Nick Lacasse, executive chef of the Drawing Room, is a "Top Chef" slayer. Just four days after former Scylla chef/owner Stephanie Izard was crowned Top Chef on the Bravo television show, Lacasse bested her in a head-to-head throwdown at his restaurant. Lacasse, a veteran of Spring, Green Zebra and Custom House, worked his battle magic with courses like sauteed foie gras with walnut crostini, pickled fennel and kumquats gastrique and pumpkin seed-crusted lamb chops with smoked potato puree, roasted shallot and Bing cherry relish and spearmint oil.
How did it feel to beat Stephanie Izard? Does this make you Top Chef Chicago?
I've known Stephanie for five years and it was an honor to have her in my kitchen. It certainly doesn't make me Top Chef Chicago. I had the home court advantage for the evening, so things might have been different if we were in Stephanie's kitchen.
What was your secret? Was it the foie gras?
The execution of the dinner was a major challenge for both of us; I think my catering experience came into play; that certainly helped in turning out so many plates. It was fun to work with foie gras again. I chose a fairly simple rendition to reintroduce it to Chicago palates.
What's your favorite hidden gem in Chicago?
There's a great bar called the Chipp Inn that's close to Green Zebra, where I used to work. It's filled with industry people and has a great 'old man' bar vibe.
If I were to come to your neighborhood, where would you insist I visit?
I'd take you to Farmer's Pride at Chicago and Western, it is run by this Polish family and they always stock great produce and good quality meat at fantastic prices. Another place is an awesome little coffee shop called the Star Lounge. It's very bohemian and artistic.
What's the best Chicago-related advice you've ever given or received?
Get out and explore the city. It is easy to get in a rut between where you work and where you live; I generally spend most of my time on Chicago Avenue, between work and home. For no other reason than to ditch the same scenery and get out of your element, I'd recommend visiting a different neighborhood every week.
You tend to cook gourmeted-up ethnic comfort food classics like Pad Thai and Korean BBQ. Where does that inspiration come from or that focus?
I am a huge fan of many different ethnic foods, but it seems that the ratios are not exactly how I would prepare them. For example, with Pad Thai, you generally get 80 percent noodles then just a little of the good stuff. I reverse that ratio and include more of the dynamic flavors; the halibut and vegetables in our Pad Thai are the highlights of the dish and create a nice change of pace.
Is it tougher or are their particular challenges for cooking to the cocktail-and-club crowd rather than, say, a regular fine-dining setting?
It's definitely an education. Sharing a wall with the nightclub can present its share of challenges. Particularly since the nightclub servers are in and out of the kitchen. In traditional environments, you limit who comes in and out. I also think our connection to Le Passage is a great benefit to customers though. In the early hours, the Drawing Room caters to a fine-dining crowd, later on it transforms into more of a lounge. But either way, people get exceptional food and drinks at all hours.
What should we know about The Drawing Room that we probably don't?
Most people don't know that we are open at 6 p.m Wednesday-Sunday. There's a misconception that we are only open when Le Passage is open. We serve food into the wee hours, but when you come in at 6 p.m it's got more of a proper restaurant feel.