Interview with JBF Award Nominee Jimmy Bannos Jr. of the Purple PigElena North-Kelly
May 05, 2014
With his sights set on running his own eatery while he was practically still in diapers, fourth-generation chef and restaurateur Jimmy Bannos Jr. opened Chicago’s acclaimed Purple Pig at the tender age of 25. Below, the 2014 Rising Star Chef of the Year nominee fills us in on his go-to Windy City restaurant, his dream culinary travel destination, and the valuable lessons he learned while growing up in restaurant kitchens.
JBF: When did you know that you wanted to get into the business? And how has your family’s career, particularly your father’s, pushed you towards success?
Jimmy Bannos Jr.: I always knew this was what I wanted to do, even when I was a toddler. There was no question; it was just automatic. One of the biggest advantages I’ve felt as a child of a culinary family is that I always knew what kind of dedication and hard work it takes to be a chef. This isn’t a career for playing around. You can’t go in half-assed. You won’t amount to anything unless you really push yourself, and I knew that from the get-go. Seeing the ins and outs from an early age has benefited me tremendously.
JBF: How would you describe your culinary style?
JB: My culinary style is one that’s rapidly evolving, and I hope I can always say that. The basis of what I do and everything that I study and practice has to do with Mediterranean roots. I think it’s a cuisine that’s still relatively untapped here, and there’s still so much that we don’t see. Everyone knows what an olive tapenade is, but there’s a lot to be uncovered on a deeper level, and that’s what I’m trying to do in my own way.
JBF: What’s your favorite item on the current Purple Pig menu?
JB: I’m doing a shrimp and pork sweetbread sausage with romesco and ramps right now that’s really cool. Pork sweetbreads aren’t readily available, and the dish is a spin on surf and turf. I wanted you to be able to eat both in the same bite. It turned out really well.
JBF: You’re clearly a big fan of all things pork. Can you tell us why this ingredient resonates with you so much?
JB: You know, there are a lot of different reasons. But I look at a pig like a blank canvas. There are so many different things you can do, and so many different parts to use. And we have that mentality with any animal, to utilize as much as possible. That’s the challenge, taking something that’s not necessarily what the general public would call a desirable part, and aiming to make it desirable and delicious. I like to showcase pork hearts on the menu—not just as a garnish, but as a centerpiece. Using the whole hog is really important to me.
JBF: You came up the ranks working under culinary icons Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali? What did you learn from them?
JB: Yes, I was lucky to intern for Emeril at age 19. It was my first experience in a kitchen other than my dad’s. It was a huge eye-opener and I loved the experience. Most interns are peeling potatoes the whole time, but the executive chef at the time threw me headfirst into the wolves. I was cooking on the line and working three different stations, and I was so scared and nervous. But he said to me, “What’s the worst that’s going to happen? It’s all good man, you just gotta let it roll.” That really stayed with me and stripped away the fear.
And working with Mario was where everything came together for me. It was the best experience I could have dream of, period. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for that. I was at Del Posto, Lupa, and Esca, for a total of four years. Working with Mario, I learned what having extremely high standards meant. And nobody does Italian better than him, so it was the best possible arena for me to be in.
JBF: What’s your current favorite place to dine out in Chicago? And what’s your favorite dish there?
JB: Well, the list of places I’d like to go to and don’t have time for is much longer! But the food that I want the most is Italian, and I often go to Café Spiaggia. The gnocchi with wild boar ragù is my favorite. I crave it all the time.
JBF: What’s your dream culinary travel destination, and why?
JB: There are so many! But it’s important for me to travel in Italy, and there’s a lot more for me to see. I really want to go to Sicily, for the food, the landscape, everything.
JBF: Since the theme of this year’s Awards is music: what’s playing in the Purple Pig kitchen during prep and service?
JB: Well, we have an open kitchen, so we have to share with the dining room. I’m a big influence on what’s being played in the dining room at all times. I think a lot of times it gets taken for granted. I’ve been at so many places where you just think, “What is going on right now?” and it can just completely ruin the experience. My chefs often ask me what they can play, and my answer is always, “Well, is it happy music?” I may enjoy listening to Foo Fighters, but it doesn’t work in my dining room. I need it to be happy and make people feel good. I like to throw on James Brown or Stevie Wonder, or anything that’s happy and bumping. I think that’s really important.
JBF: If you could cook for anyone, who would it be and what would you make?
JB: I would love to cook for my paternal grandparents. They passed away some years ago, but the connection that we have through the restaurant with them stays with all of us. We are a restaurant family, and my dad worked side by side with them in the trenches. I’d love to cook them anything I’ve created for the Purple Pig menu. For them to see me, a fourth generation chef in our family continuing to raise the bar, would be such an honor.
JBF: What’s your earliest food memory?
JB: Having grown up in a restaurant family, I have so many. But I think my Italian grandmother’s Sunday neckbone gravy is what brings me right back to being a kid whenever it’s cooking. That smell just takes me right back, no matter how much I’m exposed to it. And it’s on my menu as salute to Grandma, so I get to eat it, taste it, and smell it every single day.
The 2014 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year is presented by
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