Grilled in a Minute: Bruce Sherman
Julie Mautner - January 13th, 2014
After cooking professionally for more than 25 years, Bruce Sherman earned his first Michelin star in November 2013. “I’m thrilled beyond words,” he says, “speechless!” And finally, after being nominated for five consecutive years, he earned the James Beard “Best Chef: Great Lakes” award in 2012. As the chef/partner of North Pond Restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, Sherman embraces influences picked up in Paris, London, and Southeast Asia to produce seasonal, contemporary French-American cuisine.
Born and raised in Chicago, Sherman attended the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in economics. The son of a banker, he assumed he’d go on to an office career as a banker, lawyer, or doctor. But while studying at the London School of Economics, he had the “life-altering” realization that he could choose any career he pleased. He had always enjoyed watching his mom cook and decided he wanted a restaurant career.
Returning to the States, Sherman graduated with honors from the University of Pennsylvania and moved to Boston, where he found work in restaurant management…but he soon shifted to the kitchen. He then moved to Washington, D.C., and started a catering company, which he ran until selling it in 1993. When Sherman’s wife, Joan, had an opportunity to work in India, they jumped at the chance.
In New Delhi for nearly four years, Sherman immersed himself in the local culture and cuisine. Daily trips to the corner vegetable wallah (vendor) forced him to cook only with what was available each day. His experience in India profoundly influenced his cooking style, he says, particularly with regard to the flavors and use of diverse regional spices. Among other places, he worked for a time in palace hotels owned by brothers who were Rajasthani princes, teaching cooks how to prepare Western food for visiting tourists. He also came to appreciate and embrace the ideas of sustainability and is considered a leader in the field today.
In 1996, Sherman moved to Paris and enrolled at the École Supérieure de Cuisine Française, completing the comprehensive year-long program while working at Eric Frechon’s La Verrière and David Van Laer’s Le Bamboche. The following year, the Shermans returned to Chicago, and Bruce joined the kitchen at The Dining Room of The Ritz-Carlton Chicago.
In 1999, owner Rich Mott offered him the chef position at North Pond in Lincoln Park, where he was made partner in 2001.
The Shermans live in Evanston and have two daughters, Emma (18) and Kate (12).
Who or what was your earliest culinary influence?
Julia Child, I suppose. I distinctly remember watching her (or my mom watching her) on PBS and seeing her books in the kitchen at home.
If your mom were alive today, what would you love her to cook for you?
Whole roasted veal breast, stuffed with black peppered potatoes.
And what would you love to cook for her?
Boneless veal breast roulade with black pepper potato rösti. The idea is that I'd show her how I'm able to turn the original, rough (but über satisfying) dish into a refined one that I might serve (at the restaurant).
Name one thing in your kitchen you couldn’t live without.
What’s one thing your customers do that makes you nuts?
Order-Fire-Pick-up or OFP. Meaning, an order from the dining room without a course or two preceding it (“direct fire,” in some kitchens’ terminology). Regardless, it's very tough to easily integrate such an order into the other orders already in play without rushing the food and making the quality suffer.
What’s one thing your cooks do that makes you nuts?
Use their fingers to move food (then not wash them before touching plates).
What do you enjoy most about cooking?
The instant satisfaction and spontaneous feedback.
Three adjectives your staff would use to describe you?
Demanding, temperamental, wise-ass.
Three adjectives you would use to describe yourself?
Were you ever fired? Where/when/why?
Washington, D.C., 1985. Because I refused to mindlessly accede to an (asshole) boss/owner who expected/demanded instantaneous schedule availability without simply asking if it were possible first.
One food or ingredient you absolutely will not eat?
"Absolutely"? Nothing, I suppose. Weird critters or bugs, maybe.
Where do you love to eat after work?
Standing in my home kitchen, or sitting on the couch.
Last great meal in a restaurant not your own? What about it made it so special?
Lunch at Sfaar, in Tallinn, Estonia. Had it with the whole family…and it was in Tallinn, Estonia!
What chef, alive or dead, you would most like to work with?
How has your food changed since the restaurant’s early days?
Simpler, less fussy.
What do you know now that you wish you'd have known then? Meaning, what is something you've learned by experience that would have really helped you early on?
Don't expect mature behavior/thought processes out of (relatively) young staff.
Best day of your career so far?
Worst day of your career so far?
September 29, 1999. When I first took over the kitchen at North Pond, I had to file a police report against some of the cooks I inherited; one (convincingly enough) threatened my life. I don’t think they had much support/supervision before I got there. And they didn’t take too well to being caught drinking Tequila in the bathroom at service time.
How has the restaurant business in Chicago changed in the 14 years you’ve been in it?
Crowded! Everybody and their brother seems to have opened a restaurant (or three)…
Would you encourage either of your daughters to become a chef or own a restaurant?
You’ve done quite a few guest chef stints at sea. Any tips for other chefs interested in this? How to get the gigs? What to do to make it successful and get asked back?
Go for it. Get lucky (to be asked). Do a good job onboard.
Best advice for a young cook who would like a career like yours?
Work hard and long. Keep your mind open and your mouth shut.
What's one thing I haven't asked that I should have?
Are you interested in a visiting-chef gig in Provence? And the answer is: I’m available…
If not this, then what? Meaning, what would your second career choice have been?
Meteorology? You asked! Not sure it would've been something I chose then, but times change, right?