Chris Ayukawa may be the new guy in charge of the kitchen at Niche in Geneva, but he certainly isn't the new to the Niche kitchen.
Ayukawa, 35, was part of the restaurant's founding crew in 2006 when then-head chef Jeremy Lycan and others left Geneva's venerable 302 West and struck out on their own. Today Lycan's former sous chef is running the show.
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"It feels about the same as it did then; we all have the same amount of input," says Ayukawa, who unveiled the restaurant's new menu and it's refreshed decor earlier this month. "We're a close knit group and part of me coming back was because of the people here.
Still, he says, "it is very liberating to be able to make the creative decisions and make people happy."
Ayukawa grew up in the Fox Valley and graduated from St. Charles East High School. He headed off to Columbia College for art school after high school, but gave that up to study culinary arts at Elgin Community College. Over the years he put in time at the aforementioned 302 West as well as Hotel Arista in Naperville and Moveable Feast, a neighborhood bakery-cafe-catering company in Geneva.
He lives in St. Charles with his wife and former Niche pastry chef Anne Marie and their son A.J.
Please share an early food memory, something that sticks with your today when you're in the kitchen: My family cooked a lot at home. Memories of just cooking, eating, talking, being together. ... There is just too many of those fond memories to narrow it down. I often think about it and it makes me understand why I started doing this to begin with.
What prompted the switch from fine arts to culinary arts? Something new. Something hands-on and creative. I didn't really know what I was getting myself into but it just fit, and I'm glad I did.
How does your fine arts back ground help you in the kitchen? I get the same satisfaction as I do from doing whatever artwork I happen to be working on. Again, the hands on creative aspects go hand in hand.
What was your first restaurant job? It was at a bar. Super small absurdly hot kitchen with a 12-foot chef (maybe 15?) who could lose his cool from time to time. Actually he was a pretty nice guy ... and had a heck of an arm! The individuals who I met and worked with there are people who I talk with to this day and have helped me in some form or another.
Who do you count as your mentor? My father. The guy is a super hard and passionate worker, a really tremendous person. I will always refer to him as a source of guidance. And Joel Findlay, the chef and owner of 302 West. I most certainly would not be the cook I am today without him.
What is your culinary philosophy? How does that play out on Niche's menu? We really try to focus on simplicity and execution. Treat ingredients the way they should be treated and try not to over think it.
What is your favorite spring ingredient? Morels. They make me all excited. Sauteed with a little butter, a little garlic and lemon ... yum!
You oversee the restaurant's small farm. What crops can we expect to see on the menu? Well, I'm not much of a farmer and most certainly won't pretend to be -- we have some assistance on that front. Though everyone in the kitchen will be involved we know where our skills lie. All the usuals will make their appearance -- tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, carrots, onions, various greens -- plus some wild card veggies. You will just have to come in and see.
What is your guilty pleasure food? It changes from month to month, the guilt runs deep. A nice juicy burger seems to be a constant.
Do you have kitchen soundtrack? We do. It changes constantly. Everyone has diverse tastes ... death metal, country, hip hop. Our sous chef Zanoni likes Yanni a lot -- we lock him in the cooler.
If I peeked in your home pantry, what's the oddest thing I might find? In our pantry we have an assortment of various Japanese candies. Not sure what they are or what they taste like. My wife and I just buy them because they have cute little pandas and stuff on them. The Japanese are wacky!
What do you do in your free time? I enjoy playing music quite a bit, guitar and such. I try and do artwork from time to time but I spend a lot of time at work. That's OK though, it keeps me out of trouble.
Tell us about this recipe: Red Heart Salad. Though this salad is simple and easy going I can eat it for days. It's tart, salty, herbal and sweet! Slap it on some toasty grilled bread and you're ready to go. And the nice thing is that the longer it sits the better it seems to get. Try it with a Belgian-style saison, such as Lost Abbey "Saison Blanc."