Grilled In a Minute: Ryan McCaskey
Julie Mautner / April 3rd, 2013
Michelin-starred chef Ryan McCaskey was born in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1974 and adopted at 14 months of age. Raised in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, he discovered the joys of the kitchen early on and was pretty much in charge of family meals by age 14. The McCaskeys traveled extensively, exposing Ryan to a wide range of cultures and flavors, which, he says, gave him his multicultural approach to food.
As a high school junior, McCaskey was one of nine students accepted into the Harper College Culinary Arts program (Palatine, IL). Next came the School of the Culinary Arts at Kendall College (Evanston, IL), along with jobs at the highly regarded restaurant The Greenery (Barrington) and at Tuttaposto, working under Tony Mantuano. “I had the foresight to learn all stations, both savory and sweet,” McCaskey remembers, “because I knew these skills would serve me later in my own kitchen.”
At age 19, McCaskey was hired to be sous chef and pastry chef at Goose Cove Lodge in Maine, called one of the best restaurants in the state by the New York Times. During this chapter, he spent his summers cooking at Goose Cove and finished his schooling at Kendall in the off-season.
After graduating in 1996, McCaskey moved to Door County, Wisconsin, to wear two hats again—chef de cuisine and pastry chef—at the Black Locust (Fish Creek). While he was at the helm, the restaurant was called one of the top three in the state by the Milwaukee Journal.
Then he returned to Chicago and began a string of impressive gigs, at Vivere, Rushmore, Les Deux Gras, Rhapsody, Allen’s, Tizi Melloul, Trio (under Grant Achatz), and TRU (under Rick Tramonto). He also was hired to be exec chef at Courtright’s (Willow Springs, IL), which has four stars from the Chicago Tribune.
In 2010, Ryan began planning Acadia, fulfilling his lifelong dream of having his own place. The 60 seat restaurant, showcasing McCaskey’s contemporary take on classic American cuisine, was awarded its first Michelin star in November 2012, after being open less than a year.
McCaskey is single and lives in the South Loop neighborhood, just up the street from Acadia.
What brought your family to the U.S. from Vietnam? How old were you? Why Chicago?
I was adopted at 14 months of age and came to the Chicagoland area. I didn’t have much choice since I was picked out from a bunch of photos! I’m glad they chose me! I feel blessed. It was during the fall of Saigon as the Vietnam War was ending.
Have you been back to Vietnam?
I haven’t. I planned to go two years ago but scrapped those plans to open Acadia. I hope to go next year.
Who or what was your earliest culinary influence?
My grandmother. She and my grandfather had a vegetable garden, and I spent much of my summers pulling carrots, picking tomatoes, and hanging around in the kitchen “helping” her prepare dinner. Some of my earliest food memories are of my grandmother making meat loaf, eggs, pancakes, French toast, pot roast, and cookies; she also introduced me to mayonnaise, bologna, ramen noodles, mac and cheese, grilled cheese, and saltine crackers. To me, it seemed like she was always cooking, and it piqued my interest at a very young age. I was in the kitchen a lot as a kid.
And how did earning a Michelin star change your business…or your life?
I’m not sure it has totally sunk in yet. I’m so wrapped up in the restaurant every day, it’s been hard to step back and put it into perspective. It’s brought a different clientele into the restaurant. And it has also raised expectations, within myself and with diners as well.
What’s the very best thing about your job these days?
Being able to dictate who we are and what we want to be. We are only as good as we strive to be. I feel that after many years, I finally control my destiny.
And the very worst thing, the aspect you like the least?
It takes up so much of my personal life. I haven’t been able to dedicate as much time as I’d like to relationships, family, travel, etc.
Were you ever fired? Where and why?
Yes! Unfortunately I’ve been fired a few times but not for actual job performance stuff! No coming in late, missing work, coming in drunk, sleeping in the restaurant, devious sexual behavior, etc! I was always fired for the same reasons: my food was “too nice” or “too complicated” or “too much”! At first, the owners would hire me to “take it to the next level” or “to compete with high-end restaurants.” Then, quickly they’d find that it takes a lot of dedication, retraining, work, money, and commitment to be at that level. So it was always the same song and dance. And at the end of the day, they’d decide to go with quantity over quality, and I would be given my walking papers.
Three adjectives to describe the kind of boss you think you are?
Passionate, patient, fair.
Three adjectives that your staff would use to describe you as a boss?
Passionate, temperamental, fair.
What recent culinary discovery (a new flavor, ingredient, dish, etc.) really intrigued you?
I really like osmanthus. In the spring and early summer, it reminds me of tea, tannins, apricot, honeysuckle, and orange. Both floral and tannic.
Best recent meal in a restaurant not your own?
Per Se, last year, while we were in New York City cooking for the James Beard House. The dinner was extravagant, refined, friendly, and nearly flawless. All capped off by a personal note from TK! Very special and memorable in all aspects. Everyone at that dinner table will be talking about that meal/night for many years to come. I believe that is what great dining can and is supposed to do. It’s more than just the food on the plate…it’s the experience as a whole. A complete sum of its parts.
Next restaurant you’re excited to try?
I hope to get to Eleven Madison Park when I’m out in New York City this year.
Who is or was your mentor? How so?
Thomas Keller. I’ve followed him since the early days of The French Laundry. His style, though refined and executed perfectly, is also so simple and always elegant. The culture he’s created with his restaurants is something to look up to. He exudes fairness and compassion while striving to push and be the best he can be. I learned and instilled a lot of the same philosophies as I built Acadia.
What one cookbook do you use most often?
When I do look back at a cookbook, I always look back to The French Laundry or some of Charlie Trotter’s books of the 1990s. I find we can learn the most from our past, and from the people who have paved the way for us, the new generation of cooks and chefs.
If you could work with one person, alive or dead who would it be and why?
Ferran Adrià. I love his perspective on food. He’s constantly looking at it from many angles, but he’s also playful and whimsical. He has a great love of food, high-end or simple, and a great love of life.
OK, so what’s one thing your customers do that makes you nuts?
I do have one pet peeve. First, though, let me say that I’m grateful for every guest who comes through the door—I know there are plenty of restaurants out there—but when people come to Acadia, it’s as if I’m welcoming them into my home. So what gets me is when people don’t even give us a chance before they list their demands about the dining experience: the ingredients, the menu, etc. And this seems to be on the increase during the past few years. We live and breathe this restaurant and want to provide an exceptional experience, so please give us the chance to do so!
And one thing your staff does that makes you nuts?
If someone doesn’t have the same eye for detail and the same amount of passion I do, they won’t last…and I don’t mean just at Acadia, but at any restaurant that is striving to constantly improve. Each kitchen job I’ve had, I’ve brought the same level of dedication and accountability, and I expect the same from my staff.
What’s one thing that’s forbidden in your kitchen?
Kiwi and colored pants. I hate kiwi! The seeds are bitter…almost bitingly metallic in flavor. And we only wear solid or light pinstriped black pants. I hate bright colors on clothes, especially the wild printed pants!
And one thing in your kitchen you couldn’t live without?
Tweezers…we need ’em. The evolution of execution has risen very high since I started 20-plus years ago. Without tweezers we wouldn’t be able to maintain that precision.
How about some advice for a young chef who dreams of a career like yours?
Whether you cook casual or high-end food, strive to be the very best. Learn everything! Constantly push and evolve. I find little difference between hamburger and foie gras; I cook both with the same passion and integrity. As long as you have those principles, it doesn’t matter what kind of establishment you end up in. So push yourself to learn as many aspects of food, restaurants, and dining as possible. It takes a lot of discipline to strive for excellence every day. Even with the tears, heartache, sacrifices, long hours, physical and mental strain, lost relationships. In the end, if one perseveres, then one day you could open your “dream” place. And for me, that’s Acadia.
Career highlight or professional moment of which you are most proud?
Ha! Well. In all honesty, after some trying years and many growing pains, receiving a Michelin star after being open 10 months was quite a feat for me, both personally and professionally.
For any chef visiting Chicago right now, please suggest three or four restaurants that show the best of what the city offers, culinarily.
I’m a big fan and strong supporter of Sepia, Naha, Blackbird, and Alinea.
Describe your dream restaurant—the one you’d open “if only.” What concept and where? Price no object, of course!
With Acadia I’ve mostly done it. Since I was an integral part of the design, 100 percent of the concept, and did most of the preopening work as an owner, I have to say that I’m 99 percent happy that I built what was in my mind ever since the eighth grade! Of course, I would’ve changed a few things along the way. For example, I wish I had had a touch more capital. I wish I had remembered to add a water line to the wait station and an opening to get out from behind the bar. I wish I had dry walled the kitchen ceiling, etc! But overall, it’s pretty close to the dream.
What haven’t you done, personally or professionally, that you would still love to?
Personally: A note to all you ladies out there! I do long for the day when I can settle down, have companionship, find love. Share pets. Have kids, get married, travel more, make a nice home. Try to live a more “normal” lifestyle.
Professionally: I’d like to open a more casual concept.
You found your passion at such a young age. Was there ever another career you might have liked to try? Meaning, if not this, then what?
I may have looked into psychology, writing, photography, or music. I’ve written stories, poetry, and even started a screenplay. I once wrote for a local paper and was their music critic. I’ve played guitar since the eighth grade. I'm a lover of live music. I’ve followed Furthur (The Grateful Dead) and traveled a lot. I’ve gone on safari in Africa. I’m constantly shooting pictures while on vacation. I’d definitely be doing one or a combination of these things!