Arami

frontera grill managers jennifer dahl dinner arami 3rdarm carlos alferez arthur mullen alonso sotelo xoco chef manager

For this year’s manager dinner, we went to Arami. It is so close to the house, just down Chicago Ave, that Etta and I were able to walk over on icy sidewalks. The space is long and somewhat narrow, with organic materials like wood and a huge ball of moss. Etta loved the negroni.

frontera grill managers dinner arami 3rdarm carlos alferez arthur mullen alonso sotelo xoco chef manager

Having read about the many accolades Arami has accumulated for its sushi program, I was excited. Chef Fred did not disappoint! It was some of the best I have ever had, and vaulted Arami onto a short internal list that includes Kai Zan. One piece in particular made use of fresh herbs in a way I had never experienced before.

frontera grill managers dinner arami 3rdarm carlos alferez arthur mullen alonso sotelo xoco chef manager

The biggest problem with the meal was eating it all! The kitchen was so generous and I have trouble with pacing, but I guess that’s my problem. The best part of the meal may have been the mochi ice cream for dessert. The mochi was velvety and the ice cream the perfect sweet treat!

Year of Fundamentals

jonathan rodriguez wilfredo bravo xoco 3rdarm arthur mullen xoco manager chicago 2015 vision

It’s January 2016, we made it! The year behind us was named, “The Year of Fundamentals.” As a team, the three of us (Chef Wil, Chef Alonso and Arthur) focused on training our staff. The payoff was a consistently great Xoco experience, above and beyond any fast casual restaurant in the country, for every guest, which lead to a increase in sales and last but not least, positivity in Xoco amongst our team.

We began by mapping out our time for menu tastings, with Chef Rick, and the staff, so that everyone was clear on the expectations. The tastings every 2 weeks, the menu change every 4 weeks, and the staff tasting on the Wednesday before the change were all ironed out ahead of time. We developed a menu change form for Roxanna that she recieved the weekend before the menu change week, in order to have enough time for design and printing. We developed an education form for the FOH and BOH staff that always included ingredients, allergies, and background for each dish. The afternoon of the menu change, we scheduled a photoshoot that included Chef Rick and worked to roll out high quality photos and a blog post to our social media audiences as soon as possible.

jonathan rodriguez wilfredo bravo xoco 3rdarm arthur mullen xoco manager chicago 2015 vision

For the FOH, 2015 was all about training, testing and accountability. For every menu change we tested on ingredients, allergies, and background. Every month we trained on a different position and then tested to make sure all servers were up to speed on the standards and sidework for each position. Failure to score at least a 75% on the menu change and standards / sidework tests lead to a disciplinary write-up. There were only a few instances of a server underperforming, and we found it was more productive to discipline over a test than have to clean up errors and miscommunication in restaurant operations.

For the BOH, in 2015, it was all about education as well. Every menu change we met with all the cooks and went over the keys to each dish (ingredients, allergies, background). The BOH does so much of the hard work of changing the menu, it was exciting for them to become storytellers of each new menu. When guests asked cooks questions in the open kitchen, they were often surprised by the knowledge and enthusiasm, all of which increased positivity in the restaurant. Some of our BOH stars really took to being keyed in to the story of each dish, to the point that they asked Chefs Wil and Alonso to include them more in the creative development. Now we have more talented hands than ever in the creation of our new dishes!

jonathan rodriguez wilfredo bravo xoco 3rdarm arthur mullen xoco manager chicago 2015 vision

Xoco is fundamentally different in its dine-in ordering style than any other restaurant in Chicago. We turned that from a perceived weakness into a definite strength. The Bill Blair art was moved from the serving area to the seating area: the serving area is now all about storytelling and tastes. We worked with Roxanna to create a series of “Where Our Food Comes From” signs, that rather than just listing farms, fleshes out the story behind our partners in local agriculture. When Bill Shores came to eat at Xoco, he had his photo next to his sign, Hollywood Walk of Fame style! We are also telling the story of our chocolate program, using Roxanna’s talents as well as photos from the Zagat photographer, Nick Murway. Every guest who comes through the serving line now knows how special our ingredients are, and the amazing behind the scenes process of making chocolate.

The bottom line, after all this work, is sales performance. After years of studying patterns, 2015 was when we really delivered on numbers. Caviar, our delivery partner, opened up a whole new stream of revenue that continues to feed an increase in sales, and because they are the best in class at chef-driven restaurant delivery, the guests received the best possible experience. The addition of an extra table to the patio built in extra sales every day we were blessed with warm, dry weather. We also designed a special teeshirt for the To-Go cashier to wear, on the back it said, “Ask Me for a Beer or Margarita.” We were surprised how many guests advantage!

jonathan rodriguez wilfredo bravo xoco 3rdarm arthur mullen xoco manager chicago 2015 vision

The PM side of the spectrum was bolstered by the addition of new dinner specials, like chilaquiles with shrimp, and smoked ribs. Jay and I moved the seasonal margarita into the agua fresca machine, and started serving new 12 oz bottled cocktails for sharing. Inspired by the psychedelic colors of Mexico City pulque, these larger bottled cocktails are displayed in the newly lit ice box. The green of the cucumber cocktail glows for the guest, making it irresistible. These new pulqueria-inspired cocktails are served with Kold Draft ice cubes in glasses with wild garnishes, like sal de gusano. And of course we were always working on the next special event…

Rather than any single day special events, we made month-long events that created excitement in the city at large, and brought in new guests and repeat guests alike. For the first time ever, we participated in a Chicago Restaurant Week, although in a nontraditional role of three courses for $20, for dine-in, to-go and delivery. For 2 weeks arounds Valentine’s Day, we offered sweets for lovers, in a beautiful pastry display in store, but also for those who would rather eat at home. This trend continued on as Chicago warmed up, with a month-long menu specifically geared towards the James Beard awards, and then a beer pairing menu for a month, and then a Millennium Park picnic menu in the summer, followed by a menu featuring a collaboration with like-minded restaurants, spearheaded by Chef Wil. In the summer we also stayed open late on Friday and Saturday, with our late night walk-up menu adding to the bottom line.

It took all three of us, Chef Alonso, Arthur and Chef Wil, working together as one, to drive the Xoco machine in 2015. We found that with a team well-versed in the fundamentals, and with the knowledge of what works, we were able to arrive at a special place by January 2016. And yet, for the three of us, it was never really as much about the destination as the journey!

Thirty Two

Nayeli 3rdarm Arthur Mullen xoco manager birthday thirty two 2015

I wanted to write this blog post while it’s still January! Thanks to Etta, Alonso, Wil, Nayeli, Aunty Judy and so many more people I had a great thirty second birthday. Etta walked to the bakery and bought me white cakeballs- my guilty pleasure. For dinner she made mashed potatoes by hand, according to notes taken over the holidays on Aunt Lynne’s version. They were the best! The mashed potatoes were served with potato gnocchi in a butter sauce. It is true- the way to a man’s heart is through the stomach, and the path is paved in starch.

Max’s Letter

ohio house motel chicago river north january winter 3rdarm arthur mullen polar vortex chiberia 2015

I got a letter (a real letter, written and delivered by hand) from Max Wolod, the manager who preceded me at Xoco. Max was my manager for most of the year that I was a Xoco server. He kept the standards high and earned my respect. When he decided to leave to open Parson’s (and create their famous Negroni slushy!) Max set me up for success in my first management job with excellent training and resources, and for 2 years has been just a phone call away whenever I need help.

I tried to read the letter when it first arrived, but I was too tired and it was too much. I had to ride in to work because it was the lunch rush at Xoco. I put the letter down. Etta screeched, “Are you going to finish reading that letter?! Are you crying?! You’re a baby!!!” I had already been on a little bit of an emotional rollercoaster, the first work week of the new year, my ChowNow testimonial was up, we changed the menu… it wasn’t easy.

arthur mullen xoco manager chownow max wolod testimonial xoco chicago rick bayless

Max (in part) wrote, “I want to thank you sincerely and without a hint of my normal trademark cynicism for always taking care of me and my family so generously at Xoco. I’m tremendously proud of what you do for Bayless and I hope you know how impressive and genuine your work really is. Sometimes it seems like you doubt yourself or your abilities, but dude, you are a bad-fuckin’-ass restaurant manager and hospitality pro, working for a badass company, doing creative and cool things.”

It’s hard for me to take a compliment, especially from someone I know and respect so highly. I don’t think Max knew this letter would arrive three days before I turned 32. This letter was a great gift and a benediction for 2015. Thank you Max!

Charlatan

charlatan west town tavern 3rdarm chicago arthur mullen pasta pigs head boar grilled octopus spaghetti meatballs affogato

I’ve lived in the neighborhood for a few years and was a big fan of the fried chicken at West Town Tavern- the restaurant this spot used to house. In fact, I work with Chef Alonso Sotelo who was the head chef at WTT for 10 years! I am happy to report that Charlatan is an awesome restaurant and great addition to the neighborhood.

charlatan west town tavern 3rdarm chicago arthur mullen pasta pigs head boar grilled octopus spaghetti meatballs affogato

charlatan west town tavern 3rdarm chicago arthur mullen pasta pigs head boar grilled octopus spaghetti meatballs affogato

We walked over on a snowy January Monday night for the 6PM reservation we’d made online. It got pretty busy so I’m glad we made that reservation! Etta enjoyed her cocktail made with scotch, and the fact that two of the cocktails names begin with, “Don’t…” She also loved her glass of red.

For dinner we started with the beef carpaccio, which was excellently seasoned and complimented by crispy potatoes, and the grilled octopus, beautifully charred and given a hit of acid from romesco. The big hit of the night, for me, the boring one, was the spaghetti and meatballs. The spicy red sauce and especially the meatballs were delicious.

For dessert we had coffee, hot, and cold espresso poured over vanilla gelato- an affogato. We ordered just about everything except the pig’s head and everything was done very well- the coziness of the room, the flawless service, high levels of execution from the kitchen. I can’t wait to get back to Charlatan!

Café de Olla

xoco arthur mullen manager roly poly cat 3rdarm alonso sotelo cafe de olla chicago maine coon cat

Back in that same old place, sweet home Chicago, Etta glued the the lizard’s foot back on.

xoco arthur mullen manager roly poly cat 3rdarm alonso sotelo cafe de olla chicago maine coon cat

Roly Poly rolled from my lap to hers, purring, for days on end.

xoco arthur mullen manager roly poly cat 3rdarm alonso sotelo cafe de olla chicago maine coon cat

Chef Alonso shared his “abuelita receta” for café de olla, to be cooked down on the stove in boiling water, and strained before serving:

20 anis star
20 cloves
10 allspice
2.5 oz stick Mexican cinnamon
6 orange zest (1.5 oz)
1.5 teaspoon black pepper whole
1 # piloncillo
2 cup brown sugar
5 cup ground Oaxacan coffee beans

Atlantic Seafood

atlantic seafood lobster maine connecticut shore reins deli pickles kosher 3rdarm judy blasko judith etta kostick 3rdarm

Atlantic Seafood came highly recommended by my attorney Bull, who lives in Old Saybrook. His brother DotCom and my aunt Judy confirmed its the place for serious seafood on this stretch Connecticut shore.

atlantic seafood lobster maine connecticut shore reins deli pickles kosher 3rdarm judy blasko judith etta kostick 3rdarm

Etta called around and priced lobsters. Not only was Atlantic Seafood a dollar or two cheaper than competitors, they also did not have a tiered pricing structure for different weight lobsters.

atlantic seafood lobster maine connecticut shore reins deli pickles kosher 3rdarm judy blasko judith etta kostick 3rdarm

The selection of seafood was fantastic with multiple delicious species of fish, oysters and shellfish, and shrimp of gigantic size as well. We stuck to the lobster. Etta gave these guys a 12 minute hot water bath.

atlantic seafood lobster maine connecticut shore reins deli pickles kosher 3rdarm judy blasko judith etta kostick 3rdarm

The lobsters were filled with sweet meat! The last night in Connecticut, I had my sweets (Aunty, Etta, Roxie) and my treats (lobsters, pickles, Nutter Butters). Who could ask for anything more?

Into the Mystic

yakaitis larry ray junior senior the third 3rdarm arthur mullen dotcom mystic connecticut old saybrook

On the drive home from Massachusetts, we took a detour to Mystic. I got to say hi to Uncle Dotcom aka Larry, and pester Ray for Quake 2 photos.

yakaitis larry ray junior senior the third 3rdarm arthur mullen dotcom mystic connecticut old saybrook

I learned that Mystic is one of those places, like Stony Creek or Wampum, that belongs to the former world. There is no town called Mystic, as the maritime village is actually split down the middle between Groton and Stonington.

yakaitis larry ray junior senior the third 3rdarm arthur mullen dotcom mystic connecticut old saybrook

Etta and I also stopped at the office of YFS where I helped Bull with some paperwork.

Glenn Smelting

smelt steamer glenn kostick 3rdarm winchendon cornmeal fried wood stove

For dinner, Glenn had procured some steamer clams from Maine. He fed them some cornmeal, a trick to help clean away all the sand and grit. They were delicious in drawn butter.

smelt steamer glenn kostick 3rdarm winchendon cornmeal fried wood stove

Glenn also used the cornmeal for pan-fried smelts. At the East Coast Grill, we called them “fries with eyes.”

cornmeal smelts anchovy 3rdarm glenn winchendon

I fell into the trance of Glenn’s stove-top cooking and captured some of the magic on video.

Scumpas

etta air plants terrarium winchendon glenn kostick glass 3rdarm handblown

We made it up to the wood stove in Winchendon just in time, as the snow and arctic air enveloped the Northeast.

etta air plants terrarium winchendon glenn kostick glass 3rdarm handblown

Glenn brought down a trove of Kostick family photographs and we spent the evening looking back at funny relatives!

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