The chef Bruce Sherman has been at North Pond, the picturesque and acclaimed Chicago restaurant, since 1999. His path leading up to the job was an unconventional one: as a young man, he set out to pursue what he felt would be more "noble" routes, like law and business, but eventually realized that the kitchen was where he belonged. "I think you have a genetic predisposition to it," he says with only the slightest trace of doubt in his voice. Since figuring that out, he's traveled the world, embraced the honesty of the back of the house, and spent thirteen years developing his restaurant.
A few days ago, Sherman, this year's James Beard Foundation winner for Best Chef: Great Lakes, got on the phone to talk about his calling, the futility of preaching to diners, and his plans for a casual restaurant.
You didn't realize that you were going to be a chef immediately. Can you talk about what you did before figuring that out?
I never really considered doing it because I had been trained or developed in the more conventional "get a classic white collar job" way. "White collar" being the classic Oxford shirt and not a chef's coat. But I had been prepared to go into medicine or banking, professions that were expected or noble.
The passion part only came when I finally got in touch with the fact that when you're an adult you can choose whatever you want to do. It's not necessarily what you're brought up to do. That's what took me from the conventional task to the unconventional.
Was there a specific moment that sticks in your mind, or was it a slower process?
I think it happened over time. Some of us go to college and develop there as somewhat independent, thoughtful human beings who have to deal with life without oversight. And so, we start developing skills and thoughts on our own. For me, it was an evolution of diverting from that path of conventional acceptability — management ideas or law — to food. The first step for me was realizing that I didn't have to go into any of that and could go into food.
My path there was definitely informed by learning about management and leadership, though. The path began when I started considering what would be the noblest aspect of the industry, which seemed like restaurant management. That's what I did right after I got my undergraduate degree, and it didn't take long to discover that management was a lot of ass-kissing and telling people they were always right. I wasn't composed of that DNA. So, then it was a more natural digression to the back-of-the-house, where you wear it on your sleeve and say what you mean.
Can you explain what that contrast means to you?
It's a very emotional place, the kitchen. That's the type of person who works there. They feel, most of the time, very strongly about what they do. It's important that they do that, that they follow that passion. It's much more real in the sense, I suppose, that we can do what we love to do. I couldn't see myself sitting at a desk or wearing the proverbial suit and tie everyday. Surely I would be in a different place if I weren't able to earn a living doing it. I'm quite lucky in that I can.
The question I often get asked is, 'What would you be doing if you weren't a chef?" I'd say I'd be a butcher. I can't imagine doing anything that isn't connected to food. It's such an important and critical part of my being. I don't think my interest would be satisfied over the long term if it didn't have food involved in it.
You seem to feel that you're born with it.
I've always said that I'm pretty confident that it's a genetic predisposition. Most people who are in the kitchen are doing it because they have to do it, whether you want to call it intuition or genes. There's something that won't allow most of us to do anything else. It's trite, but it's not a choice most of us have. It's certainly not a job, and I tell prospective cooks that if they're here for a job, then they're in the wrong place. It's a calling, I suppose.
A lot of chefs talk about their travels, but you've been able to spend significant periods of time — basically live — in places like India and France.
Yeah, definitely. I don't know how much of that is luck. It's certainly ability and circumstance. The significant time I spent in India was pretty lucky, since I fell in love with someone. The traveling I did prior to that, I made those choices to spend that time. But yeah, I made the choices to make those trips happen.
Someone sees that on your bio and automatically will say it informs your cooking. But to what extent would you say it does for you?
Oh yeah, very clearly, and in different ways. It's profound. Most significantly, it's the notion of seasonality that informs what I do and how I cook. That's very directly related to the early time I spent in Europe understanding the culture, and the later time as a mature adult in India, where the options realistically were limited to the time of year. The choices I had to make in order to cook on a daily basis were limited by what time of year it was and what was available at the tent at the end of the street. It wasn't about the supermarket.
It wasn't the American notion of deciding what you're going to get before you arrive at the grocery store, since you know you can get everything no matter what time of year. It was going to the tent or the market, seeing what was there, and figuring out what to do with it. That was reinforced later when I returned to Europe, just by the idea of outdoor markets in France.
And then, how I cook and what I choose to emphasize in the restaurant is definitely also informed by what I saw in my travels, in the sense that it wasn't just the affluent white people in Western Europe but also the not-so-fortunate in East Asia, who are struggling to put a meal on the table daily. It put it all in perspective and showed me the importance of trying to bridge the gap between having the affluent white butts in the seats at the restaurant, who pay the bills, with wanting to feel like what I was doing was going to be a positive influence on generations to come.
What do you mean by that last point?
I try to do a good job getting people in the restaurant by what I cook and how I cook it. You can't do significant stuff in our industry by just wanting to do it. You have to do a good job and put out a good product, and that starts the process of questioning how it was made or where it came from. That starts the discussion. It's not about politics.
It's about food at the end of the day. Those people that you and I know who have restaurants, but it's sort of more ham-handed or political. There's only so many people they can reach.
And what do you mean by "political"?
Maybe "political" isn't the right word. It's the people that are philosophical about what they're serving and where it comes from. It's not about that. People aren't going to listen to you beat them over the head with this stuff if you don't put a good product before them. You have to do it well, and then they'll demand and appreciate it, which allows you to then talk about the deeper issues.
You've been at North Pond since 1999. Chefs, as you said, can be pretty reactive and transient, because it's the nature of the industry. Why have you stuck around so long?
It's not me, I guess. I feel good about what I do and where I'm at. I have ownership in the restaurant, too.
But I came from a different place, I suppose. I came to it late in life, when I was settled in some ways, so it wasn't so necessary to jump around. That's probably the short answer. When I came here, I had been married for ten years, had a child and another on the way, and had made choices and settled down. I think moving around is part of the aging and maturation process.
Are you goal-oriented or do you prefer to look at the day-to-day?
I think I'm a little of both. As cooks we are incredibly prone to procrastination. For me, personally, I will get things done when there is pressure to get them done. What we do is driven by that stress and testosterone. There's an awful lot of that here, which makes us quite reactive. In terms of a vision, you have to wrap in the gender thing, too [laughs].
If I can generalize, I think that men are generally less visionary or long-term thinkers than women. I'm not generalizing to sound like an ass, but I think that women tend to think a little further out. As I age and I spend more time here, I'm thinking more and more about long-term.
What are some examples?
I would like to do another place that is simple and less fussy.
Is that in motion?
I'm working on it. It's in development is what I can tell you.
Any plans for North Pond?
In the same way, whether it's in New York or Chicago or San Francisco, the whole movement away from structured formality is the same way here. In some ways, I am a prisoner of the setting here.
It is beautiful.
Yes, it is. It would be difficult to re-concept this and start doing small plates out of the roasting oven.
I would want to do it somewhere else, but I would be a fool to do it here. I still enjoy this very much.