"To Be Fresh It Has To Be Growing There": Chef Will Johnson of Filini Bar & Restaurant
It's in maybe the hottest new building in Chicago (the Aqua Tower), it's a hotel restaurant (in the Raddison Blu), and the atmosphere looks like the dining room on an Italian spaceport. So you could be forgiven if the words "farm to table" don't immediately come to mind for Filini Bar & Restaurant. But new chef Will Johnson— who came in as #2 under opening chef Christian Fantoni, and took over when he left late last year— is an earnest and thoughtful guy who's working to make the restaurant truly reflect his philosophy of Italian food. Which is, simply, that "Everybody talking rustic Italian, should be talking local. Because that's what Italian food is to Italians— it's fresh and simple. And to be fresh it has to be growing right there." We spoke with him and have a short slideshow of some of his new dishes, shot for the restaurant by our man Huge Galdones, below.
A lot of hotel restaurants talk the talk on local and seasonal but don't really walk the walk. But you seem serious about it. What's your plan here?
I just want to elevate the menu to how I think we should cook and put my stamp on it. It can be a little hard in a big hotel because everything has to go up the chain of command. But there's also advantages because there's a lot of resources we can bring to it. There's an advantage in working six months out on what winter dishes will be, because there's time to really work it through.
I started with the produce purveyors first— we source from many local farms. In-season, 75-80% of our produce is coming from farms in the area via our purveyors. We don't have the direct relationships with farmers quite so much yet, but with farmers market season starting we're working on that. We're looking to do a farmer's dinner. You know, most of our food doesn't have that much done to it. Most of it only consists of a few ingredients. So you want the best ingredients you can get. A lot of these things are literally in your background— why would you bring in asparagus from California when great asparagus is 60 miles away?
We've started making the same changes with meat. We have a venison supplier we work with year round. We work with Compart Family Farms for duroc pigs, and Amish chickens from Indiana. For fish, we use Rushing Waters trout from Wisconsin, and we get the Loch Duart salmon, which isn't local but is very sustainable, it's the best salmon for the environment.
A lot of that comes from my background working in Boston, because seafood is a big thing there.
Did you grow up there?
I grew up in Brooklyn, where farm to table dining wasn't exactly a priority. I got my start with CCAP, which is a culinary arts program in underserved public schools. I did an event with Michael White, then when I graduated I sat outside his restaurant Fiamma in Boston and waited to ask for him a job. He looked at me with a blank stare, who the hell are you, kid? But he gave me a chance and I worked for him for three years at Fiamma, Alto and Vento. I met Christian through him. I went to Johnson & Wales for a while, but I didn't complete there— it seemed more valuable to go back to work.
I worked in New York, Boston and Nantucket— Nantucket is amazing, the fishing boats just pull up to your back door and you pick what you want. I ran in a restaurant in Providence, and I worked for Michael Levinson at Area 4 in Cambridge. Then Christian invited me to come work here.
Did you want to specialize in Italian food?
What most people think of as Italian food, red sauce and all that— that kind of Italian food is bullshit. Everybody talking rustic Italian, should be talking local. Because that's what Italian food is to Italians— it's fresh and simple. And to be fresh it has to be growing right there. It's all seasonal— you don't do citrus in the winter or stuff like that.
Being on the same longitude, we have pretty similar growing seasons. We're almost in the same climate. So it works really well to make the same kind of food, it's pretty astounding how similar everything is. What we do isn't that different from what they do, they just have a little old grandmother doing it. You just try to take really nice fresh ingredients that yield the best product and hope whoever is eating it, likes it.
Did you know that the Duroc pigs that we use came from Columbus? It's the same breed he brought over. That's how close we are.
So, east coast guy, how do you like Chicago?
I love it, it's a great city, it's gorgeous. Initially I lived on the South Side, I just moved up north. I love the lake. I grew up with the ocean always right there, and I know it's not an ocean, but it feels comfortable having it there. I'm an avid fisherman, so I love that part of being here. And of course, it's a great restaurant town, a great cocktail town— a little behind the cocktail scenes in New York or Boston, but it's catching up quick.