Chef Greg Biggers grew up in the southern United States. Now at the Sofitel Chicago, he runs the restaurant, Café des Architectes, injecting new life into classic dishes notably by combining innovative flavors and shapes. He is always on the lookout for ideas, and, although he is a passionate recipe book collector, he actually never really follows one.
You hail from Alabama, a region in the south of the United States famous for its agriculture. What are your favorite products or recipes from home?
It’s more of a family memory, because my mother prepared Chicken and Dumplins, which is a typically southern dish that’s very easy to make using flour, water, salt and pepper. My mother wasn’t really an excellent cook, in fact, she was actually a pretty bad one (laughs), but I really loved helping her prepare this meal on Saturdays.
Was that what triggered your desire to learn to cook?
Not really, as I actually chose to study photography at university. Whilst I was studying, I worked in a restaurant where the food was very simple, but that was actually what made me want to become a cook. I was lucky at the time that the chef, who trained in New Orleans, encouraged me to continue my training. That’s why I started a cooking course at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina. I was just 19 years old and learned the basics there: cooking and cutting methods, etc.
How did you come to work at the Sofitel in Chicago?
First, I worked at McCrady’s in Charleston, which is one of the best restaurants in the country. Then I joined Chef Rick Tramonto and worked in two of his restaurants, notably at TRU, which is in Chicago. I was also sous-chef at Morimoto in Philadelphia where I learned to master Japanese cuisine and seafood. In January 2011, I was put in charge of all the Sofitel Chicago’s dining operations, and notably its fine dining restaurant, Café des Architectes.
Apart from the chefs you have worked for, what inspires you when you cook?
Like many other cooks, I was influenced by Thomas Keller’s book. It was a turning point for me because he presented a much more modern way of cooking. It was also the start of my passion for recipe books, which I continue to collect. I have all kinds of recipe books, from every country, including French books. In all, I think I now have 600 to 700 books. When I move house, it’s no easy feat!
So you’re a cook who loves recipes?
Actually, I never follow a recipe completely. I like discovering other people’s recipes because they inspire me. The recipe is a springboard, and from there I use all the techniques at my disposal to produce a completely different result.
What products do you work with?
We source a lot of our products locally, especially from the many small farms around Chicago. Almost round the corner, we find strawberries, blueberries, rabbits and the fresh milk we use to produce our own five different cheeses. We also import products from all over the world, for example, Japanese beef, Australian truffles, French vinegars and Canadian maple syrup. We always try to source the best products wherever they can be found.
Is there such a thing as typical Chicago cuisine?
To tell the truth, Chicago cuisine has two sides to it. The one, that I call “old school” cuisine, is famous for its generous steaks and pizzas which continue to be very popular. However, there is also another more modern type of Chicago cuisine, which has blossomed over the last ten years or so. I’d say that Chicago is becoming home to a new gastronomy. As confirmation of this, I only need mention the James Beard Award, which is like our equivalent of the Michelin stars. The award ceremony is now held in Chicago, rather than in New York, as it was previously.
How would you define your own cuisine?
It should prompt a smile, but also questions. I want my guests to know what they are eating and also ask themselves “But, how do they do that?” My idea is to use ingredients people know, but also try to surprise them by being clever and combining different techniques. In our current menu, for example, my favorite dish is our foie gras au torchon, poached in duck fat, which isn’t a traditional way of preparing it, and served with our own home-made cheddar doughnuts, a microwave apricot Savoy sponge cake (that’s the only way of obtaining that special texture), apple jam and fried garlic. These are all classic ingredients, but we work them in our own distinctive way and use modern culinary techniques.
You won the starchefs.com Rising Star 2015 award. What is it?
Starchefs is one of the United States’ leading online food magazines. Every three years, in Chicago, it awards the Rising Star to eight chefs it considers the best in each of their fields. I think the jury was charmed by the way we produce some of our ingredients and revisit traditional cuisine to create elegant, modern dishes. I’d like to add that two months ago we were also awarded four diamonds by the AAA, the American Automobile Association.
You say “we”, so is it a collective achievement?
Yes, I’m lucky to have a fantastic team to develop our recipes with. My twelve cooks hail from very different places, for example Canada, China, the United States, France, and Mexico. This creates diversity in our kitchen and allows me to learn as much as I can, because it’s my philosophy to be open to all influences and all techniques. Often, I given them an idea and we start by preparing it to test it, then together we criticize it and improve it until the dish is just right. In that way, I continue to experiment and learn from others. That’s what I enjoy about cooking.
What’s the best thing we could wish for you?
To continue to learn and, one day, to win a Michelin star!