Jason Vincent's Nightwood was a well-kept Chicago secret located off anybody's beaten path, but revered for its way with farm-to-table meats and unusual bits. Then Vincent won the national Grand Cochon in Aspen last year, and a few weeks ago, he was named one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs for 2013, putting Nightwood on everybody's must-eat-while-in-Chicago list. Photographer Huge Galdones has shot at Nightwood several times, and he followed Cochon 555 all around the country as it led up to Vincent's coronation as the King of Porc, so to mark Vincent's Food & Wine honor, he decided to go behind the scenes at Nightwood for the better part of the day to capture what makes its chef and kitchen tick. It starts below.
Galdones, who worked in college at Joe Beef in Montreal, says there's a particular similarity to that celebrated restaurant in the way Nightwood approaches farm-to -able cooking, especially in terms of "the overall rhythm of the back of the house ... Vincent's modesty shines through, being the first to admit that his has always been a team effort. He credits Ben, his chef de cuisine, with the best description of the kitchen's food: 'always delicious, sometimes pretty with a side of interesting.' And while he admits that the restaurant has been pigeonholed into the farm-to-table movement, he calls Nightwood a 'Seinfeld equivalent of a restaurant concept' without a concept they just run with it as long as it tastes good." Here's his slideshow and further observations in the captions.
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Sous chef Shae breaks down some breakfast sausage for ragu. The sausage is from The Butcher & Larder, whose owner Rob Levitt counts Jason Vincent as a friend and cooking mentor.
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While the bar seating onlooking the open kitchen is sought-after by patrons each night, it is equally prized real estate by cooks for mise en place before service.
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Homemade pasta for family meal = delicious.
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The crown from Grand Cochon 2012 out for all to see.
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The combination of cherrywood, applewood and white oak gives Nightwood's grilled and rotisserie items character.
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A very involved pre-service meeting.
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While Nightwood may look like a casual atmosphere, Vincent (JV to his crew) insists that the kitchen is all about "putting your head down and getting things done. The fact that these guys show up at 10:30 each day but only start getting paid at 2:00 tells me that they are in it to win it."
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JV walks Danielle and Pedro through a scallop dish (with ramps in hand) that makes its first appearance on that evening's menu.
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A huge scallop, wood-grilled and served with first of the season ramps, nduja and oyster vinaigrette and scallop roe toast.
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All pastas are handmade, in-house (in this case, the fusilli is also hand-twisted).
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Colin, who started out as an unpaid intern, is now a full-time line cook, working the warm apps/pasta station.
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Mollie, an alum of the underground dining group Sunday Dinner Club, plates crispy pig ears.
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The crispy pig ears are perhaps Nightwood's best-known dish— made with cultured butter, maple, habañero and cilantro, and irresistible as a bowl of chewy friedness.
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Black pigeon mole (simmering for several days) for a burrata dish with cashew, peanut, espelette and garlic bread.
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Ben (chef de cuisine) expedites with ease, a job that JV happily concedes.
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Wood-grilled lamb chops with harissa, buttered lentils and ricotta insalata.
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Wood-grilled Slagel Farm chicken thigh with potato, honey and yeast gnocchi in dried chili sauce, greek mint and yogurt
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Potato, boquerones, bread and garlic purée, wilted spinach, burrata and truffle.
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Chicken-fried sweetbreads, bacon cream and black-eyed peas.
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Prep cook Martin grinds through service in the belly of Nightwood: the prep kitchen located downstairs.
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When asked what was his favorite dish, JV hesitates at first but settles on the spaghetti alla chitarra with veal meatballs stuffed with house ricotta, tuna sauce, pine nuts and chili de arbol.
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Wisconsin trout with oyster mushrooms, peas, green garlic aioli and olives.
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Pedro working the hottest station on the line (the wood-fired grill is immediately behind him).
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Spit-roasted Michigan duck getting broken down à la minute.
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Spit-roasted Michigan duck, sauerkraut, bacon, juniper, fennel and prune condiment.
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Apple Upside Down Cake with rhubarb, oat streusel and buttermilk rhubarb ice cream.
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Sarah, executive pastry chef, plates her spring-fed goat cheese dessert with sugarbeets, pistachio ice cream and olive oil sponge cake.
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Apple upside-down cake may sell itself, but other items such as the goat cheese dessert require a more-informed FOH to do the dish justice.