Since he was 5, Jimmy Bannos Jr. knew he wanted to be a chef.
With his father, Chicago restaurant great and Heaven on Seven founder Jimmy Bannos, as well as an uncle and grandfather in the business, his fate was almost unavoidable.
For the last three years he's led the kitchen at The Purple Pig, the lunch, dinner and late-night venue he opened with his pop and partners chef Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia, Bar Toma) and chef Scott Harris (Mia Francesa's). In that short time, Bannos, a boyish 28, has earned local accolades and national acclaim, recently landing a feature in Food & Wine magazine's "America's Greatest New Cooks" cookbook.
Still, it was not a cake walk for this Park Ridge native and 2002 Maine South High School graduate. He studied culinary arts at the prestigious Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, and paid his dues in kitchens in New Orleans and New York (albeit in Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali restaurants, respectively), before coming back to Chicago.
"My father always said 'I can get the door open for you, but you have to keep it open, and then some.'"
The restaurant isn't the only thing vying for Bannos' attention these days. In August he married Marianna Shubalis, whose photos adorn the walls at The Purple Pig, and just last week the couple adopted a cocker spaniel puppy they named Roma.
I snagged Bannos for a few minutes and we talked pigskin and pig parts.
You played football in high school. Any parallels between sports and working in the kitchen? I think there's an advantage to growing up playing sports, especially in the kitchen. The kitchen is such a team environment; you all have to be on the same page. There are no individuals. You can have talented people, but if they don't have a great attitude, or put themselves before the team, they won't go very far.
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef? Growing up, I was at the restaurant (Heaven on Seven) every weekend. My dad would take me around to the markets ... watching my grandparents, my uncle, my mom, I learned how to work, I got to see the ins and outs. I had plenty of (career) choices, but there really wasn't anything else I wanted to do.
What have you learned from your dad? There are a bazillion lessons I've learned from my dad, and I continue to learn ... don't forget where you came from, don't let your head get big.
What's your take on reality chef shows? Kids don't really have a clue how ... hard working in a restaurant is. They think if they go on "Top Chef," they're a bona fide star, but that's not the reality of it. It's blue collar work, my dad always said that. You have to bust your (butt) every single day and you have to love it, not be in it for the other stuff. These kids have to understand that if you want your own place you have to pay your dues.
So where did you pay your dues? My first restaurant job was an internship. I was 19 years old and working at Emeril's in New Orleans. Just like anywhere you go, when you're new they want to see what you're made of and they knew my dad knew Emeril so that made it a lot harder. What you naturally expect is that this kid is going to be a slacker, that always made me nervous, but it motivated me to meet and exceed expectations. Most interns just peel potatoes, but I was very focused and within a couple of weeks I was hanging out with them after work and working with them on the line and I was being held accountable. (Executive chef) Chris Wilson told me "Relax. What's the worse that's going happen?"
What is your culinary philosophy? How does it play out on The Purple Pig menu? We are constantly trying to evolve and focus on our style, the way we do things and not worry about what other people are doing. You can never let your standards drop; you're never going to be quite perfect, but you always have to shoot for it. When I was working with Mario (Batali), I learned the less-is-more mentality. When some people come in they might think our food is simple and rustic, but simple food really is not simple. The hardest thing is making a dish be a star with the least amount of ingredients. It takes a lot of patience; if one element is off, the whole dish is screwed.
Where do you find inspiration? Everything that we do is based on everything that I love about Mediterranean food ... I'm obsessed with it. I'm always reading books on it, I'm a student of it and I want to learn more and more. I'm always looking for cookbooks. My dad has a collection of 3,000 books so I grew up knowing that books are an important tool. You have to read constantly to keep your brain going. One of my favorite websites is Jessica's Biscuit(ecookbooks.com). It's a cookbook website, all discounted books. Last week I bought 20 books.
What three ingredients should every home cook have on hand? Great salt -- kosher or sea salt, olive oil and lemon ... that's the key to life right there.
Do you have a guilty pleasure food? I love Doritos, original nacho cheese or the cool ranch ones ... those are the greatest chips.
You cook with a lot of "parts." Is there anything you won't eat? I will eat anything. At "the Pig" there's nothing that we won't try. We even have a list of certain parts of the pig that we want to use, parts that are not really used like pork stomach or pork sweet breads. Not putting them out there for the "wow" factor, but really making them taste good. The goal is to use every single bit. Right now we're working on kidneys and talking about heart and brains. It's really tough.
What do you do in your spare time? In my spare time I work. There really isn't spare time, which is what it is right now. I work out pretty consistently. When I was in New York there was a 24-hour gym. The guys would go out for drinks after work and I would go work out. We're on our feet all day, we have to stay physically fit. Plus I love it. I also like to spend time with wife and family, but there's never enough time for that. Try Bannos' Pork Loin with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy at home or at The Purple Pig, 500 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago. (312) 464-1PIG (744).