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Ask a Chef: Beard Award Semifinalist Paul Fehribach

Hilary Deutsch

February 22, 2016

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A three-time James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Great Lakes, Paul Fehribach has earned critical acclaim at Chicago's Big Jones for his Southern heirloom cooking. For his upcoming Beard House dinner, Fehribach will lead guests on a time-traveling sojourn to the winter of 1840 with a tavern-inspired menu as American as apple pie. We chatted with the insightful culinarian about what American cuisine really means, legendary chef Edna Lewis, and why he stopped second-guessing himself.

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What is your inspiration behind the menu for this Beard House event?

I’m avidly interested in culinary history and used Lettice Bryan’s 1839 book The Kentucky Housewife as one of my guiding lights for this dinner. It was written in Louisville and is the seminal culinary text for those of us with roots in the Ohio River Valley. I’m also inspired by the hospitality traditions of Kentucky taverns, so I wanted to create an evening that would be evocative of a respite from a cold winter’s night in 19th-century Kentucky, in the hands of a great cook.

What's a dish on your Beard House event menu that you're especially excited about or proud of, and why? 

Mince pie is always a cause for excitement. It’s exemplary of a lost foodway, one that was essential to the economy of households and farmsteads into the 20th century. It was, by all accounts, "the real American pie." Take a look at Cliff Doerksen’s James Beard Award–winning piece from the Chicago Reader, "The Real American Pie," to find out more about this former American staple. 

What’s your guilty-pleasure food?

Anything with chocolate and peanuts.

Tell us about the last great meal you ate.

Earlier this month at Blackberry Farm Taste of the South 2016, we had an epic five-course Italian dinner with some stunning wines from Friuli all the way to Tuscany. The menu was prepared by Cassidee Dabney and the rest of the Barn at Blackberry Farm crew and was a brilliant juxtaposition of Southern Foothills cuisine and Italian wine culture. We saw culinary technique that you’d usually only expect to find in cities like New York or Chicago.​

Who's been your biggest inspiration, and what dish would you cook to thank them?

Edna Lewis, rest her soul. Her writing inspired me to stop chasing trends and the culinary zeitgeist of the moment and just focus on my roots and use ingredients grown and shared amongst family and friends. I also learned how important it is to recognize that simplicity can be the epitome of excellence when combined with a dedication to craft and technical precision.

I’d cook her the Duet of Duck with Bourbon–Giblet Jus from The Big Jones Cookbook, using duck from Gunthorp Farms, dairy from Kilgus Farmstead, parsnips from Genesis Growers, and Brewster Oat Groats from Anson Mills. Her books taught me how much effort that used to go into acquiring ingredients and how simple the final preparation always was to ensure that the flavors were able to sing in concert with each other. I apply the same ethic to my cooking—I spend a lot of time sourcing ingredients (sometimes even years!) to create a cuisine that is as sincere and authentic as hers was.

What are your favorite places to eat in Chicago these days? 

For a date night, lately I’ve been really smitten with Brindille. The execution is top-notch and the room is as sexy as can be. Cemitas Puebla is a favorite for Mexican cuisine. I’m also a fan of Vera for wine and small plates.
 

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it to you?

“F**k the neighborhood” was advice Ellen Malloy of Morsel gave me a few years ago. It’s not a literal thing, but she was advising me to pursue my passions and inspirations rather than second-guessing everything I wanted to do. We’re a neighborhood restaurant and I don’t want to alienate those living nearby by doing stuff that was too esoteric.

Ellen’s point was to do my thing, make my statement, and my audience would find me. That’s exactly what’s happened and it’s been good for the neighborhood, too, because people come to Big Jones from all over the Chicago area and nationwide, which the neighborhood appreciates. So, by initially letting go of those apprehensions, I’m able to better serve the neighborhood than I ever was when I was worried about making them happy.

Take a peek at what Paul Fehribach will be cooking at the Beard House on February 23 and book your seat.

View all upcoming Beard House events and book your seat at jamesbeard.org/events.

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Hilary Deutsch is editorial assistant at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram.