One thing Chicago is never short of is new culinary talents to discover. From female chefs to watch to the much-anticipated Taste of Chicago and Chicago Gourmet coming up in a few months, our dining scene never fails to surprise and impress. And before the events arrive, our best opportunities to explore new chef’s specialties would be showing up to the many collaborations, special dining programs, and chef’s residencies: one of the best being the latest resident chef program at The Press Room.
The residency began in February with a unique chef’s menu. Now in its second month, the program has vigorously evolved over the collaboration between March Resident Chef Rafael Esparza and The Press Room team. Starting March 12th every other Sunday ( March 26, April 9, and April 23rd), with a specific protein featured on each Sunday and vendors discussing wine, beer, or food items from 5 till 6:30 prior to the sit-down dinner at 7 pm. While the menu will be curated by the resident chef of each period, guests can choose their own adventure when it comes to beverages as The Press Room’s extensive list of wine, spirit, cocktails, and mocktails will all be available.
Now, if you wonder how the magic happened behind the new Sunday salon sessions, and what The Press Room and Chef Rafael have in the kitchen for the guests, keep reading as we invite The Press Room’s Managing Partner Paul Mena, Chef de Cuisine Christian Sia, and Resident Chef Rafael Esparza for an intimate discussion.
Q (UrbanMatter Chicago): It’s so great to have you all here today! We are all so excited to talk about the new residency program at The Press Room. To begin: What gave you the idea to start this initiative?
Paul: It kind of happened organically between Christian, Chef Mike, and myself. I just came back from the East Coast and was trying to reconnect with the industry. So we were just talking: “Hey, you work in this restaurant, do you know this chef?” And a couple of names kept appearing who are all great friends with Chef Christian and Chef Mike — that was how we determined our first two tenures of the residency, which were Chef Jordan (January through February), and Chef Rafael. With people you’ve known in the industry for years, you always have that itch of wanting to work with them again because how much fun you had in the past.
Chef Christian and I also saw there were a lot of talents in the city who wanted to showcase [their talent] with something fun, and The Press Room has a very fun space. We put two and two together and said let’s bring some talented chefs in to do some fun stuff in a fun space, and let’s see how people respond to that.
Q: That’s awesome. In that case: what are your criteria in choosing your resident chefs?
Rafael: That’s a good question. I never asked that (LOL).
Christian: Our main criteria is we look for people we want to be involved with ourselves. So people with a similar mindset as we do, people who ask questions, and people who help us visualize how they see The Press Room to be if they were in that space. We also kind of treat it as a session where we maybe get to hang out with friends and connect during the pandemic so we can evolve. So we’re looking for people who want to be in this space, who want to connect and share ideas, and promote the culture of connectivity within our industry.
Q: Fabulous. And how does your current resident reflects and implements your core mission of promoting connectivity?
P: I think with Rafael, one of the first things was he was so creative and so good about creating experiences and menus. So within the last couple of meetings, we have turned our Sunday chef dinners into a new style and a new way to showcase this residency: a salon dinner. Salon dinners will be very focused, which also means the chefs who work with us from here on must be extremely talented — they will need to step up the game because not everybody can create a salon experience or a menu suitable for the experience in this city.
Q: Does that mean your resident chef will have full control over the menu, from food items to beverage pairing?
P: It was a joint effort with Rafael from the get-go, and the program definitely shows a lot of what he believes in. Moving forward, there might be certain guidance I’d like future chefs to follow. For example, we’d love there to be a focus on what we try to teach in the process. Right now we’re focusing on proteins. So eventually, we’d love to have a salon dinner with more focus on, say, vegetables/a vegan environment, or fish, to let the diners learn and socialize while they’re enjoying an amazing meal.
Image Credit: The Press Room
Q: That’s definitely exciting! Moving onto our March program: with everything else happening in Chicago this month, how is the salon dinner standing out in the competition?
Rafael: I think you kind of put yourself in the box of you always have to “stand out” when you think like that. That’s never the intention of anything that I do. I’m not purposefully going outside the box — I think that’s a label people put on themselves that creates a lot of pressure for them to always one-up themselves. That’s not what the salon dinner is. The Press Room is a beautiful space. It invites conversation. It feels like we’re at someone’s house in their wine cellar. It’s thought-evoking. So inherently, what’s different is how we utilize this space to invite the ebb and flow and create conversations. You’re giving people the opportunity to gather like how we used to before the pandemic.
That was how I felt. If I’m going to do this, I want people to have conversations. Not cheesy, small talks either, but deeper discussions. We’re bringing back the old-schooled conversation dinners since the salon concept is all about everyone contributing to genuine conversations. So this dinner has nothing to do with appearing to be smart, or cool. It’s about you, the diner, teach me something new while I share my knowledge and craft with you. Let’s talk about where we source our ingredients, how were these ingredients farmed, and break down the relationship we have with our food.
At the beginning of this program, the form was a formal dinner from 7 pm to 10 pm. But how can we tell someone to come in at 7 o’clock so we can have a conversation? So this time, instead of setting a hard timeframe, we’re opening our doors at 5 pm, basically saying: come on in, we’re here. As for cooking: I’m not even worried about it. I’m a chef, I know how to cook. When you come here, the food should be a given. It better be good!
Q: So what would you say is the most important thing people should keep in mind when they come over?
R: That you are coming into a very organic environment with three people who are actually friends. You’re going to watch us eat and talk — and I think that’s what’s worth the price of the ticket. We will bring in vendors, friends, and stuff like that, to just talk, chill, and hang out. This is chemistry, and you can’t fake chemistry.
Image Credit: Rafael Esparza
About Rafael Esparza
Rafael has been a lifelong resident of Chicago, loves Asian flavors, and has an affinity for street food of all cultures. He honed his skills and developed his palate working at such chef-driven restaurants as Momotaro, Shibumi, Yusho, Kimski, and Band of Bohemia.
He has a passion for hospitality and service that is rivaled only by his passion for food. He was fortunate enough to have learned the ways of hospitality from his mentors at Lettuce Entertain You and BOKA Restaurant groups, respectively. He hopes to pass the lessons learned on to all the cooks who pass through the doors of the kitchen, and to all the guests who walk through the doors of any restaurant he helms.
Featured Image: The Press Room
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