On a cold, rainy day this past week (seriously, where is spring?), I sat down to speak with celebrity chef Dale Levitski at his restaurant, Frog n Snail. The restaurant had just celebrated its one-year anniversary and Dale a significant birthday (he started Frog’s dinner service on his birthday last year). Despite the weather outside, it was clear that things at Frog are looking very sunny.
Was there a particular moment that you knew you wanted to become a chef?
Yes. I needed a job in college and lived across the street from the Ground Round in Iowa City, Iowa. I fell in love with the line, the rush of the restaurant. I started ditching classes to pick up a lunch shift or even a dishwashing shift. I liked the restaurant more than school. Eventually, I got kicked out of college.
Who has had the most impact on you professionally?
Henry Adaniya. He was the owner of Trio in Evanston and became a regular of mine when I was at Orange and then later when I was at La Tache. When Grant Achatz left Trio to open Alinea, Henry asked me to take over. He became my mentor and really taught me how to tap into and explore creativity.
Henry closed Trio to open Chicago style hot dog stands in Hawaii called Hank’s Haute Dogs. I made my own signature hot dog for him. It’s Kobe beef with a fish sauce caramel – the sauce is Asian fish sauce, soy, ketchup, and mustard. It sounds really disgusting but it’s good. I am a kitchen sink sauce maker.
Chicagoans are quite aware – and proud – that you were the first to represent Chicago on Top Chef in 2006. What does it mean to be a Top Chef alum?
There’s no way to describe the type of friendship you have with certain people from Top Chef, even from other seasons. It’s like surviving a plane crash. You just have a weird connection you can’t describe to anyone. On Top Chef you film every day for 5-5 ½ weeks. It’s totally exhausting.
I kind of feel like a reality TV show grandpa, because I was on Season 3, and now they’re starting to film Season 11. There have been 100-150 of us on the show. Stephanie Izard [Season 4 winner and Executive Chef at Girl and the Goat and at Little Goat] is a great friend. Stephanie was my friend before Top Chef; she was actually my sous chef at La Tache. I nominated her for Top Chef.
When you began discussions about the restaurant that would become Frog n Snail, you were adamant it be located in Lakeview. Why?
My family had a boat in Belmont Harbor in the 1970s so I grew up in Lakeview. It was a really terrible neighborhood then. Now I’ve lived in Lakeview since moving into the City 14 years ago. What I love about this neighborhood, more so than any other, is that everything you could need is within walking distance. But I also saw a lack of higher quality restaurants. There was a lot of fast food and neighborhood joints – my favorite food in this neighborhood is Chicken Hut – but not many restaurants of note. There was a glass ceiling to break.
Now, if you look up and down the street, three or four have opened since us. We are getting a lot of press for raising the bar. And I don’t like to commute. Simple.
You just celebrated Frog’s one-year anniversary. How did the first year go?
The first 6 months you take some bumps and bruises about what a neighborhood is going to adapt to in terms of price point. Demographically, this is one of the most congested and wealthiest places in the City. But I think a lot of the people in this neighborhood don’t want to walk down the street for a certain price point but have no problem going to Randolph Street. We have adapted the menu and are one of the best values in the City by far.
Now we have our place in the neighborhood and our voice. The neighborhood knows us and trusts us. Our burger was just on the cover of Time Out. I am really looking forward to a banner year.
How is the restaurant active in the community?
My favorite thing is the Farmer’s Market at Needelhorst. I’m there all summer with my big cart picking up fruits and veggies for the week. I love the market and showing the neighborhood that we get product that we care about. It’s also fun talking with the neighbors. They’ll see me with a flat of blueberries and ask what I’m going to make. And I’ll tell them blueberry jam, and to come in for brunch tomorrow.
My blog focuses on healthy eating out. What are some of the healthier options at Frog n Snail?
I am French in style so I use a lot of cream and butter. One of our healthiest items that I love is the Skillet No Skillet on our brunch menu. It does have some fried green tomato, homemade lamb sausage, and a little artichoke hollandaise, but then it’s sautéed vegetables and a poached egg. It’s not a gut buster at all. It’s fresh, light, and energizing, with some salty meat and mostly vegetables and no potatoes at all.
I always try to think seasonally with our menus. Last year there were such amazing peaches and strawberries at Needelhorst that peaches and strawberries were literally on everything at Frog. They were just so good I couldn’t pass them up. I believe you should eat things in their prime until you’re sick of them. Until you want to throw a peach of someone. And then, toward the end of the season, I’ll buy cases and cases of peaches and strawberries to make purees for our brunch mimosa bubble service. I think we just ran through our final peaches.
I also like to put the same vegetable on the same plate in a couple different ways, like a cauliflower puree with some sautéed cauliflower. One of our more notable styles at Frog is the way we treat vegetables. They’re not overcooked. I call it “take the raw off.” I want the vegetables warm but crunchy. There’s nothing worse than over-steamed, mushy vegetables.
The dumplings are seriously transformative. What’s the secret behind them?
The truffle dumplings are one of my signatures. I’ve been doing them at least 8-9 years, and I think we’ve perfected the recipe. They will never go off my menu. I just put them on brunch, too. They are like gnocchi but heartier, with more of an umph to them. They’re essentially pate a choux – a cream duff dough. It’s an inverse ratio of flour and milk and then butter, eggs, chives, truffle pieces, and a little truffle oil. You pipe them out, cut them, freeze them, boil them, and brown them in a pan.
You are refreshingly open about your past struggle with depression. Is there a reason behind your openness?
I think being honest is in my nature. A lot of chefs have their bouts with depression, anxiety, and drugs. It is a brutal world. I went through a rough patch when my mother died and my restaurant closed. So I think, be open and honest about it instead of trying to deny it.
As one of the more well known chefs in Chicago, is there something about you that folks may find surprising to learn?
I am actually kind of shy. I am a homebody. I love staying in and eating pizza, chicken fingers, and ranch dressing.
What is in store next for you?
Down the road, there are a couple of other restaurant concepts I want to work on. I also plan to write my cookbook. I have been working on my food and my voice, which I felt was important to do first, and now I am ready to start getting my outline down. I’m bouncing around ideas of what I want to do. Hopefully it will be the first of many.
Try Frog n Snail at 3124 N Broadway.