For those just hearing about Elske, what is it?
My wife Anna and I opened Elske December 7, 2016 as a casual place to get thoughtful food and friendly service. We have a bit of a connection to Denmark, with my mom being Danish and traveling there a bit, and that really comes off with the warm and welcoming atmosphere that is very simple.
We focus on modern cooking, with a 9 course set menu and small a la carte menu. Anna does all the sweets and I take care of savory.
Why did you become a chef?
I became a chef because of the artistry and craftsmanship that goes along with cooking. You get to be as creative as your mind allows--constantly working and refining skills and techniques.
It really took off when I was in high school and started working at a restaurant after school. I’d go straight after last my last class and stay until 11 or midnight then go home. I really fell in love with all of it. The kitchen culture, having to think and react quickly, working with farms, etc… I couldn’t think of anything else I would want to do.
The cuisine and interior design at Elske have simplicity that resonate in an elegant way. How do you approach pairing design with food?
I read an interview with David Kinch from Manresa when I first got very serious about cooking, and he said that he always works to take things off the plate, to make them as simple and refined as possible, and that really struck a chord with me. There is such a maturity and confidence with things that are simple that I am really attracted to and, naturally, I create food that tries to mimic that. It’s very important to let products shine, whether they be tables and chairs in the dining room or endives and clams on a plate. Especially with food, for me, the ingredients have to taste like themselves. Let lemons be sour and game meats gamey.
I love the idea of taking as much as you can away from a dish and showing what it is. There’s so much confidence you have to have when there are only a few ingredients on a plate and I feel that way about danish design. Everything is so bare and everything has a purpose. For example, Louis Poulsen makes these amazing lamps and the goal is for light to illuminate, yet you never see the bulb--it’s a very simple design that is also very technical. That’s how I try to build dishes. I’ll take two flavors that I want to put together and a couple accents that go around them that are probably the main ingredients anyway. We have a dish on the menu now that is cod, slightly poached, with several variations of cauliflower. We take cauliflower and make a butter out of it--so lightly cook the cauliflower in a lot of butter so it infuses the butter and you get the juice. We strain the cauliflower out and make a beurre monté, and poach clams in it, and put those on top of the cod. We’ll take some of the cauliflower butter that now has claim juice in it, serve it with cauliflower that we grill on the hearth so it brings a smoky bit. Then, we take some of the cauliflower that we strained out of the butter and purée it, so now we have a cauliflower purée and we’ll grate fresh horseradish over it.
So really it’s just clams, cauliflower and cod. It looks like a really simple dish, but you get all of these layers that you weren’t expecting.
Your wife Anna is the very-talented and award-winning pastry chef at Elske. How do you balance work and personal lives?
The work/life relationship is something we’re always working on, but it’s easy when doing it with someone you love. We have our own departments at the restaurant, which makes not stepping on toes pretty easy. Anna is a super talented and great leader and I think she feels that way about me, so there’s a lot of respect which let’s us each work in our own ways. Outside of work, we love being together and celebrating each other, but we also give each other personal space. Anna loves to work on her art and I go golfing; a lot. It’s still a work in progress, but so far it’s working really well.
What chefs have inspired your culinary journey and why?
The two chefs that had the biggest influence on me when I was younger were Thomas Keller and Michel Bras. Both have such a strong and personal voice that has shaped cooking to what it is now. So many restaurants wouldn’t be the restaurants they are without those two. For my own career, it is definitely Grant Achatz and Paul Kahan. Grant, Chef, taught me that anything is possible and to push so hard to be better, cleaner, faster, more consistent. He taught me you could do anything. Sometimes you have to put a lot of work and effort into thinking about how it’s done, but there’s nothing you can’t accomplish. I’m sure you’ve seen the balloons they serve. You can eat a fucking balloon. That’s insane. The determination and will power to figure these things out and say there is no “no”. After Alinea I was thinking about what my next move should be, and started to really fall in love with Chicago and ended up at Blackbird. The chef de cuisine at WD-50 just became chef de cuisine at Blackbird, and this opportunity allowed me to work with modern cooking in an á la carte setting, which I hadn’t done in a long time. I loved the food. It was really out there and strange. More so, I fell in love with Paul’s philosophy. Cooking seasonally, how he treated his employees and how things got done at the restaurant were really amazing to me and I ended up staying 9 years. Paul taught me so much it’s beyond words.
What other art forms influence your work at Elske?
I’m a terrible artist, but I love going to the museums of any city we are in. I’ll see a painting I like for the first time and kind of forget about it, and then I’ll go to plate a dish a few weeks later and it’ll end up looking like that painting. Seeing the artwork and having it stick in my brain, and then the two come together without any intent. There’s so much about painting that relates to food, specifically with oil painting--the composition and depth. Anna is an amazing artist and she talks about how you build a painting with textures going from fat to lean. I always thought that was interesting because it’s how you build a dish--you use one main component and then you build textures and flavors around it, so it’s not that dissimilar to painting.
What are your three favorite films?
All the Indiana Jones films. Caddyshack.
As a business owner what are you most proud of?
It’s tough--we’re proud of so many things.
When we first opened we had a goal of paying all of our employees a livable wage. Three or four months ago we cracked the code of being a small business that offers health insurance. The people that work here are taken care of in a way that they should be, and that makes me really really proud.
If you could go back to day one and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Learn to go with the flow. Part of the reason we’re so successful is because we’ve learned to do that. We didn’t force anything. When we first opened, I thought the guests were either going to get a tasting menu, or they were going to order a few dishes for themselves--I didn’t expect any overlap. Our first day everyone was like “we’re just going to get the entire menu to share.” That was something we never thought of, but we went with it and everyone got shared plates and and we coursed it out. It’s pretty much what we do now. Either you get a tasting menu or you share with your dining partner. I’m very glad we didn’t say “this is how we do it here, you get your dish and you get your dish.”
What other Chicago businesses should our readers know about?
Small independent businesses. Parachute, Lula Cafe, Perman Wine, Cellar Door Provisions, Sparrow Coffee, Smyth and the Loyalist--I was there on Tuesday and had a phenomenal meal.