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Acclaimed El Che Bar Chef Talks Hearth Cooking & The River North-ification Of Fulton Market

By Anthony Todd in Food on Aug 23, 2017 3:47PM

Chef John Manion.

Chef John Manion has spent more than 20 years in the business, and he's seen it all. He's worked in kitchens all over town, and is now one year into his second West Loop restaurant, El Che Bar. His first, La Sirena Clandestina, brought his take on South American cuisine to Fulton Market in 2012, and El Che was one of the first restaurants in Chicago to bring wood-fired hearth cooking to the forefront when it opened last fall. I recently sat down with him to discuss El Che's first year, the challenges of hearth cooking, and what he thinks about the neighborhood surrounding his restaurants.

Most dining guests, when they walk into El Che's gorgeous interior, probably never have a second thought about how their food is cooked. Some may notice the flames leaping off of the hearth, but none of them know about how nervous the whole process made Manion. You see, El Che is all wood-powered. Hearth cooking has become a huge, sexy trend lately (see: Lena Brava and The Promontory) but it also presents some huge challenges.

The interior of El Che Bar, with the flames in back. Photo via Facebook.

"The thing that kept me up at night when we constructed this monstrosity was the fact that I had left us no safety net," Manion asid. "There’s no sauté station, there’s no gas, there’s no way to cheat this! It’s terrifying."

Why so terrifying? Well, imagine what happens if the fire goes out, or it's the wrong temperature, or the restaurant fills with smoke. Tack onto that the fact that traditional menu design just wouldn't work.

"Unlike balancing a menu where certain things are sautéed, some from an oven, everything comes from the grill," Manion explained. "We have two to three grill stations, but you also have to light this fire, and maintain it while cooking things from raw to perfectly cooked, using a technique you’ve never really used before. It was challenging to engineer that, and when we opened, like every restaurant, we got punched in the mouth from the get go, and you had to learn on the fly. You don’t learn to tend fire in culinary school."

During my visits to El Che, I never noticed anything was amiss, but there were a lot of changes in the early days. For example: how do you hold already-cooked food without heat lamps or hot plates? An early riff on an Argentine pizza was incredibly popular, but had to get pulled off the menu.

"The problem became our inability to hold it," Manion said. "It was either overcooked or one side was burned - the way the hearth was set up, there was no good place to keep it. We couldn’t do it! It was one of those things that started out great and ended up being a problem. It was a learning process."

On the other hand, there are some seriously huge hits as a result of the hearth. Ultra-thin pork chops with spicy mustard, grilled oysters with garlic aioli, grilled chorizo with charred onions and ndjua; there's a reason that this restaurant has gotten universally positive reviews.

Grilled salmon at El Che Bar. Photo via Facebook.

I asked Manion if he has trouble attracting staff. While every restaurant is having difficulty finding cooks, a place like El Che, while attractive to some, faces unique challenges. "This restaurant, this way of cooking, attracts a certain kind of very good cook," explains Manion. "It takes a certain kind of person. We had a lot of stages [a.k.a. interns] come in early on who walked in and were just like 'nope'—it’s hot, it’s physically difficult."

But the ones that stay turn out consistently excellent product, and learned this type of cooking like the back of their hand. Not that they have an alternative, since there aren't gas lines in the kitchen.

As such a fixture in the West Loop scene, I wanted to hear Manion's take on the changes in the neighborhood. As smaller independent spots like Vera fold, and giant bars with huge patios come in, I wondered what he thought the future of his own La Sirena Clandestina would be. And he told me, frankly. "La Sirena is busier now than it ever has been, but when our rent goes up, it's not going to be tenable. Everything is a real estate deal. It has nothing to do with what we do."

"It’s funny," he says. "La Sirena and El Che are in the same area, but they're radically different neighborhoods. It would seem to me that Fulton Market is going to become River North, and maybe it already is. If I walk from one restaurant to another on a Friday afternoon, there is a line down the block for Federales. Here’s the thing—I’ve been doing this in Chicago for a long time, and there’s always been ups and downs, but that’s the future of Fulton Market, I think."

In the meantime, celebrate the anniversary of El Che by trying out their Sunday Asado. A perfect way to get a real taste of all that fire, the Asado is a giant platter of different rotating proteins, which might include pork, beef, sweetbreads, sausages, ribs, chicken or blood sausage, all fresh off the heat. You'll also get a first course salad plus empenadas, and the whole mess is $90 for two people. You might leave in a meat coma, but it's definitely going to be worth it.

What about the fact that hearth cooking is suddenly trendy? Manion takes it in stride.

"I wanted to do it for a very long time. It’s serendipitous that we opened during this hearth cooking craze," he says. Plus, he doesn't really care that diners know exactly what is happening, as long as the product is excellent. "I think you could sit in the front of the restaurant and not know there was a flame, and just enjoy your meal. It’s not meant to be a gimmick. It means a lot to us, but if you sit down and have a meal and are satisfied to the core, it doesn’t matter how we cooked it."

El Che Bar is at 845 W. Washington.