Brian Greene is a super chill guy, down-to-earth and incredibly personable. But don’t let that fool you. He is also, at the young age of 27, the Executive Chef at one of the best new restaurants in the city, the Savoy.
Brian took the time to speak with me on a recent Thursday afternoon. The Savoy was busy finishing that weekend’s stove prep before the dinner rush hit. As we talked, two things became abundantly clear. First, his staff love him. While Brian may be in charge, there was a warm camaraderie between him and the folks setting up the restaurant. And second, Brian is exceptionally passionate about food. Most of the time, Brian speaks in a calm, measured manner. But get him talking about the ingredients of a dish and everything changes. His eyes light up, and he speaks quickly – excitedly – about the components of a dish, describing them in beautiful detail.
With a great playlist of music in the background, we chatted:
Was there a specific experience that made you want to become a chef?
When I was 15, I was a dishwasher in Tecumseh, Michigan, where I am from. Someone had turned our old fire station, which had been closed forever, into a fine dining restaurant called Evans Street Station. It was the first fine dining restaurant the town had ever seen. I got a job as a dishwasher, and I remember how the cooks would make staff meal, and bring us back these plates of food that were so delicious. I was not used to eating that kind food – so complicated, put together, and thought out. It opened my eyes.
What brought you to Chicago?
I was ready for something new. I got on a train and visited Chicago for the first time. Right off the train I went to Blackbird, because I had worked with one of the chefs there. I also went to Topolobampo and the Signature Room. After that weekend, I thought, I know where my future lies.
How did you get involved with the Savoy?
My first executive chef job was at M Restaurant in Highland Park. Ricky Moore, the owner of the Savoy, had also looked at the M Restaurant space. One day, he stopped in to see what happened with the storefront, and that’s how we met. Later on, he ended up calling me, and bringing me down to the Savoy. I met with Ricky at the space and thought, look at this shell of a building with all this cool, raw potential. It’s brilliantly designed by the previous owner, it’s like a house. There’s a finished basement with prep space and just wall-to-wall awesomeness.
Ricky said he wanted to do a seafood restaurant and raw bar, and I like to do that. I went home, got on my computer, and started typing up menu ideas. I didn’t even have to cook for this job. The beet salad Ricky had when he stopped in at M was my tasting. It was a beet salad good enough to get this job.
How did you conceptualize the Food at the Savoy?
We knew we wanted to have a certain number of items in the raw category. We wanted a mussel app, a clam app. We picked all the proteins we wanted on the menu. Then it became a question of what sounds good with which protein, and I thought about what components I like with what. I’ve taken a lot of the experiences from my other restaurants and use them at the Savoy. For example, I worked in Okemos, a suburb of Lansing, at a restaurant with Midwestern cuisine. We smoked so many different things there, and I learned to love the flavor and the use of smoke. So we got a smoker when we opened the Savoy. The menu here is kind of all the mess of the last 10 years of my life, all the memories and affiliations, and it is really globally infused.
How does your typical workday start?
This morning I got up 2 pm. You have to have a little R+R before the weekend, because once the weekend comes, everything goes out the window. When I get into the restaurant, I try not to be noticed before I can get changed, get coffee, and push on the stereo and get some music on. That’s my best start, that’s what I push for. Because if someone sees me first, I get caught up with that.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
We have a Sunray Venus clam dish made with absinthe and chorizo that’s delicious. Also, it’s fun to make, it’s pretty, and it catches on fire. You can see the flames from the restaurant, and people scream “fire in the hole.” People are having fun. Once it combusts, you put the fire out with some wine and finish it with some butter and herbs and peppers. Somehow it comes out tasting like pepperoni pizza. After Hurricane Sandy, we couldn’t get the clams. The hurricane had disturbed the farm.
The Crispy Whole Fish is also great. The fish is deboned, dredged in rice flour, and deep-fried to crispy. The menu says “market fish” so we can change it whenever we want, but I don’t think I ever will until someone creates a better fish. We use the lubina. It’s super sustainably raised in southern Spain, and it’s so delicious and so consistent, with bright eyes and bright gills. People really dig the current preparation. For the sauce, we smoke tomatoes, we smoke some jalapenos, we use dried nora chilies, we blacken tomatoes and poblanos, and then we add almonds, sherry vinegar for the acidity, and onion and roasted garlic and fresh garlic. We let it all cook down, and it becomes this super creamy and mole-like sauce that coats the plate that the crispy fish sits on and has all sorts of delicious veggies that also get a little deglazed with the sherry vinegar.
I write about healthy food on my blog. What is a healthy option for someone eating at the Savoy?
The steamed Light Fare. You can get the whitefish, salmon, tuna, or shrimp with some black forbidden rice and a side salad. And then there’s all the raw fish, which is just fish and citrus.
Is there a certain feeling you’re looking for people to have when they come to the restaurant?
When I go out to eat, I want music. Music makes my day go. The music varies here, but we don’t ever play something that would scare people away. It can go in so many different directions. Along with good sounds, I look for good designs, and Ricky designed this place beautifully. The neighborhood people also really help create the awesome environment. And the staff, I like to work with good people. Overall, the way this place turned out, everything we put into it is really warm and welcoming.
I had the peanut pie and was blown away. Tell me about it.
It was a delicious pie I grew up eating on Thanksgiving and Christmas that my grandma would make. It got to the point where my grandma would make extra pies for my brother and me so we didn’t have to fight over the single pie; she made it so we each had our own pie to take home with us. Paul Virant stopped in this week, and I gave him the pie.
When you’re not here, what’s your favorite restaurant?
I spend a significant amount of time at Longman and Eagle. I’ve only been to Yusho twice, but it’s awesome. Scofflaw is a hot little gin bar and also my neighborhood watering hole. It has great food, people, and drinks. There’s also a midnight chocolate chip cookie hour.
Thanks so much, Brian!
Try the Savoy for dinner or for brunch (served Fri-Sun 11-3:30).
Filed under: Interviews