Q&A with a ChicagoNow blogger: Chicago Food Snob Joe Campagna

Q&A with a ChicagoNow blogger: Chicago Food Snob Joe Campagna

ChicagoNow decided about a month ago to conduct a fun project in which ChicagoNow bloggers would interview other ChicagoNow bloggers.

It was my job to interview Joe Campagna of “Chicago Food Snob.”

One paragraph in Joe’s bio says it all:

My name is Joe and I am a Food Snob.

I was forged from the fires of some of Chicago’s best restaurants to cook and serve. I’ve seen both sides of the line and I love the chaos of an overbooked Friday service. In the past 10 years, I’ve opened two restaurants first as a Chef – earning from Chicago Magazine Top 20 Best New Restaurants and second I was the opening General Manager of one of the hottest new restaurants in recent Chicago memory.

When Jimmy Greenfield (CN Community Manager) gave us this project I wasn’t sure who I’d be interviewing. However, I was pleased to find out somebody in the food industry was my subject.

I personally have spent a lot of years in the same industry and was happy to pick the brain of somebody like Joe.

TL: Joe, you mentioned that you have opened successful restaurants as both a chef and a General Manager. Can you name the place that you were or are most proud to be involved in and why?

JC: I would have to say I’m proudest of the last placed I worked, Graham Elliot. To be a part of the process that involved writing a business plan, finding investors, and going through to actually opening was amazing. To take a mere idea and make it real is very cool.

TL: There are still plenty of “big box” operations and steak houses aplenty in Chicago. However, the trend seems to be going towards smaller, more organic operations like the Boca Group has featured. Do you find this to be true and what other trends do you see happening now in the city?

JC: I think being in Chicago right now for the restaurant scene is another time of growth and prosperity. So many places are opening which is good, but they can’t lose focus on the basic principles of business to be successful. I think the smaller groups are very real in Chicago because we’re a large city and there will always be players who want to open with very particular restaurant themes.

The “big box” places won’t go away but they see a lot of competition in population-dense cities because the need for restaurants is so high it allows others to up the level of service and cuisine [to one] you may not find in areas with fewer outlets to compete against the “big box” restaurant.

The current trend I see is a renaissance of fine dining. A number of places have opened and been rewarded within the last two years. This is a dramatic shift away from “small plates meant to be shared” that many restaurants were focusing on. With that resurgence of upper-echelon restaurant, I believe diners are more focused on a composed plate versus a small bite or two of many things.

TL: I also noticed you are pretty savvy when it comes to wine, champagne, and even craft beers. When you go out to eat, what you prefer to drink with your favorite types of foods? Favorite craft beer?

JC: If I’m going out for a nice dinner, I tend to get a cocktail – whiskey-based like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned or perhaps just bourbon on the rocks. During the dinner, I’ll go with wine and let the list options and food selections dictate what I get. As to beer, I feel like a total novice because I don’t get as geeky as some of my friends. I like a good radler in the summer and perhaps a more full-bodied beer in the winter. I’m not a huge IPA fan because it seems to be a big bomb of hops. Lately, I’ve been drinking a lot of the Stiegl Radler – Lemon.

TL: Being in the business for a while myself, it seems to be a common misconception amongst the general public that everyone knows how to run a restaurant. What is the biggest thing you would like to educate the general public on regarding the industry?

JC: The most significant thing to teach – there is something called restaurant math and it is like a fourth grade word problem “two trains leave a station.” For restaurants, there are no trains but there are number of seats: how many people can you get in each night to cover those seats and can you meet your financial projections every day. You also have to focus on rent and being in the right location.

A great restaurant idea and team can go under with a bad lease. I also think most people don’t realize how much running or working in a restaurant is like Sisyphus. Every day, no matter how well yesterday went, is a new day and you have to prove how good you are all over again. You will push that rock up the hill every day you work in the industry and it will always start sat the bottom of the hill.

TL: Chicago, for good or bad, is known for its pizza. What type of pizza do you prefer?

JC: If i get deep dish pizza I’ll go to Lou Malnatti’s or Bartolli’s. I don’t get them often but when I do I go here, maybe Pequods. As to thin crust, I grew up on Armand’s and prefer the cracker cornmeal crust. Toppings are always a variation on sausage, onion, pepperoni, maybe meatball. I don’t believe a pizza should have a salad-type item on it. It’s not health food, haha.

TL: When you dine out at a establishment, what do you think the longest wait for your reservation is considered acceptable?

JC: I think how long you wait for a reservation can predicate on a lot of things – day of the week, time of the reso, weather potentially, area of the city. But if a restaurant is properly run, you shouldn’t have to wait more than 10-15 minutes. If you are waiting a while, a comped drink at the bar and an explanation and apology are acceptable and imperative. A guest wants to know when they’ll be expecting the chance to sit down and eat. Sometimes the wait is out of the staff’s control but that isn’t an acceptable excuse either – more like a way to cope with a long wait.

TL: For a novice like me that’s just trying to learn to be a good griller at home, can you give me any tips?

JC: Make sure your grill is hot and if you’re using charcoal or wood – timing the time that it is hot so you can get the cooking done is key so you don’t sit there longer than you need to because the grill is not hot enough.

It’s much like normal cooking except your pan has holes and the heat is like an oven all around so not just direct on one side. So there is that to consider when you plan to cook. Yet you can be just as creative in what you do and how as you would cooking inside with much easier clean-up in my opinion.

TL: Okay, lightning round…..

TL: Say that you are training for the marathon: why would you do
something crazy like that?

JC: The marathon training is crazy but it is because I want to climb Kilimanjaro in January! Even crazier!

TL: Favorite celebrity chef?

JC: Hmmm… tie between Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern – they get it and they’re wonderful story tellers. If you want someone who is not on TV but a sick chef globally – Michel Bras. He’s the one who began the plating revolution in my opinion – food began to be less built on top of itself and became a piece of artwork.

TL: If you could open up your dream concept that would be?

JC: I am torn between two – a simple Italian prix fixe restaurant with 30 seats where you can provide an amazing dinner and experience in a home-type setting or a modern good-food-and-drink bar that has sports – I
always missed watching the games when I was in the kitchen.

TL: Favorite steak in Chicago?

JC: I love cooking them at home more than going out for them but if I had to choose going out: Mastro’s or Benny’s – I find every Steak place is different even though they have much of the same menu.
Their differences intrigue me.

TL: Finally: your electric chair meal complete with dessert….

JC: My grandfather would have to make it since it is his gravy and rigatoni with meatballs. I’ve rarely had a red sauce as good. I’d also throw in my aunt’s fried chicken because I can. And then for
dessert – cannoli cake and a piece of Portillos chocolate cake – after all of that, I’d get to the chair and fall asleep not feeling a thing!


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Filed under: Interviews, Pop Culture

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