Leaving the City for the Country: Chris Curren of The Graceful Ordinary in St. Charles

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Chef Chris Curren/Photo: Matt Reeves

It’s Saturday night, and we’re sitting directly in front of the blazing hearth, the warm, bright heart of The Graceful Ordinary’s exposed kitchen. This restaurant opened in St. Charles late last year under the direction of chef Chris Curren (Blue 13, Fulton Market Kitchen, Homestead on the Roof and other Chicago restaurants) and his wife, Megan.

Chef Curren prepares spectacular dishes in his new restaurant. We were stunned by the Tuna Conserva, a plate of lush chunks of red fish, topped with swirls of avocado paste, puffed black rice and peanuts, a fabulous and tasty starter. One of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, the octopus carpaccio, is thin strips of sea creature, sprinkled with bunches of lemon puree, pickled mustard seeds and chili oil. Despite all the flavors, the octopus holds its own in a dish that is anything but ordinary. And before you ask, an “ordinary” is an old American term for a community-focused bar.

The Graceful Ordinary seems to be a big hit in St. Charles, which doesn’t have many places operating at the same level as Chef Curren. The dining room is packed, and a queue was forming at the reception station. “It’s been like this since we opened,” Chef Curren tells us. “We’re stuck every night of the week.”

And having a ready and hungry local population is just one reason Chief Curren is happy to be in St. Charles, about forty-five miles from Chicago. He is not alone in his exodus to the suburbs.

Tuna conservation/Photo: David Hammond

“The suburban food scene is often associated with homogeneous restaurant chains,” wrote the New York Times a few weeks ago. “But as tastes and demographics change, chefs are finding a home for ambitious cuisine outside of cities. Opening a restaurant in the suburbs often means cheaper rent and less competition.

Chief Curren echoes the lure of lower rent and competition, but he also mentions other less obvious reasons for a chief to move to the suburbs.

“I have no problem moving here,” says Chief Curren. “Now I’m not sure we can do what we do in any suburb. We are able to do what we do thanks to the people of the Fox River Valley [St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia] and the other entertainment options in the area.”

These other entertainment options include Pollyanna Brewing Company, which has gained a lot of recognition for its beers and is the perfect place for a pre-dinner libation. We enjoy several of Pollyanna’s exceptional beers, including the much-loved Roselle Red, a delicious beer that won gold at the Great American Beer Fest 2021. About a minute’s walk away is the Arcada Theater, a large house vaudeville venue built in 1926, remodeled and featuring rotating musical acts in a theater downstairs and a nightclub lounge upstairs. If you’re going to hike to St. Charles, there’s more to do than eat, although that’s our main reason for going to this western suburb.

“We have the advantage of being fairly close to town,” says Chef Curren, “and we have local diners who may be used to dining in town. But if you live nearby and have the option of do not Heading into town for a fine dining experience, you’ll enjoy The Graceful Ordinary, a restaurant in your own backyard.”

Curren also agrees that the growing sophistication of the dining public, whether they live in the city or the countryside, is on the rise. In the past, there was a certain risk in opening places like 302 West in Geneva or Le Français in Wheeling; now you can generally count on people everywhere who recognize the value of a fine dining experience done right.

The Graceful Ordinary/Photo: Matt Reeves

Chef Curren surprises us a bit when he says, “It’s much easier to open a restaurant here than in Chicago, and that’s because the city government of St. Charles is much smaller. We have personal relationships with just about everyone in city government, and there’s a desire among city officials to have restaurants like ours in their neighborhood, for their constituents. They want the people of their city, meaning residents and business owners, to grow, prosper and succeed because it benefits everyone in the city.

“Also, when it comes time to sort out permit issues and others that we encountered throughout construction, we were able to have one-on-one conversations with city staff. We can go directly to them rather than having to go through many different offices like we do in Chicago because it’s so much bigger. Everything here is on a smaller scale. City officials here could be dealing with five to six licenses; in Chicago, they deal with thousands.

“Of course, the price of real estate is very different in St. Charles than it is in the city of Chicago. It’s not cheap here, but the cost is certainly less daunting. And this area experienced a boom in the housing market, as the pandemic has helped many people realize, “Hey, I don’t have to be next to my desk or sit on the El for a half – hour to get to work. For the same amount of money I would get an apartment in Chicago, I can have a house here with a garden and outdoor space. Locals are taking advantage of lower real estate prices here, which means there are more people here who might be looking for the fine dining experience.

And as Megan Curren pointed out in the New York Times article, “While many restaurants in Chicago are hurting financially due to the pandemic, St. Charles is recovering faster. And people are moving into — not out of — St. Charles.”

Predictably, of course, Chief Curren thinks there are perceived downsides for chefs who choose to leave town for the country. “There are great restaurants here, but not as many. So when I worked at Fulton Market Kitchen, I could walk down the street to Swift & Sons or The Aviary, Publican, Duck Duck Goat, and they’re all within walking distance of each other. So, you could say, on a whim, “Let’s go to Chris Pandel’s restaurant, or to Stephanie Izard’s restaurant”; well, places like that just aren’t as accessible here.

Many spoke about the Chicago chef community, and how encouraging it is for new chefs as well as veterans to have fellow chefs so close and willing to step in and help others in the industry. Chief Curren has experienced this camaraderie, and he tells us, “All the time, chiefs ask, ‘Can I borrow this’ or ‘Can I use this equipment? but that happens less here. We have those relationships here, but we do things at The Graceful Ordinary that other Fox Valley restaurants don’t, so we don’t cannibalize anyone else’s business. However, we have a great relationship, for example, with the guys from Flagship on the Fox, which is also run by people from the city, and we do things with them, and we borrow things from them. So there’s a community here, but Chicago is one of those special places. If you go outside of Chicago to other big cities, it’s competitive, everyone tries to pick on each other. In Chicago, everyone tries to cheer themselves up because they understand that the more good restaurants there are in a neighborhood, the better it is for everyone. And this also happens in Saint-Charles.

I wondered, though, if just getting to the ingredients — the produce and protein needed to serve the public — was more difficult in St. Charles than in Chicago. Chef Curren mentioned that in Chicago, if he needs, say, a few extra steaks, or the supplier has missed some items on a shipment, a truck that needs to make deliveries in the area can bring the needed items. . These types of last-minute shipments are more possible in the city than in the suburbs, because there are simply a lot more suppliers – and delivery trucks – in the city. “But a lot of our suppliers are in the suburbs,” notes Chef Curren, “and we’re very, very close to a lot of local farmers. Nichols is one of those local farms, they’re in Marengo right next to the town I live in, and there’s five or six farms here that we work with, and one grows specialty items just for us .

Whether a chef is considering moving to the suburbs depends on what the chef is looking for at this point in their professional and personal life. “The quality of life in St. Charles, and where I’m at in my career and in my family life, it’s so much better here,” Curren said. “I lived here for seven years, and Megan and I used to drive into town – 110 miles a day – and it’s costing us. And then there is the beauty of the landscape in which we live. The Graceful Ordinary is right on the Fox River. For me, it’s perfect. »

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