In Conversation with Heaven On Seven's Jimmy Bannos: Gumbo and Love On Snowstorm Saturday

If scents of the holy trinity of Cajun cooking aren’t a draw to the restaurant tucked away at the end of the fluorescent 7th floor hallway, the dimly lit but somehow still bright and bursting room beckons like an old friend forgotten from a past life.

It was a snowstorm Saturday in Chicago and Christmas was in the air, literally. Crowds of lights and Mardi Gras colored tinsel draped above our heads, blending in surprisingly well with the floor-to-ceiling hot sauce collection spanning across every wall in the cozy restaurant.

A sprightly man with grey hair wearing a simple navy sweater greeted us. “I’m here to interview Jimmy Bannos. Senior. Please.” I stammered a little bit, trying not to expose my first-timer nerves. He leaned closer with a twinkle in his eye and asked me for my name. I looked over at my boyfriend, J, who looked back at my frazzled state with deep amusement. “Sabrina,” I collected myself. “It’s Sabrina.”

“He’s around here somewhere. Let’s get you a seat and I’ll grab him.”

The man led us to one of the tables that stood by a little opening, which led back out into the hallway. The table gave us a view of the open-concept kitchen tucked away in an expansive restaurant corner. Being not quite 7pm on one of Chicago’s snowier evenings, I was impressed by the number of people already seated and trickling in to eat dinner.

“George!” I realized with a start. “That was George!” I whispered excitedly to J.

My revelation was met with a cool eyebrow raise.

“He’s Jimmy’s older brother,” I explained with some authority. “When they were little, the two of them would help their dad out at his diner in the kitchen. They used to hold contests to see who peeled potatoes and onions the fastest.”

“Who do you think won?” J mused. I made a note in my marble composition book to inquire.

A very tall and stout man wearing dark jeans, a black t-shirt, and a grey-striped apron strolled into the restaurant from the open space behind us. He had thick head of curly, greying hair, dark-rimmed glasses, and an air of jovial ease. I jabbed J sharply through his many layers. “That’s him,” my voice caught. “That’s Jimmy.”

Jimmy walked towards the kitchen, said something to one of his staff, and then turned and made his way over to us with a big smile. “Jimmy Bannos,” he introduced himself, giving us hearty handshakes and lowering himself into one of the open seats at the table. The introductory small talk wasn’t about the weather but about the lunch he ate at his friend Takashi’s Slurping Turtle earlier that day.

It’s no secret that Jimmy comes from a family of chefs and restaurateurs and is well connected in the Chicago food industry. To hear him speak about food, though, is to know that he didn’t choose this path out of ease or obligation, but out of unadulterated love. His tone became wistful and lyrical as he talked about the new dishes he’s been trying around Chicago. 30 years worth of recognition and awards no longer seemed like such a big barrier between this great chef and myself, not when we spoke the same passionate language when it comes to food.

I had scheduled fifteen minutes to chat with Jimmy, which flew by entirely too soon. I had barely asked a couple of questions (Jimmy confirmed that if each of the brothers were asked who won the childhood peeling contests, each would nominate themselves), he stood up and said, “So. Do you guys wanna talk and then eat? Eat and then talk? Talk while you eat?”

I managed a quick shocked glance at J before opting for eat + talk. Jimmy clapped his hands together in a ‘you got it’ motion and headed off to the kitchen. When it finally hit me that Chicago-legend and celebrated chef Jimmy Bannos Sr. was personally cooking our dinner, tears welled up in my eyes.

“Is this really happening?” I managed a strangled whisper at J. Even his regularly calm demeanor had cracked a sliver.

“This is pretty cool,” he admitted.

“I need a drink,” I stated firmly and ordered their excellent Drunken Arnie (although next time, I have to try the Hurricane), which arrived in the largest mason jar I had ever laid eyes on. It’s like they knew…

Within moments, we heard a sizzle coming closer to our table and turned to see Jimmy walking towards us with mini cast iron skillets. “Jalapeño corn bread with house-made pimento cheese. Careful, those skillets are hot.”

Risking the burn, J and I both leaned in to our individual skillets and inhaled deeply. The comforting smell of cornbread mixed with the salty hints of cheese washed over us. We shared a look that said, “Good thing there’s two because I’m not sharing.” We get each other like that. Small forks pierced the smothered, golden-brown domes and we dug in with indecent but entirely warranted enthusiasm. The notes of jalapeño traced barely-there footsteps across our taste buds, giving way to the fluffy bread married with the creamy hot cheese. Course one had confirmed I had in fact stepped into a little slice of heaven.

FRIED JALAPENO CHEDDAR CORN BREAD W/ PIMENTO CHEESE

Fried jalapeño cheddar cornbread with homemade pimento cheese

As we licked crumbs off our lips, longing for more, course two arrived. It was a small plate that held miniature cups of gumbo. The cup on the left was said to have 40+ ingredients. I chugged it and instantly felt more alive with the infusion of hot, garlicky greens running down my gullet. It’s the type of potion I’d imagine forms a liquid armor to guard the drinker’s body against the bitter cold.

The second cup, I learned, held fame. It was Heaven On Seven’s renowned Andouille sausage gumbo, the very same that skyrocketed the restaurant to glory. As we slurped and shoveled hunks of cornbread with melting butter into our mouths, Jimmy reminisced on first making that gumbo with Polish sausage rather than Andouille. His father had an aversion to the latter. Jimmy was able to prove that Andouille elevated that gumbo to greatness. So much so, that word spread and soon the restaurant was selling it by the gallon. After sampling it for myself, I can safely say a gallon is not enough.

Gumbo two ways (click on the image to view the Food Fiction Project story)

Gumbo two ways (click on the image to view the Food Fiction Project story)

Willing myself not to lick the cup clean in public, I noticed Jimmy fold his hands with a faraway expression on his face.

“Steam was rising up everywhere,” he recounted, lost in an old memory. “I was in the shower and the steam from the water reminded me of the steam from the gumbo. It was rising up, like it was going to heaven.”

Realization had hit Jimmy that day. The little restaurant tucked away on the seventh-floor of an office building was knocking on Heaven’s door every day with upward-tricking tendrils of steaming gumbo. Heaven On Seven was born, and I found myself listening to him tell the tale with goose bumps along my arms and a sleepy warmth in my heart.

Jimmy’s dedication to Cajun-style cooking goes well beyond his impressive collection of cookbooks and training with top chefs in New Orleans. Jimmy would often make weekend trips in the late 80s to New Orleans with his family, where they would hit 25-30 restaurants at a time just to try bites of etouffee and gumbo and fish. As he called to mind days of swapping recipes and tasting for secrets, one stood out in particular.

On a trip with his wife, Annamarie, he was determined to try gumbo from a restaurant situated in an unsavory part of town. A local driver who had become good friends with the Bannos family was happy to escort them, much to Annamarie’s discomfort. She resolutely refused to go into the restaurant. So, their friend left her safely locked in the car while he quickly ran Jimmy into the restaurant and then back out to the car. I was heartily amused but not at all surprised to hear that Jimmy’s easy going and culinary curious nature fit right in to that precarious situation. As for the fact that he practically risked his life for a bowl of gumbo? You better believe that man coaxes his own gumbo to perfection every time.

Course three was Jimmy’s grilled Andouille sausage on top of sweet potato polenta with honey creole mustard and grilled onions. With every bite, I slowly inched the plate closer to my side of the table, looking up with wide-eyed innocence when J levied an accusation against me. I couldn’t help myself. I had found my spirit dish and it was just too good to share.

Grilled andouille sausage on sweet potato polenta with honey creole mustard and grilled onions (click on the image to view the Food Fiction Project story)

Grilled andouille sausage on sweet potato polenta with honey creole mustard and grilled onions (click on the image to view the Food Fiction Project story)

We peacefully stuffed our faces as Jimmy sat back and casually wove vivid tales of food and family. He conjured his mother’s memory via the smell of frying bacon on Sunday mornings. He moved us when describing his son-in-law’s family’s homemade dolmades that almost brought him to tears. We spoke of his “life-changing” trip to Barcelona as plates of pork belly on top of Parmigiano-Reggiano grits with a quivering fried egg hit the table.

Shrimp and grits

Pork belly with Parmigiano-Reggiano grits and a fried egg

“That pork was braised for five hours,” Jimmy paused his story to tell us about the dish, as if he was a proud parent of a child who had just done very well in school. It makes sense, given that he refers to his dishes as his children, unable to pick a true favorite. Those succulent, fatty slices of pork belly stole J’s heart and it was his turn to slowly inch the plate over to his side of the table. I acceded. Fair is fair when you’re in love, right?

As we both dug in, Jimmy was regaling us with the time his family walked into a tiny jamon shop in Barcelona, made friends with the owners, and even cut their own meat off the pigs. “I remember pork fat just dripping down our chins while we ate.” His face shone at the recollection. I glanced over at J and saw his chin was experiencing a similar moment of bliss.

When the New Oreans BBQ shrimp and rice arrived, I had to take a moment to admire how perfectly the shrimp was cooked. Plump and tender, a little spring in the flesh with each bite.

“You know why?” Jimmy responded.

“Because you cooked it?” I deadpanned.

“Because I cooked it.” He winked. But in all seriousness, the man makes a mean bite of shrimp.

New Orleans shrimp and grits

New Orleans style BBQ shrimp over rice

As we made our way around that dish, Jimmy made his way around Europe via memory, telling us of his “unreal” 12-day winery trip around Greece. It was an exhilarating experience to eat Cajun and think Mediterranean, slowly recognizing strains of various cuisines that Jimmy blends together to create his own menu. He paused and took stock of his two mesmerized listeners.

“How are we feeling? More food?”

J and I exchanged glances, knowing full well we were both about to burst.

“Well, there was just one thing we were hoping to try…” I heard myself say. My stomach rose up in protest but my mind was made up. “We’d love to try one of the po’boys.”

“Which one?”

“J was interested in the catfish. I was leaning towards the fried shrimp. Why don’t you pick your favorite though, we trust you!”

Jimmy gave a solemn nod, as though we had entrusted him with a deeply important task, and disappeared into the kitchen. While he was busy in the back, we struck up a conversation with his nephew, Andrew Bannos, the general manager of Heaven On Seven’s main location. Andrew reflected on what it was like to grow up in the restaurant business. He spoke fondly of kitchens packed with cousins, loud and large family dinners, and an unconventional work schedule. His admiration for his uncle’s work ethic was evident.

“He’s a ballbuster. Sharp. But the best guy.”

When Jimmy got back to the table, uncle and nephew had a brief exchange about their schedule for the next day; a 5:30am start time at Soldier Field to prep for The Purple Pig concession stand as well as for catering the suites. Andrew cocked his head towards the window, indicating the storm outside and reminding us all of the below freezing temperatures that were in store for the famed Bears vs. Packers game. Jimmy wouldn’t hear of showing up a moment after 5:30am. “I gotta be there,” he said simply. It was a matter-of-fact moment that stayed with me—a simple but mighty dedication of a man to his craft.

And then, it came.

A jaw-dropping tower of seafood piled on a bed of crusty bread garnished with lettuce, tomatoes, coleslaw, lemon wedges, and a cup of homemade honey- jalapeño dressing. I marveled at the physics of the plate. “Fried catfish and shrimp po’boy. Squeeze some lemon on there and dig in. Make sure to get a bite of the whole thing together.” I was speechless but J lost no time in following Jimmy’s instructions. When I finally took a bite of the fish with the dressing, it was once again an experience unlike any other fried fish I’ve had.

Customized po'boy (fried catfish and fried shrimp with all the fixings)

Customized po'boy (fried catfish and fried shrimp with all the fixings)

“This batter!” I cried out, looking at Jimmy with wonder.

With a grin, he acknowledged that it was his own secret concoction. I took another bite and counted my blessings for getting the chance to eat the manna from the man himself. I have to congratulate J for his ‘never give up, never surrender’ attitude to that towering po’boy. It was a valiant effort and the plate was sent back empty.

“Dessert?” Jimmy asked.

“No way,” I said firmly, finally listening to my waistband. I had spotted the heaping slices of key lime and pecan pie as they made their way over to a father-son duo that had just spent hours stuck on an airline. Jimmy, completely in tune with every table in the restaurant, had sent complimentary pie over to them to make their night a little better. It’s who he is. In the same vein, he turned to a server and requested for gumbo, cornbread, and pie to be packed up in a to-go bag.

Jimmy and I then shot some funny videos for Instagram and talked about his love for the platform. As Heaven On Seven moves towards being 40 years old, the clientele has evolved. Jimmy is a prime example of a chef and restaurateur that adapts with the times and uses technology to an advantage. His love for food and his gregarious nature transcends the platform, making users that stumble upon him by accident, myself included, experience an inexplicable pull to the man who loves the food biz fiercely.

Chef Jimmy Bannos and myself

Chef Jimmy Bannos and myself

When I finally took a glance at the time, it was almost 11:00pm. What was meant to be a quick chat had transitioned to something that felt a lot like being home with family. I sensed that it wasn’t just J and myself who felt that way. Jimmy and his team have a way of making you feel like you belong. Troubles may lie outside, strewn on grey carpets in fluorescent hallways and fluttering among frigid temperatures. Step into Heaven On Seven and there is only family, laughter, and love.


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Filed under: Featured Chefs, Interviews

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