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At Work With John Manion


 

You spent some of your childhood in Brazil. How did those experiences shape your  worldview and influence your food?  It would be difficult to overstate the impact living overseas and traveling at a young age made on me.  Because we were essentially cut off from our comfort zone in the United States we read voraciously, therefore literature came into my life at a really young age.  We travelled all over South and Central America, so an appreciation for a diversity of cultures, art and architecture was deeply ingrained early on. The biggest change, for me, was an appreciation for food.  Before we moved to Brazil I was a really fussy eater. Once we got there fussiness wasn’t really an option. All of our social activities began to revolve around food: family dinners, eating out with other expat families, churrascos in my father’s co-workers backyards on the weekends.  In no small way did food become central to our lives, and that made a huge impact on how I came to and continue to view food.


Why did you become a chef?  With a deep appreciation for food at a young age, I gravitated towards working in restaurants after school and on the weekends and found that I really enjoyed it.  That said, telling someone that you wanted to become a chef in the ‘80s was akin to proclaiming that your secret dream was to become a butler. This was well before the age of TV celebrity chefs and the career was still regarded with the skepticism it truly deserves.


 

My grandfather was a newspaperman (The Buffalo Evening News) who had me reading Hemingway and Studs Terkel at way too young an age, so I was really enamored with writing and journalism, which lead me to study English literature at Marquette University.  When I graduated I was uniquely qualified to do absolutely nothing, so I hightailed it to Washington DC (which is full of people uniquely qualified to do nothing). I took a job in issues-based public relations, which is even more dreadful than it sounds.  At the same time I worked part-time as a cook and a bartender at a restaurant in Ballston VA, which I enjoyed a great deal more.

It seems like a quaint notion now, looking back, but food really was more of a fringe culture at the time.  French method and technique was where it was at to the hard-core (and in my opinion still is). There weren’t really ‘foodies’, just people who were really, passionately into food. One thing that literature brought me was a deeply romantic idea of food and food culture.  I loved the way Hemingway described eating and drinking, and Hemingway brought me to the Great Michigan writer Jim Harrison, whom I was deeply influenced by when I made the decision to jump into the world of professional cooking. I moved to Chicago, got a job with a great young chef (Dean Zanella at Grappa, for all you old folks) and enrolled in Kendall (where I lasted long enough to earn a Certificate of Culinary Accomplishment) and never looked back.


For those who are just hearing about La Sirena Clandestina and El Che bar, tell me about them?

La Sirena Clandestina was born from a pop-up dinner me and some friends did at Dodo, which was where LSC stands now.  It was the end of August and the a/c was on the fritz, so it seemed logical to do beachy food with big flavors. The first smells I can really remember are from Brazil:  dende oil, prawns over charcoal, ginger and coconut milk. It’s food I love to cook. So we did this dinner and it was goddamn magical; there was spontaneous dancing, musical instruments were produced and the singing went on into the night.  We knew we had to make the pop up a permanent thing, and somehow we did. What can I say? That vibe lives to this day. La Sirena is special, the last of it’s kind on Fulton Market, a true independent spirit.


 

In the early part of the 2000’s I was traveling to Argentina as much as I possibly could, which was quite a bit.  I became really enamored with everything about the way of life: the wine, the cafe culture, siestas, their melancholy and fervent love affair with art and literature. What really got me, as a culinary professional, was how they cook.  Wood. Over coals. The absolute art of grilling absolutely everything.

I decided that my life’s goal would be to open a Midwestern parrillada, a place where we would cook the bounty of the Great Lakes region over live fire.  One day while bouncing around the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires I found a plaque that read “El Che Bar”, and like I was hit by a bolt of lightning I knew that would be the name of my joint. Fast forward a decade (or more) and we’ve built just that: a restaurant that honors the cooking of Argentina while firmly moored in the West Loop.   

 

From cuisine to decor it’s obvious you have great attention to detail. What other artistic endeavors do you admire and how do they inform your work?

What doesn’t?  When people ask me if they (or their kids) should go to culinary school I always advise that a liberal arts education (with some business classes) might serve them better.  How can you cook if you don’t have a point of view? You need to read books and love them, actually FEEL them. You should feel about certain dishes that you do about your favorite songs… they should give you butterflies. You should stand in front of a painting and wonder how it’s even possible to put that much humanity onto a canvas with an eye, a hand and some paint. Woodwork is probably the discipline most akin to cooking.  It takes forever to learn, requires an extreme amount of patience, the material is unforgiving and there are no shortcuts. I like well constructed work clothes, so much so that I’m going to talk Stock into collaborating on a line of kitchen-focused work shirts (hint-hint).

What chefs inspired your culinary journey?

Jean Louis Palladin. Just an absolute giant the likes of which no longer walk this Earth.   Jeremiah Tower. Innovator, doesn’t get enough credit. Alice Waters. A radical. Jean-Claude Poilevey was who I wanted to be as a chef/owner and Le Bouchon is still my favorite restaurant in the city.  John Bubala introduced me to the Slow Food movement. Rick Bayless brought the farmers to the restaurants and a whole lot more. If you are a cook of a certain age and say you’re not influenced by Paul Kahan you’re probably kidding yourself.  Blackbird changed everything and Avec changed it again. Fergus Henderson. My sister lived in London when that revolution was going down and meals at St. John knocked my socks off. Simplicity personified - the opposite of molecular gastronomy.   Real, honest food.

 What are your three favorite films and why?  

Not a fair question, three is not enough.  I grew up in the golden era of VHS, so I watched all the greats  over and over until I knew all the lines and shots. The dialogue from cult movies was the vernacular me and my friends spoke. That said,  here are three (actually four) movies that probably make my top ten, depending on which way the wind is blowing. I’ll give it a go:


No Country for Old Men.  When I read this book, Cormack McCarthy was by far my favorite writer, and while super-engaging and well written it really felt like a screenplay… that is to say a minor book in his canon.  And what a screenplay it was. Superbly cast and directed. I had my doubts about the Coen brothers interpreting this work, but it’s pitch perfect from beginning to end. It’s what I saw in my mind’s eye when I read the book (except for Javier Bardem’s haircut) and the soliloquy that ends the movie could only have been delivered my Tommy Lee Jones.  Honorable Coen Bros mention to Miller’s Crossing, which is by far my favorite Coen Bros movie, so move that to #1 and demote No Country to honorable mention. Gabe Byrne, Albert Finney, Buschemi, Polito, Marcia Gay Harden, one of the all-time great casts. Mike Starr! “When I’ve raised hell, you’ll know it”. The Carter Burrell score puts it over the top, as does John Turturro.

Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The truth of the matter is, throughout my life, I’ve really taken all my fashion cues from Indiana Jones, I’m just not living in the 1940’s so the fedora thing doesn’t work for me (although I’ve tried).  I hum the John Williams score to my son for at least half hour a day. Pre-CGI stunts, it’s a goddamn non-stop thrill ride. Plus? I hate Nazis too.

The Right Stuff.  This is definitely a later in life addition, butI find myself talking about this movie a lot.  I’m old enough to remember the importance of the space age and the role it played in the Cold War.  It’s truly a movie about the American spirit, overcoming massive obstacles, working the problem, Sam Shepard being the coolest man alive, the human spirit, and so much more. I’m fond of saying that if you want to go to space, you’re going to have to kill some monkeys.




We hear you’re starting a catering arm of your business. Please tell us this is true…

True.  We’ve done so many one-off offsites that have been hugely successful that it seems like a natural progression for us.  The first step is delivery of popular items that will travel well… I’d love to see pizza boxes full of dozens of empanadas making their way into homes and offices all over the city.  Little La Sirena kale salad with that? I got you! In short order we will be focusing on bringing the whole experience into people’s homes, offices and backyards. I’d like to be cooking sweetbreads, chorizos and ribeyes in people’s homes early next year.  

What changes and evolutions are you looking forward to?  Well, my wife and I just had our first kid, Max Manion, so I think that takes the change/evolution cake, if you know what I mean.

You carved out a niche in Chicago and garnered a lot of covetable press. What sets you apart?  Last man standing?  Just kidding. I don’t know.  I cook what I like, and I think my joints are a reflection of who I am, and I’ve always stayed true to that.  They’re independent and have a soul.

La Sirena has been open for 6 years. If you could go back to day one and give yourself advice what would it be?  Get into real estate and buy whatever you can in the west loop.

As a business owner what are you most proud of? Absolutely the people we employ.


 

What other Chicago businesses should our readers know about?  Le Bouchon.  Bang Bang. The Butcher and Larder. The Bento Box.  Sao Song (coming soon, follow them on instagram and get to a pop-up).  Pizza di non (same deal). Red and White Wines. Platetectonic Music. Black Dog Gelato. HBFC. Cafe Marie Jean. Rootstock Wine Bar. Damn Fine Coffee Bar. Coalfire Pizza. Barra ñ. The Hideout. Metric Coffee. Off Color Brewing. Rhine Hall. The Matchbox. Wayward Machine Co. Letherbee. JP Graziano. Frio Gelato. Support your local and independent businesses!


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