20 Questions with Chef Michael Taus - Zealous

20 Questions with Chef Michael Taus - Zealous

Michael Taus has been a part of the Chicago restaurant scene for nearly 2 decades. From an industry perspective that’s a huge accomplishment, personally I think it’s impressive he’s stayed relevant by changing and adapting with culinary trends and the economy. I’ve never worked with Michael but he’s cut from an old school cloth. He won’t talk shit about anyone and he’s happy to have worked hard to have his restaurant. Michael’s not driven by celebrity or seeing his name in print. The daily satisfaction from his first time guests to those eating with him since the beginning is what drives and motivates him.

Zealous is a very good restaurant. Its straight forward yet packs a few surprises with the diversity you may see on a plate from Indian, Asian and Italian influences. You’ll also find a very deep wine list to help dinner be that much more enjoyable. Michael is like the cool uncle who will laugh and have with you all day but make sure you don’t deviate of the right path.

In celebration of their anniversary he’s running some contests…to learn more check out their Facebook page.

Name                                         Michael Taus
Restaurant                               Zealous
Married                                    Annette
Kids                                            None
Age                                             43
From                                          LaGrange, Park
Culinary School                    CIA
Knife                                          Right
Twitter Handle                      @michael_taus

1. What did you have for dinner last night?
I had a delicious pasta that I made when I got home. I had marinara in the freezer and made it with farfalle.

2. Place you eat most often on days off?
My wife will kill me but, Emperor’s Choice in Chinatown. It’s my go to diehard; my junk food.

3. Favorite ingredient to work with?
Michael: I love fish.
CFS: Any specific fish
Michael: Now Wild Halibut from Alaska is awesome.

4. If I gave you $10,000 how would you spend it?
I’d fix something in the restaurant (laughs).

5. First word that comes to mind when I say Michelin?
Not the same.

6. Favorite Charity Event that you do?
We’re doing ‘Voices Against Brain Cancer’ right now because a good friend of mine is in hospice. But, I’m also game to do anything with kids and getting them fed.

7. Last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in?
Paris…that’s pretty romantic.

8. If you weren’t cooking, what would you do for a living?
Michael: My wife would divorce me but politician, we need some help. I would love to be a director. I’ve taken some film classes.
CFS: Any one director you love?
Michael: I love guy Ritchie and his style and pace to movies.

9. What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Chef…A friend tells a story that I’m the only person he knows who at age 8 knew what he wanted to be.

10. Most exotic vacation destination?
Jokes – Detroit…Barcelona was fabulous!

11. If you left Chicago to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
Santa Barbara

12. Most embarrassing cooking moment?
Michael: I worked for Charlie Trotter years ago. He asked me to come back and cook for a bunch of chefs before a Beard dinner when I had my own restaurant. We were in a private house up North, the old Field’s mansion. I have a bunch of “chef’s for a day” helping me who have never really cooked. We’re in this million dollar home. I told this guy, “Put the pan on get it hot, oil, you’re going to sauté some stuff.” I turn away and all of a sudden it’s on fire. Big flames! I grab it and throw it outside in the snow. All of a sudden in walks Charlie with the chefs Norman Van Aiken, Gordon Sinclair and others. I can see the pan burning outside through the window.
CFS: Did Charlie see it?
Michael: Nobody saw it. I’m very fast. It was the funniest thing ever because these kids nearly burned the place down.

13. Do you have any pet peeves?
Michael: I hate yellow mustard more than anything else!
CFS: What do you put on a hot dog?
Michael: Ketchup – Heinz ketchup
CFS: Really!
Michael: Onion, celery salt, has to be a clause pickle. I love a high end mustard like on a brat. I grew up with my grandfather making homemade mustard.

14. Dish on the menu you eat most?
Um, we do this Korean fried chicken with a sweet chili sauce. I can’t keep my hands off of it. Although my cooks will say I pick randomly at things. (Laughing) They hide stuff under their station.

15. You’ve been open 18 years how have your customers changed over that time?
They’re more diverse…young people going to college, younger professionals. As a restauranteur you have to be creative. I don’t have endless money and have to hit a budget. A younger crowd for sure.

16. Trotter’s, Le Titi de Paris or Patina  - which restaurant would you want to go back and work in?
Michael: All three for different reasons -
Charlie Trotter – He was very good to me. I love him to death. He wrecked me as good as fixed me. He puts the standard so high. If it weren’t for him none of us would be doing what we’re doing. He was the first one to discuss excellence.
Le Titi – There was a sous chef named Jean-Marc who was always so mean to me. I asked his wife, “Why is he so mean?” She told me, “Because he believes in you. The others he doesn’t talk to because he doesn’t care.” He kept telling me I was slow. I brought a timer to work and got faster and faster because of it.
Patina – His wife was a brilliant business person. I learned there more about the business then anywhere.
CFS: Very political answer picking all three
Michael: (Laughs)

17. You have a lot of influence from various ethnic areas. What is your favorite ethnic food influence?
Michael: I start writing a menu and it’s always all Asian and I have to tone it down. I feel some days I should do a all Asian restaurant. When I worked at Trotter’s I would work in Chinatown for fun.
CFS: Any plans to open a place?
Michael: I don’t know, maybe someday. I feel there’s a need for cheap fun Chinese.

18. Any dishes you’ve had grief about when taking or trying to take off the menu?
Our Chilean Sea Bass is Sesame Crusted with Red Coconut Curry. I’ve been doing it 22 years and I’ve tried taking it off 5 times. I’ve just given up now…customers favorite dish.

19. What made you move the restaurant from Elmhurst to Chicago after 7 years?
In 1992, I was going to go in with a partner downtown a block from here. My logo got designed next door, actually. The morning of the deal I realized this isn’t the partner for me. So I had half the money and went to Elmhurst where the mayor shakes your hand and gives you a license. It was a different time as well and people traveled. People would drive to places. 40% of our clientele was from the city. We out grew our 80 seats and moved down here. I’d always wanted to be in the city.

20. What is your opinion of the restaurant scene evolution over the past 18 years?
Michael: I was talking to Rich Melman about this the other day. It’s different, it’s no longer about the greatest meal but about the scene. Food is second…is there a DJ, good looking girls, can we walk someplace to hang out when we’re done.
CFS: Considering you mentioned Rich Melman. You’ve almost described HUB 51 & Paris Club his kid’s restaurants.
Michael: I think it’s smart to let them do their thing and evolve and they’re doing a good job.

21. You love managing the wine list at Zealous – what region or varietal do you most enjoy?
I’m a huge German Riesling fan and Red Burgundy. American Pinot’s are just killing it right now. There are some great values out there to. We have bottles from $28-500 who cares as long as you like it, that’s all that matters. I don’t want my staff to be pretentious. I want the customers back again.

23. You worked with Chef Trotter in his early days. Do you think Charlie Trotter is getting the respect he deserves in recent years?
I think he should get more respect. Without him we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. It’s like movie stars and who’s hot right now. It’s not about the talent. It’s about who the writing is about. With the bloggers….everyone picks out the cool kid and it becomes a vicious circle with everyone writing about them. It’s like with certain awards – you might never eat at the restaurant but you’ve read about it and you’ve never eaten or experienced it.

Somebody once used the word tyrant - he’s like Ditka. You either get him or you don’t. Walter Payton got him and they won the Super Bowl. Other guys were off the team. The cooks who stay 2-3 months at Trotters and they didn’t get it - They don’t talk nice about him. Those that stay understand him. He’s been great to me. He’s cooked in my restaurant for a few charity dinners. My first anniversary he asked me, “What are we going to do? I’m coming out to Elmhurst right, we’re going to do a Beard dinner.” That’s the side people don’t talk about. To be a CEO, you read in many autobiographies it can be lonely.

Thank you again for the time chef. I’m now hungry to come back and check out the Korean Fried Chicken!

 If you liked these 20 questions, check out the how Ryan Poli, Francis Brenna, Giuseppe Tentori, Charlie McKennaChris Pandel , Michael MuserCurtis Duffy  and Rob Katz/Kevin Boehm answered.

Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at chicagofoodsnob@hotmail.com. Joe is retained as a compensated blogger by Pei Wei Asian Diner.

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