In Conversation with James Beard Award Winner Jimmy Bannos Jr of The Purple Pig

In Conversation with James Beard Award Winner Jimmy Bannos Jr of The Purple Pig
Jimmy Bannos Jr.

It’s unseasonably warm in Chicago this week. I open the door to The Purple Pig's enclosed patio and walk through it. For the first time in three years, I don’t have to push past dozens of people. It’s 5:30p and there’s still time for the madness to unfold. Inside is a different story. Already, tables are filling fast and wine is flowing.

I am escorted to one of the large family style tables, where I perch at the head. A burly young man wearing the famed bandana around his head and a white, short-sleeved chef’s coat approaches.

Fourth-generation restaurateur.

A well known on Zagat and Michelin Bib Gourmand lists.

Food & Wine’s “America’s Greatest New Cooks”.

James Beard Rising Star Chef.

The ‘Prince Of Pork’ himself.

Jimmy Bannos Jr.

Jimmy Bannos Jr., The Purple Pig

“Let’s go in the back,” Jimmy Bannos Jr. says to me. “These tables are going to fill up real fast.”

I hastily gather my things and head to the private room, dedicated to special occasions but used for folding napkins and other little behind-the-scenes touches when not in use. We sit at the long table and, for two hours, we talk.

Famiglia

“This whole thing should be dedicated to my wife.” – Jimmy Bannos Jr.

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Jimmy and his wife, Marianna

Jimmy shakes his head with reverence as he talks about his wife, Marianna. I immediately asked if food was a big part of their relationship or even their courtship. “No!” He laughed. “Isn’t that crazy? I made her try tongue once in New York when we were dating and she said never again.” Fair enough. (Although, Marianna, I’ve tried the smoked pork tongue at The Purple Pig and I’m a fan. Are you sure you won’t try it a second time?)

Balancing personal relationships with the brutality of a chef’s work schedule is “a constant struggle,” Jimmy admits immediately. “It’s hard on everybody; hard on her the most. Everyone else gets to have their husbands home [on weekends and holidays]. It’s a unique situation and one that you can’t be bitter at. You have to embrace it.”

And when it comes to raising kids? “It’s a humbling and scary and exciting experience,” Jimmy says. Raising two toddlers with Marianna, Jimmy is now in the position his own parents were in years ago.

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Jimmy, Marianna, and their daughters

“Never once as a kid did I feel neglected by my dad,” he refers to Chef and Owner of Heaven On Seven, Jimmy Bannos Sr.

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Jimmy with his father, Jimmy Bannos Sr.

Having been raised in the restaurant business, it’s a well-known story that Jimmy Jr. began working in his family’s restaurant when he was just about five years old, observing his father and grandparents at work.

“The youngest memories I have of my grandmother are from the kitchen,” he reflected warmly. “She used to make all the desserts…classic, epic stuff. She was a fixture in the restaurant. She died 22 years ago and I still have guests that will come in and tell me what a tremendous person she was. She had a big effect on a lot of people…her hospitality…her warmth…her kindness.”

Jimmy’s shining achievement is his critically acclaimed, award-winning restaurant The Purple Pig, but he has a tremendous soft spot for where his love for cooking all began. “When I’m at the restaurant [Heaven On Seven], there’s a constant connection that I feel I have with [my grandparents]. It’s so important to be doing this and carrying on our family legacy.”

Some might express an element of surprise that Jimmy didn’t follow his father’s tremendous passion for New Orleans cooking. Having been raised in an Italian and Greek family, Jimmy has embraced both cultures and cuisines his whole life. So, by the time he finished up his freshman year at Johnson and Wales for culinary school, it was clear to him that Mediterranean food is what he wanted to pursue. “Italian and Greek food is my life. It’s my roots. It’s what I am.”

La panino merda

“Be prepared to eat the ultimate shit sandwich every day and enjoy it.” – Jimmy Bannos Sr.

Ask any chef and they’ll tell you their career path is the truest labor of love. You can tell the ones who will make it from the ones who won’t. The fighters are the ones that embrace when their station gets overwhelmed close to end of service. They’re the ones that will come in to work and go through the same, mundane motions for hours on end. Jimmy is no stranger to the brutal slog.

“Knowing that I opened this restaurant up when I was 25, ignorance was definitely bliss. Knowing what I know now, I’m going to be way more scared to open up my second place. That growth and progression is exciting.”

The growing pains of opening a restaurant can be one of the main reasons why establishments fail, no matter how decent the food and service is. Making sure that each member of the team is just the right fit and integral to an overarching process that can break down in a matter of moments during service is the big battle won. But then there’s further considerations like management, communication between front of house and back of house, a thorough understanding of food costs and payroll along with, of course, the food itself. To make a restaurant run like a well-oiled machine is, in Jimmy’s words, “…one of the worst businesses there is. And I love every inch of it.”

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Sua etica lavoro

“I’m my own worst critic. Always. Nobody is harder on me than me, and I don’t ever want to change that. It’s important in order to grow.” Jimmy Bannos Jr.

Growing up in a restaurant family, Jimmy has been no stranger to watching other tremendously successful chefs work hard to rise to the top of their games. During his childhood, his father Jimmy Bannos Sr., along with famed New Orleans chef and restaurateur Emeril Lagasse set examples.

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Jimmy and Emeril Lagasse

While training, his mentor Mario Batali played a tremendous role."When we won the [James] Beard award, the first person off the stage that I was in contact with was Batali. Ten years prior, I knew I wanted to work for him. [I] Went through this journey getting my ass kicked every day and loving every second of it. And then I walk off the stage with a James Beard award and my mentor is giving me a hug. It's unreal."

But Jimmy doesn't rest on those memories for too long. A self-admittedly “glass half empty kinda guy,” he always pushes for more and nothing short of perfection. His recipe for growth involves research, practice, and building a dedicated team. On a daily basis, Jimmy tries to squeeze in an hour of reading. New cuisines and techniques are constantly experimented with and tweaks are made to the menus in subtle ways. The goal? To Conquer.

“We make lists,” his tone picks up in tempo. “Conquer bread making. Conquer pastries. Conquer veal every way.”

He picks a cuisine, a technique, an ingredient, a dish, and then dedicates himself and his team to mastering it. Jimmy chuckles as he thinks back on past menus and how he "cringes" at some of the items. Not that any of them were bad. Their consistent Michelin Bib Gourmand status proves his constant efforts to evolve have worked. But that's the key. The Purple Pig menu doesn't significantly fluctuate with constant experimentation. The mastery can be found in the subtle nuances of dishes. Therein lies the true talent of a chef – knowing when to say "enough".

"Always stay relevant. Always evolve. Be the best you can be."

La strada davanti

"I want my guys to know that we're together as a team. Wherever it takes us, we're going to keep accomplishing. And everything that we're attached to? We want it to be great and different and unique." – Jimmy Bannos Jr.

When asked about what's next, there's a small shift in Jimmy's demeanor; an electric current of vulnerability and excitement. He deliberates for a moment, carefully, and the same careful consideration with which he approaches his work comes across.

"We're in a world right now where a lot of restaurateurs need a 'hit'...to strike while the iron is hot. I hate that. This isn't like opening up a cookie cutter franchise. You gotta maintain the house." That is to say that The Purple Pig comes first. There were hints dropped about a new project being in-concept but his fiery passion stays true to his "home base” and, most notably, to his staff.

I asked Jimmy, "In a couple of decades, when you look back, what aspect of your career would you like to be the most proud of?" His answer came as no surprise.

"First and foremost, in this business, I will feel more accomplished to know that one of my sous chefs is accepting the prize for the James Beard Award. I'm lucky enough to have grown up with my dad mentoring me. A lot of people don't have that. I want to be that for my guys. Making someone do something they never thought was possible...that's awesome."

As for himself?

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"I want to walk away at the top of my game." He takes a moment, fiddling with the napkin in front of him almost wistfully.

We smile, realizing it's been a full two hours since we sat down to chat. The sun has set and the air has a crisp quality to it; spring on a winter's eve. In our silence, the surrounding noise levels have increased. We both turn as if on cue to look at the swelling crowd at The Purple Pig's patio; standing room only diners having a ball.

Jimmy grins and sweeps his hand at the sight. "This is a dream! It's crazy! It never gets old. I'll never take any of this for granted."

To view the tremendous feast that I got to partake in after our discussion, please visit @foodfictionproject on Instagram.


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