement actually work?

BS - The park districts owns the building and the land, and we pay rent. The building is from 1912, though we built the entire front and side wings of the building in 2002. The agreement at that time was that we would stretch out our lease a little bit if we paid for the additions.

Chicagoist - I can’t imagine they have any interest in getting you out!

BS - I wouldn’t say they want us out - I would say that there is a feeling on their part that we are getting a deal. Ironically, in regards to your initial question about how we’ve done relatively well here, the park district wasn’t used to that in this space. It was a building that was built for ice skaters, and then it became a storage shed, a homeless shelter, a natural foods store, a hot dog stand. None of which lasted very long nor brought revenue to the park district. My business partner had this idea of making it into a restaurant and we made it into something noteworthy and pay the park district regularly.

Chicagoist - Which they should love, right?

BS - Which they love, to the point that they have this misunderstanding that we’re getting away with stealing for not paying more. There’s a feeling like they should be getting more from us. It’s a strange arrangement, but I think that’s inherent in the relationship between municipal authority and a for-profit, whether it’s a really small restaurant or anything else.

Chicagoist - How does that relationship work, after all the improvement you have put into the space?

BS - It gets complicated with repairs. When you rent, you have a landlord who typically pays to repair broken pipes or things underneath floors and walls.

Chicagoist - Let me guess - you handle all that stuff?

BS - Yeah. Structural stuff too - if we put up doors and windows and they break, it’s our problem. But we have 100 year old pipes and cables in the building and there is the expectation that it is our responsibility.

Chicagoist - When you have a restaurant is so successful over so many years, many chefs would’ve opened three other restaurants. Graham Elliot is opening Grahamwhiches left and right, yet there is only one North Pond, there is no North Pond 2 coming to Logan Square.

BS - Well, it opens next week - sorry we didn’t mention that to you. (laughs)

BS - I think about what I would do next. I don’t mind having a single place, for now, but after ten years, you want to think about doing something else. That’s not to say we shutter this place, but that we want to address new challenges and do something new. I’m not the type who wants three or four places and have my name spread around, it’s not my thing. I’ve got my hands full, and I’ve got a wife and two kids and have been married for 20 years. That’s of value to me, and I don’t think that I could do it well enough and maintain everything at the high level it is at if I opened more places.

Chicagoist - Whenever I'm here, you're in the kitchen, not off on a reality TV show.

BS - It’s hard - you have to make your choice. If you have three or four places, you can’t always be there. And certain days you are in and out. At the same time there must be a certain stage where you say to yourself “I’ve reached this level, I don’t have to be there every night.” But it’s hard because there is an identity with the restaurant, and I think that in this day and age, when it’s about chef-driven restaurants and chef identities, it’s our responsibility to be a presence. That doesn’t mean cooking behind the line, but if you have your name on the placard out front, you had better be there!

Chicagoist - I know you are connected with the Green City Market - how does that change your food?

BS - I like to tell people that when I came here and started doing “seasonal food,” and put “seasonal cuisine” with the four icons on the sign ten years ago, people would say, “Seasonal cuisine? What season are you open?” Now, look at how far we have come. People get it. The city as a whole gets it.

Chicagoist - That was quite radical back then?

BS - People didn’t get it then. But I walk past the sign now and think we should reconsider the subtitle, since it’s not necessary.

Chicagoist - Do you think this is a “trend” or is farm-to-table now permanent?

BS - I don’t know if “farm-to-table” is permanent, but the philosophy of sourcing from local farms is permanent. I am a little tired of the farm-to-table moniker - we don’t put it on our menu, and we don’t need to. But if it permeates everywhere, we’re making a difference in the food system, and that’s a good thing.

Chicagoist - How do you strike a balance between not putting names on the menu and your desire to be an educator, and make the dining public understand that you are doing something special?

BS - I think by serving good, delicious food. They may get it in an unconscious way. The good delicious food opens the way for a discussion about where it’s coming from, and the servers need to be educated about where things are coming from, so they can answer questions. But I don’t want them in the dining room beating people over the head with what things are and where they are grown - people aren’t coming here for that! People are coming out to have a good meal for a special occasional and to know that they can feel good about it.

Chicagoist - One of the challenges of people who do seasonal cuisine is to keep serving interesting food in the winter. Do you think about that when you are prepping menus? Is the winter menu more challenging?

BS - Yes, absolutely. But my sign says seasonal cuisine, not local cuisine. That means that in the winter, I’m sourcing things from California, things that are in season there. It’s more challengeing the winter. We have parsnip, onions, spinach, but also really interstinc kinds of citrust that are coming out of California and mushrooms from Oregon

Chicagoist - So it’s more important to take things at their best than it is to take them from within 20 miles?

BS - Absolutely. And it’s from late spring to early fall that the two concide. But I’m the first person to say that I’m not a locavore. I’m a cook. I’m too interested in my craft to limit myself to what’s only available locally. I love artichokes and black trumpet mushrooms, and I love them enough that I don’t want to not serve them. It would be something else if we were in Portland, Oregon, but I can’t have everything all the time.

North Pond is located at 2610 N. Cannon Drive.