Rodelio Aglibot on Argent, Jackie Shen, and Life as an International Superchef

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Rodelio Aglibot and Jackie Shen at the under-renovation future Argent, in the Dana Hotel. Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

You want Rodelio Aglibot's life after talking to him his energy and funky Buddha good humor make traipsing the globe opening restaurant concepts sound like fun even after you remember that you don't really like that kind of life. These days Chicago is just one of many places he touches down in from time to time, but whenever he does, the results are always memorable, ranging from Sunda to The Florentine and now the upcoming Argent, replacing Aja in the Dana Hotel. Argent's concept will be classic American food in a theme drawn from the 1893 World's Fair; Aglibot is usually associated with Asian food, but he says that's actually more the food he grew up on, and he's working with newly-hired chef Jackie Shen (Red Light, Chicago Cut House) to develop the menu. Our wide-ranging, freewheeling interview with him is below.

So you return to Chicago with a new company.

Right, it's called C.O.A.L., Chicago, Original, Authentic, Legitimate, I'm both management and a consultant. My contract with the half of BLT that didn't include Laurent Tourondel, in which we opened The Florentine, ended in the spring, and our first project is Argent.

I love going around opening restaurants I've done 45 openings in 18 years. It's become my drug. You get to play with food, meet other chefs and collaborate with them, see them grow. It's different from when you're young and trying to establish yourself, you want to make something happen all by yourself and prove you can do it.

Where did the 1893 World's Fair theme come from? Did you read Devil in the White City and think, there's an idea for a restaurant?

(Laughs) Here's how these things work. People come up with all these ideas for a hotel, and they had the World's Fair theme, and it was up to me to come up with the food that brings it to life. Which is fine, because this is the food I grew up on. My dad was an ex-Navy cook. When I was growing up we'd always help out in the kitchen, peeling potatoes or whatever. But what he made was classic American food meatloaf, fried chicken. My first job in the industry was at KFC. My Mom made the Filipino food.

What happened was, there was a family tragedy. My brother died when he was 17 and I was 21. And he was a painter and a musician, and I always envied that kind of freedom. Meanwhile I was studying to be an environmental engineer. And at 24, I finally decided that I wanted to go to culinary school. So I left L.A. for San Francisco. And I think because of my engineering background, I was interested in the business side, not just the party side of the restaurant business.

Then I went to work at the Greenbriar, and I learned so much there I learned how to sear and saute, I learned how to organize. I started to develop my own philosophy, not just emulate my teachers and chefs. That's what it's about, you need to find your own style. Because if it comes from you, if you have your own identity, who can criticize it? I had this French chef once and you'd ask him why he did something and he'd just say "Because I am French." So that's what you work to get to the point where you just do what you do "because I am French."

Anyway, back in San Francisco I worked for Joyce Goldstein [Chez Panisse, Square One] and for Barbara Tropp at China Moon, and for Buca Giovanni so these are all the things I feel like I know: American, Asian, Italian. But you were asking about Argent. What was the question?

Well, tell us about the food you plan to have at Argent.

Right, right. So they had the idea and it was up to me to find out what it meant for the food. So, heavy duty research, I start looking at Wikipedia and find what the food is from that period. And there are a lot of things that were invented at the World's Fair, like funnel cakes, and cotton candy. So I created this cotton candy dessert called The Melt

[At this point Aglibot pulls out his phone and shows a video of a cotton candy dessert which is melted at the table by hot chocolate. It is one of the coolest tableside preparations we've ever seen, and you definitely want to order one when Argent opens.]

But there's all kinds of things. Like, I ran across French dressing apparently coming from that time period. I never liked French dressing, but you make real French dressing from scratch like no one does now and hey, it's pretty great.

Sometimes it's things that take you back to your childhood you know, for chefs it's always about childhood foods, recreating your childhood. There's one dish they ate porcupine meatballs in the 19th century. Well, I don't know where you'd source porcupine or who'd order it in a hotel restaurant, and I never ate that as a kid, but I did eat lots of rice, so I made "porcupine meatballs" with a meatball and rice sticking out all over it. There'll be a spam musubi at the raw bar. We'll have chop suey as a side. Let's eat some food that people love.

I mean, it's a hotel, so you've got the list of things you have to have there has to be a steak, and a chicken dish, and another steak and another chicken dish. But you can surpass expectations. Surpass expectations, don't be too serious, disarm your guests and put them in a good mood. There should be a good vibration that comes from the food.

At this point I'm less interested in creating the most radical dish, and more in the dish that's so good that you can make it for 10 years.

Like a chocolate bag dessert? [Jackie Shen's signature dish.]

Well, we're negotiating on that. Maybe put a little twist on it. But we're collaborating on the whole menu right now, she's researching a lot of dishes. She's working on a Boston Cream Pie right now.

How did you come to hire Jackie? Was she still at Chicago Cut House then?

She had just left a couple of weeks before, I guess. The partners were looking around and she was on the market, and we wanted somebody who could start right in. I mean, it's a hotel, even as we're redoing the upstairs dining room we're still serving breakfast, room service, we have parties. But she has a good balance of the business and the food side. We have a similar philosophy about how you treat people. Like, I always put it in my contract that we will have staff meal.

Places don't have staff meal?

A lot of hotels don't. But I insist on it. Take care of your family so they can take care of your guests. It's in my contract, sometimes they'll say, yeah yeah sure, and I'll say, no, it's in my contract.

So you're happy to be working again in Chicago... however briefly?

Oh yeah. There's such a great social culture of people dining out in Chicago. It's a city that's proud of people who take risks. It's a great town, a great global food culture.

At the same time, it doesn't have everything. Like I'd love to do a Peruvian restaurant.

Is there more to Peruvian food than we've had here? It seemed pretty straightforward to us steak and corn.

There's this whole Chinese Peruvian food culture that you can tap into, though. It would be cool. But it's hard to do Asian in a hotel. We have our raw bar, and a few rolls, and that will be for people who want something lighter. But hotel food is about comfort and familiarity. If you can bring your playfulness and enjoyment to that, the guests should feel it too.