Sunday, August 15, 2021

Culinary Artists Week #1: Cookin' at the Ritz

     I'm on vacation this week, kicking back around the house. So as not to leave you in the lurch, however, I've declared this Culinary Artists Week, and am featuring some of my favorite pieces about chefs and haute cuisine over the years, starting with this profile of Sarah Stegner from 1999, when she presided over the Ritz-Carlton dining room.  Lucky for me, in 2004 she started Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook with her husband, Rohit Nambiar and Ritz executive chef George Bumbaris—both of whom have cameos in this story—so I've been able to keep up with her progress as a top chef, not only from a gustatory perspective, but as she deepened her passion for local, ethical, sustainable food cultivation and mindful dining. While in the process eating many, many first rate meals prepared in her kitchen. This profile is long—over 2,100 words–but I guarantee at the end you'll wishing you knew more about her. Tomorrow's post is connected: a visit to Judith Schad at Capriole Farms, which I learned about through Sarah's commitment to high quality American cheeses.

Sarah Stegner in 1999 (Sun-Times)
      Sarah Stegner is a long way from the kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where she is chef of the Dining Room.
     About 80 blocks south. Nearly 10 miles of distance, and a world away by culture, from the glitz of the Ritz, to the grit of East Englewood.
     The day is bright and crisp. Stegner gingerly steps through what, at a quick glance might look like a muddy, weedy, vacant lot. A closer look reveals a tiny garden with an ambitious name: "The 70th Street Farm." Nothing is ready for purchase, but the tomato plants are in, and Stegner wants to check their progress.
     "We might be able to bring back herbs," she says.
     The visit is as much to lock in a claim to the produce from the one-third-acre plot as it is to examine the plants. Fine restaurants are in keen competition for fine produce, and Stegner was floored by the tomatoes this lot produced last season.
     If possible, the Ritz will claim all the heirloom lettuce, beets, tomatoes, giant snow peas and broccoli. Let the other chefs drive to Wisconsin.
     She casts a covetous eye on young lettuce — perhaps she could take it back for tonight's salad? Neil Dunaetz, who runs the farm, rebuffs her: "It would be like robbing from a cradle."
     After 20 minutes, she leaves empty-handed, pressing home the point, one more time, that when things come out of the ground, he should call her.
     "Anything you have ready, we can put on the table," she says. "You have it, we'll use it."
     Back at the Ritz, the kitchen is gearing up for Friday night dinner, three hours away. Chefs and assorted staff stroll in like actors gathering at theater before a play. Everyone begins doing something: declawing crabs, boiling stock, making pasta.
     Stegner — one of the nation's top chefs, named "Best Midwest Chef" last year by the James Beard Foundation, winner of numerous accolades, including the Prix Culinaire International Pierre Taittinger — has her own priority.
     "I have to order cheese," she says, picking up a phone. "I need cheese for tonight. I'm not bad off, but I'm not sure I have enough."
     There are a thousand minor-but-important details to worry about, but cheese is special to Stegner. The Ritz menu introduces the $16 cheese course with a lengthy ode to cheese, beginning: "I have enjoyed the search and discovery of fine American cheeses. Acknowledgment needs to be given to the artisans for their work and determination to deliver consistent quality cheese . . ."
     Thus Stegner, and not a subordinate, labors over selecting that night's cheeses, appraising them like a choosy casting director. She unwraps Brillat Savarin, Hoch Ybrig, Lingot Dauphinois. Some make the cut for that evening's dinner; other cheeses are told to go home, marry the girl next door, give up this crazy dream.
     "It seems mundane," she says. "What I'm doing is checking quality. I like to do it. It needs a little bit of attention."
     A moist Roquefort, speckled with mold, blows its audition.
     "It can be riper," Stegner says. "It's still a little bit young."
     The cheeses are arranged from mild to strong. Asked if the average diner appreciates the pungent wallop of a very strong cheese, Stegner smiles.
     "They might," she says.
     Stegner is as economical with smiles as she is with fresh truffles. She'll serve one, but not without reason and certainly not lavishly, not in the wild excess of other chefs.
     "There are baseball cap chefs and toque chefs," said one of Stegner's acquaintances, referring to the tall, starched chef's hats. "She's a toque chef."
     Stegner cooks with concentration bordering on solemnity, like a cleric performing a rite. The kitchen is very quiet, except for the exhaust fans and an occasional clink of spoon on pot.
     "She's real intense," agrees friend Jimmy Bannos, the chef; owner of the two Heaven on Seven restaurants. "There's no BS when she's in the kitchen, no messing around. She's focused."
     That said, her intensity rarely explodes into anger. There is no screaming in Stegner's kitchen. Her longtime friend and mentor, Ritz executive chef George Bumbaris, says that now is common in commercial kitchens: "It doesn't work, anymore."
     Then again, few of the cliches of the star chef apply to Stegner. Despite her classical training, she avoids stuffy terms. Red rice is a "neat grain."
     She asks junior chefs if they would mind doing something, as if they might say no.
     "Would you do me a favor?" she says. "Will you make a mustard and red wine vinaigrette? Don't make a lot of it."
     When a fire flares up on the grill line, she reacts first, leading the assault to put it out. (The closest the Ritz ever came to not serving dinner in her nearly 15 years in the kitchen came when a pot of lobster bisque boiled over and set off the fire suppression system, dumping fire retardant over the grill and not only ruining everything already prepared, but forcing the entire line to be cleaned before preparations could begin anew.)
     "That was my worst nightmare," she says. "We opened, but we opened late."
     Perhaps the most unusual thing about Stegner, 35, is that in a business where chefs climb the ladder by hopping from restaurant to restaurant, she has been at the Ritz since she was 19, when she was hired on the spot to clean fish, 12 hours a day, for eight months.
     "It's physically hard work," she says. "You need a lot of knife skills. It challenges your dedication to the profession."
     Stegner met the challenge, and stayed on in the Ritz kitchen. She was, if possible, even more reserved at the beginning.
     "She started very shy," says Bumbaris. "She basically matured here, and has gotten a lot more sophisticated with the food."
     She came from food people. Her grandmother, Mary Boswell, had been a caterer in DuMont, N.J. She got into the business, the story goes, with parties raising money for a new church building.
     "I remember clam chowder — this was the East Coast," says Stegner. "They had a grill outside, and she would do venison roasts."
     Stegner grew up in Evanston, graduated from Evanston Township High School and went to Northwestern, studying classical guitar. But that route quickly soured.
     "There were nine classical guitarists when I was there," she says. "They were either really into classical music or wanted to be rock stars, and I didn't fit in with any of them."
     She left Northwestern after her freshman year and took refuge at the Cooking School Dumas Pere.
     "I wanted to work in a kitchen," she says. "I didn't know what that meant."
     She ended up a waitress at Bennison's Bakery in Wilmette, working the breakfast shift. That's when she got her first job at the Ritz.
     It took her just six years to move from cleaning fish to being named head of the Dining Room, and quickly the honors began rolling in. Like many successful chefs, as her fame grew, she responded by getting involved in the wide spectrum of charity work available to the culinary set.
     "When somebody calls you and says we need your help, it's pretty hard to say, 'Oh, I'm sorry, I have a date that night,' " she says. "If I can, I will."
     Four years ago she founded the Women Chefs of Chicago, a fund-raising group.
     Stegner checks to see if the morels have arrived. They have, and in fine form. She gives them an appreciative look, then sends them on their way to becoming a sauce for the ravioli.
     To take advantage of the freshest meat, fish and produce available, a new menu is composed each day, based on what comes in and what is good. Stegner is constantly improvising. Fifteen pounds of wonderful wild watercress have arrived, so potato and watercress soup goes on the menu for this night. There have been times when the menus were being printed while the first patrons were filing into the Dining Room.
     "Sometimes we push it to the last minute," she says. "Sometimes, right down to the wire."
     In a small, square room, with beautiful menus from special dinners framed in gold on the walls, Stegner sits with a china cup of cappuccino, intensely examining the latest draft of the menu. She takes a pen. The sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi with leeks is struck out. The julienne of prosciutto? Out. It is 3:20.
     "I want to show off the duck liver terrine," she says.
     The moment of peace ends quickly, replaced by a new mini-crisis. Little black beetles discovered in the watercress. The beetles are shown the door.
     As mealtime approaches, the entrees make their appearances. Long lines of thick pink veal chops. Deep red steaks. Stegner quizzes the other chefs.
     "Enough caviar for tonight?" she asks one.
     "What about the raviolis?" she asks another.
     "Twenty-six orders," the other chef, Chris Murphy, says.
     "I think you're going to be tight," she says.
     There are 37 radiologists at two special parties who could, in theory, order the raviolis. If the kitchen got 27 orders, they would have to prepare more dough, and that would throw a wrench in the works. On the other hand, the ravioli dough cannot be saved; if none of the radiologists orders ravioli, the 26 orders will be lost. Risk running out or risk wasting a lot of dough? Stegner tells Murphy to make more dough.
     It is the sort of spot decision, half culinary, half economic, that makes or breaks a chef and a restaurant. Stegner makes them all day long. Mistakes happen. Once she ordered 15 pounds of pea shoot tendrils, missing the fact that they cost $4 an ounce. She ended up with $ 1,000 worth of pea shoot tendrils.
     That wasn't worth it, but generally freshness is worth almost anything.
     She says that, while she was classically trained in the French tradition, she tries to retain the American focus on the product.
     "What we put in our mouths comes from the earth," she says. "People are beginning to understand that and go back to that. So if you get incredibly good arugula grown at a farm in Illinois, I'm not going to take that and twist it around and stack and hide it. I'm going to give you that arugula in its purest form, the way it tastes the best."
     Before the customers taste Stegner's food, the wait staff does. Just before 5 p.m., the waiters gather, examining the menu, and Stegner sweeps out with special items for that night, but not before touting a charity dinner.
     "Are we allowed to go to it?" a waiter asks.
     "You're allowed to work it," she says. Then she pops into the kitchen.
     "This is potato watercress soup," she says, returning with an elegant little bowl. "They're wild watercress. Yukon golden potatoes. A little bit of butter but no cream. In the bowl a little garnish, and shallots with mustard vinaigrette."
     The waiters taste and savor. Spoons click. The response is good. She hurries back to the kitchen.
     "This is the ravioli with morel mushroom cream sauce," she says, returning.
     "Where are the morels from?" someone asks.
     "Washington state."
     Back in the kitchen, Stegner, who takes great pain to credit those working under her, says she puts great emphasis on the daily pre-dinner ritual.
     "I have to make sure the wait staff understands why this is important to me, what this is about, make sure they taste it so they can go and convey this passion," she says. "They're really good at that."
     Quietly, one waiter suggests the ravioli might be saltier than ideal. Stegner herself thought they had nailed the saltiness perfectly, but she trusts her staff, and goes back to tell the chefs to keep a watch on the salt.
     "If they don't like it, I don't want to serve it," she says.
    Then the night really begins. Stegner stays until the last plate goes out.
     "I don't always stay for the kitchen breakdown," she says, almost guiltily.
     Underlying Stegner's modesty is a knowledge that all the accolades in the world mean nothing if the food isn't good, if the marinated grilled rack of Colorado lamb with Yukon golden potato and goat cheese puree, the black olive and oven-roasted-tomato lamb jus, and the slow roast salmon over braised lentils aren't well worth the price to the diner.
     "The thing about my profession is I'm only as good as the last meal that you ate," she says. "If every plate that I put out today isn't as good as yesterday, they're not going to say, 'Let's go back because last time it was great.' They're going to go, 'Oh, I'm not going back because it wasn't good this time.' It has to be good every time. That's my job: to make it good every time. That focus drives it. You have to focus. You can't let go. You can't step back and say, 'Today I don't feel like working.' "
     That sentiment defines Stegner as much as a thousand personal details — not that she is very forthcoming about those. She lives in Evanston. She has a dog, an American Eskimo miniature. She is married to Rohit Nambiar, an assistant manager a
t the Four Seasons. But she quickly draws the veil and refocuses on the food.
     "That's enough of that," she says. "I am private. I think the thing is, the minute you take your eye off of the passion of the food is when you end up in trouble. That's a principle I have. This is what I do. This is what I'm about. This is my gift to the public.
     "It's not me and my personality and what I think and what I believe. It's what you eat. The focus needs to be on the food. It's not me. It's the food that people come for."
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 20, 1999


  1. "other cheeses are told to go home, marry the girl next door, give up this crazy dream"

    Beautiful writing.

    1. stole my thunder, just read the piece today (17th) and had copied that sentence for the comment section. one of the reason i always read neil is for these delightful little surprises.

  2. A fine piece. But... but... but, I was expecting to find out how many raviolis ended up being ordered that day! ; )

    Thinking about all the people griping about wearing freaking masks for the last year and a half, I'm pretty sure I'd rather wear a mask than that toque...

  3. Great column. Definitely worth reading all the way to the end. But think about all the hours of practice to get into Northwestern Music School as a classical guitar major and take a turn to basically "Classical Food". A heavy correlation between the two. Next time you see her ask her if she still plays the guitar. Sounds like she refocus her passion into the food. I see great similarities between the two. Excellent story.


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