Music Journalist turned Owner of The Goddess and Grocer, Debbie Sharpe says feeding 300 people is nothing

By Elisa Shoenberger

Debbie Sharpe came through Chicago on Paul McCartney tours while working as a caterer. “I met some people and I thought, ‘Oh nice place to stay,’ and so I just decided to stay,” Sharpe said.

Sharpe opened her own business, The Goddess and Grocer, which provides both ready-made and made-to-order food in several locations in the city. She’s even licensed out the name Goddess and The Baker to stores, including a recently opened location on 44 E. Grand Ave.

Australian-born Sharpe started off as a music journalist and ended up going to England working for Adam Ant’s manager. She ended up working in the catering company for a year and thought “I can do this myself” and that’s what she did.

Sharpe wanted to open an Australian deli. Fifteen years ago she could not easily find a good sandwich. “I was used to having a food store you could get sandwiches at and you could get prepared foods that you can just take home and reheat and not bother about going to the supermarket,” she explained. 

Sharpe still caters to the musicians, working big shows like Lollapalooza or Michigan-based Electric Forest. “I love the bigger the numbers, the better for me ‘cause I like the challenge.” 

The biggest event Sharpe ever catered was over 2,000 people in Lenin Stadium for the Moscow Music Peace Festival in 1989. They had just fed about 1,000 people but realized there were many more people waiting in line to be fed. She told her staff, “Oh no, we are so not done.”

On a considerably smaller scale, The Goddess and Grocer caters for Teatro ZinZanni, the downtown cabaret circus show. She was asked to cater for the show long before the show found the space in the Cambria Hotel Building. 

Each night, they serve 300 people but Sharpe noted, “Catering 300 people is nothing for me. But you’ve got to get 300 dinners in 22 minutes with a dance routine. It really adds a new level of difficulty.”

Sharpe’s staff are an important part of the show, she explained.  “They sing, they dance, they move props,” all while serving food. 

The Goddess and Grocer features a popular and immensely Instagrammable Rainbow Cake. Asked where it originated, Sharpe said, “We’re not sure. We just think one of our pastry chefs made it one day.” While it’s not exclusive to the Goddess stores, Sharpe recommended Goddess’ version. “I just think ours tastes really much better than everybody else’s because of the buttercream frosting.”

Chicago restaurants showcase future of dining

by Doug Rapp

Self-ordering kiosks with food appearing in a cubby minutes later. Robots working as concierges and assisting restaurant servers.

All of these are happening in Chicago in what might be a version of dining in the future.

 Hotel EMC2, which bills itself as “at the intersection of art and science,” has added two  robot concierges. Named Leo and Cleo, the robots deliver amenities for guests who book the Bot Experience Package through March 2020, according to website Travel Pulse.

The X Pot, a Chinese hot pot restaurant, plans to use robots at its South Loop location  opening this summer, according to the Chicago Tribune. Owner David Zhao told the  Tribune the robots will move around similarly to Roombas, delivering food to tables and  taking away empty dishes.

Wow Bao, a fast Asian street food eatery,  has two fully automated locations, plus a semi-automated one in Streeterville. At the 200 N. Michigan Ave. spot, customers order from a kiosk and their food is placed in a cubby, limiting human interaction.

“It makes the ordering process a lot faster and more accurate because you’re entering your own order,” said Christine Reznicek, Wow Bao’s marketing manager.

The restaurant usually has two to three employees preparing the food, according to Reznicek, and a concierge up front during peak times to assist customers.

Reznicek said it’s a feature the company wants to move forward with.

 “We like the excitement that it encourages,” she said. “It definitely is a draw for  traffic coming in.”

The reception has been almost uniformly positive, Reznicek said.

“It’s been great. Once everyone gets used to the order flow, they like it. We’re pretty big with tourists. They hear about it and want to  come check out the animations.”

She was referring to the dancing bitmojis that traipse across the cubbies’ thin screens at the 200 N. Michigan location.

 KDM Engineering employee Mani Appalamcen, who was picking up lunch, said he  “loves” the vegan options at Wow Bao.

“I like the way your order appears on the monitor and then in the cubby,” he said. “That’s cool and it’s convenient.”

Cleanna Smith, a supervisor at the 200 N. Michigan location, said the technology rarely  has problems but occasionally a guest needs help navigating the ordering stations. 

“I just like that we have all this technology that’s a new experience for people,”  Smith said.  

Cooper’s Hawk opens first urban location

by Doug Rapp

An upscale wine and dining chain that started in the suburbs has come to downtown Chicago in time for the holidays.

Cooper’s Hawk, which has 41 locations nationwide, recently opened its first urban location at 58 E. Oak Street, in the Gold Coast’s historic Esquire building.

“The Esquire space presented the perfect location and footprint to serve as the flagship restaurant (in Chicago),” Executive Chef Matt McMillin said.

The renovation of the space took nearly 10 months, according to publicist Laurie Cairns.

“Incorporating our Napa-inspired look was a fun challenge,”  she said.

The large, multi-floor restaurant and winery covers 23,000 square feet. It can accommodate more than 400 people, with a patio and private event space.

They offer a standard menu plus an Esquire signature page featuring upscale dishes, such as pistachio-crusted Australian rack of lamb, 25-ounce prime, bone-in ribeye and miso-glazed Chilean seabass, McMillin said. He’s excited about the “Tribute to the World of  Wine” signature five-course pairing dinner he curated with master sommelier Emily Wines.

The new Chicago location is the first Cooper’s Hawk to offer wines outside their normal portfolio,  Cairns said. It has 1,600 collections from around the world,  including 750 bottles from the personal collection of founder and CEO Tim McEnery.

In addition to the “immersive” experience of fine wine and  dining, Cairns said Cooper’s Hawk offers Wine Club memberships, featuring new wines each month, available for pickup or shipping.

 “(The wine club) is a great introduction for anyone curious about wine, as Cooper’s Hawk  is all about making wine accessible to everyone,” Wines, the  sommelier, said. “We have over 50 varietals, ranging from sweet wines to big robust reds, and everything in between.”

Cairns said they also have holiday-etched bottles, wine ornaments and a 12 Nights of Christmas gift box, which includes a variety of wines.

“We trust Chicago will embrace what we have created at Cooper’s Hawk Esquire Chicago and look forward to how it evolves over the years,” McMillin said.  

Musician wins a spot in the heart of New Eastside

by Mat Cohen

In New Eastside’s version of American Idol, there’s no Ryan Seacrest or dimming of lights,

but there is a pretty great deal for the winner. Musician Justin Elliott has reaped the rewards after winning the competition Magellan Development Group puts on each year.

Elliot, a solo artist as well as frontman for the band Honeystone, has been living at the Aqua since the summer in exchange for being the real estate developer’s in-house musician.

The performance venue includes the Drunken Bean Coffee and Wine Bar every Sunday from

10 a.m. to noon.

“I like it, it’s a great atmosphere,” he said. “Sunday morning people are coming before football or after exercising. There’s a lot of traffic and I hope some people stay a little longer than normal because they like what they hear.”

Elliott also played in the park during the summer and throughout the neighborhood in other Magellan Development properties. “I am grateful for Magellan and the whole Lakeshore East community for being so supportive,” he said. “I’ve put a lot of work in creating this solo business so I can have events like the Drunken Bean. Same goes for the band, they’re some of my closest friends in the city and it’s been an irreplaceable experience.”

Elliott, originally from Connecticut, moved to Chicago in 2015 with a goal of using music to make a living. He said it took about two years to become financially sustainable.

Creating the band was an integral part of his Chicago success. Honeystone formed in fall 2016 with members David Koslovsky, John Nordquist and Adam Hatcher. The band released a new album at the end of October, but will be splitting when Elliott moves to Charlotte, N.C. in January for “a dream opportunity” and the next challenge in his music career.

But before then he will be playing his guitar and soothing vocals at the Drunken Bean every Sunday through December.

“I’m hoping to soak in the last few months here,” he said. “But I’m also excited to move onwards.” He’s happy with how far he’s come in his career, his time in Chicago and what the community has done for him.

“For this opportunity I am so grateful for how amazing Magellan has been to me,” he said. “Overall, I’m super happy with the fact I’ve been able to make a living off of something I love to do while living in a city that I love.”

Chocolate, tea a perfect pairing for Chicago fest

By Elisa Shoenberger

Ever wondered if Earl Grey tea should be paired with milk or dark chocolate? Or how to make a cocktail infused with matcha or other green teas? These are two of many lectures set for the Chicago’s International Tea Festival.

Taking place Nov. 1-3 at Holiday Inn Mart Plaza, 350 W. Mart Center Dr., the festival will bring 35-40 vendors from around the world, including vendors from Nepal, Japan, and Sri Lanka, as well as local tea vendors. Tickets start at $25 for a one-day consumer pass.

The show will be Chicago’s first tea festival, started by Festival Director Nicole Burriss and six founding board members. 

Burriss, a Kansas City structural engineer, was inspired by the Northwest Tea Festival in Seattle, now entering its 11th year. She created the Midwest Tea Festival in Kansas City five years ago. 

“We tried to convince Nicole to come here and organize a festival because Chicago is such a diverse city,” said Agnes Rapacz, President of TeaGschwendner and a founding board member. “We believed this location would be successful for the tea festival.” 

Burriss agreed to run the fest as long as she got help.

The tea festival is open to both consumers and people in the trade. The first day is meant for people in the tea trade, though dedicated tea fans can come, and the second two days will be open to everyone.

For the price of admission, people will get a ceramic tea cup and a tote bag and will be able to taste teas from the many vendors. Burriss said people could try up to 100 teas. 

It’s also a great place to deepen knowledge about tea. People can attend more than 80 lectures or classes for an extra fee. Classes will include “Tea & Chocolate” by Sheila Duda and “Tea Cocktails” by Rapacz. There will also be a free lecture room and people can talk to the vendors.

For the “Tea Cocktails” lecture, attendees will taste cocktails and learn how to mix alcoholic drinks with tea. TeaGschwendner has also hosted chocolate and tea pairings. Rapacz recommended pairing chocolate with an opposite kind of tea, like dark chocolate and white tea, or complementary flavors such as pairing a pumpkin spice truffle with chai tea.

Filini introduces lobby sushi as part of plan to revamp its kitchen

(Published 31, 2019)

By Jesse Wright

Longtime fans of Filini Bar and Restaurant may have noticed some recent changes.

Since April, Filini, 221 N. Columbus Drive, has been helmed by executive chef Leonard Ventura, a veteran chef with experience in Texas and California.

Ventura added a sushi station to the Radisson lobby and introduced dollar oysters on Friday and Saturday with half-off martinis as well as a sundae cart during the summer months.

The sushi bar moved into the lobby in July and Ventura said it’s been a hit with visitors who enjoy watching the proverbial sausage get made.

“It’s something I always did at different hotels,” Ventura said. “I saw it was always successful.”

The sushi bar has something for everyone and Ventura said he’s not through tweaking the menu. He plans to add new breakfast items and he’s making an effort to source more local produce.

“We’re always looking for more local and sustainable food,” he said.

This can be hard in the Midwest, with long, cold winter months, but Ventura said he’s sourcing what he can from nearby farms.

“Towards winter I do more pickling and add more heavier items,” he said. Ventura is also looking into local meats, and said he plans to add a smoker in January.

“We want to get beef and different types of meat like lamb,” he said. “I’d like to start to make my own sausage as well. In Texas, I did my own bacon and sausage and smoked hams.”

Ventura is looking to beef up the craft beer selection. In the coming months, he said the restaurant will unveil a 20-tap craft beer selection featuring 18 local beers in addition to standbys like Budweiser and one signature beer.

“We have a company that’s brewing a craft beer for us now that will be featured here,” Ventura said. “Brickstone Brewing will make the beer.”

Ventura said he’d also like to get a rotisserie oven in the kitchen and he has plans to hire a baker, so all the breads will be done in-house.

These are long term plans, but in the months since Ventura has taken over, changes to the menu have drawn more diners.

“Since last year we’ve more than doubled our reservations,” Ventura said.

For more information, visit Filini online at filinichicago.com. 

Signature Room launches signature beer

(Published July 31, 2019)

The Signature Room, the restaurant located on the 95th floor of the former John Hancock Center, announced in July the launch of its first exclusive beer label, Top View Brew. The beer is a result of a partnership with suburban brewery Crystal Lake Brewing, currently offered exclusively at The Signature Room.

“We have been fans of Crystal Lake Brewing for quite some time—and their Beach Blonde has been a top seller for years—so partnering with them on a custom beer was a no-brainer,” said The Signature Room’s VP of Sales and Marketing, Tricia Bryant. “We hope Top View Brew will be a beverage that guests want to enjoy not just during the summer, but all year-round.

Top View Brew is a golden wheat ale with smooth malt sweetness, low bitterness and a bright lemon aroma at 4.5 percent alcohol by volume. The brew pairs well with salads, along with light fish and chicken dishes and can handle spicy foods and cut through heavier dishes.

Taste to offer De La Soul, 82 food vendors from across the city

(Published June 30, 2019)

By Jesse Wright

With July comes the annual Taste of Chicago, a celebration of all that’s great to eat in the city.

This year’s Taste will be held July 10-14 in Grant Park and will feature 82 restaurants and food trucks and 300 menu items. The event also offers live music including headliners De La Soul with Taylor Bennett and Courtney Barnett with Sunflower Bean among others.

Mary May, a spokesperson with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said the event will offer something new even for longtime Taste of Chicago veterans.

“We have a number of new restaurants this year,” she said. “We have more restaurants than we’ve ever had.”

However, not all restaurants and food trucks will be available through the entire festival, so attendees should check schedules on the website TasteofChicago.us. While the general admissions area is free, the music performances are ticketed events and food tickets begin at $10 for 14 tickets. Visitors can purchase those online. In addition, people can also purchase tickets to the Taste Oasis area. This is a new area which provides attendees with exclusive access to music and seating and dining options. Those tickets are $50.

May suggested visitors try the new entrants and try restaurants that are unfamiliar. Often, Chicagoans spend most of their time in their neighborhoods, places they’re already familiar. She said Taste aims to shake that up and break people out of their habits.

“One big thing about the Taste of Chicago is it is an appeal for people to get out and try a new restaurant,” she said. “After Taste is over, we want people to go out and see a new part of the city and to spread their wings.”

In addition to the food and music, the festival will also offer chef-led demonstrations and other specialty events. On July 10, the Best Lists event will recognize award-winning chefs and restaurants listed on “best of” lists. On July 11, the City Streets event will feature chefs from around Chicago. July 12 will feature a Healthy Eating event will spotlight dishes that are vegan or vegetarian. On July 13 the Spicy Hot demonstration will highlight cuisines that bring the heat and sample the all-time American favorite Mac N Cheese on July 14 at the Mac N Cheese Smackdown.

The new restaurants include: 90 Miles Cuban Café, A Place by Damao, Bar Takito, Barangaroos Aussie Pies, Ben’s Bar-Be-Cue, Big Wang’s Chinese Street Food, Black Dog Gelato, Brazilian Bowl Inc., Buscia’s, Bacon Buns, Coastline Catering, Da Pizza Dude, Dmen Tap, Dog Haus, Egg Rolls Etc., Frönen, Gordo’s, Homemade Ice Cream Bars, Hakka Bakka Indian Kati Rolls, Jason’s Deli, Jeannie’s Flan Inc., Jeni’s, Splendid Ice Creams, Josephine’s Cooking, Jus Sandwiches, Kitchen 17, Lao Sze Chuan, Luella’s Gospel Bird, Madame VanderKloot’s Weiner Emporium, Mr. Quiles Mexican Food, Ms. Tittle’s Cupcakes, Nourish Catering, Pink Flamingo (Flamingo Rum Club), Pink Taco, Seoul Taco, The Cookie Crate, The Slab Bar-B-Que, Three Legged Tacos, Whadda Jerk and Yvolina’s Tamales.

Grilling tips from the pros: III Forks, Southern Cut chefs share their secrets

(Published May 29, 2019)

By Jesse Wright

The weather is warm and the coals are hot.

But what to grill? And how?

Grilling doesn’t need to be complicated, but it takes some planning.

Shane Timmons, the executive chef from Southern Cut Barbecue in Streeterville, said the best cooks are prepared cooks.

“Always be prepared and always have a destination for everything,” Timmons said. “When it comes off the grill, it will go off the grill and go onto this plate with these tongs. I always keep tongs and plates that handle raw and cooked meat separate. … The more organized you are, the quicker and better your grilling will be. It’s the same thing with any restaurant, they call it mise en place, which means everything in its place.”

Timmons said especially if cooks are grilling vegetables, they need to have one cutting board for raw meat, one  for cooked meat and another for vegetables. All of these need to be set out ahead of time to avoid confusion, contamination and possible illness.

Timmons said depending on what is being grilled, cooks should come prepared.

“Obviously when you are grilling steak you want a nice hot grill. No matter what you’re using, it has to be hot enough to give it a quick sear,” he said. “You don’t want the temperature to be too low or it will end up chewy. I like to pull it out of the refrigerator an hour or so before I grill it to get to room temperature.”

Timmons said he likes to season steaks with salt, pepper and some garlic and onion powder, though he said steak seasoning is mostly up to personal preference. While cooks are waiting for the steaks to get to room temperature, he recommends working on the sides, like baked potatoes.

Cruz Almanza, the grill chef at III Forks in New Eastside, said he doesn’t generally season a steak until after it’s off the grill, and a good cut doesn’t need seasoning.

“If you pair a nice cutlet with a side of mash potatoes, you don’t need anything else,” he said. “But if you want to put a crown on the steak, we offer king’s butter so that puts a little extra on it.”

King’s butter is foie gras, truffles with a touch of honey, but outside of III Forks, Cruz said he doesn’t use it.

“At home I just grill a nice cut of meat,” he said.

Marinating, too, requires forethought. Timmons said it’s best to marinate overnight, though at a minimum, cooks should marinate chicken and shrimp for four hours. He recommends wiping off any oil used in the marinate before grilling the meat, otherwise the open flame will ignite the oil and burn the mean unevenly.

Besides meat, vegetables go well on the grill and work great as sides. Corn is a standard go-to, but other vegetables can be grilled with good result, Cruz reports.

“There’s something I love about grilling onions,” he said. “I grew up in central Mexico and if we’re doing a carne asada or barbecue at home we have hot grilled onions.”

Cruz recommends cooking them in a very hot cast iron skillet with beer or even whiskey to flambé them until  they’re caramelized, maybe adding a pinch of brown sugar and salt or Worcestershire sauce.

He also recommends grilling peppers.

“I love the grilled serrano peppers and banana peppers grilled are fantastic,” he said. “It’s not a big thing until you taste it, and sometimes we stuff them with cheese too. Some grilled banana peppers with some chihuahua cheese, that’s a great pairing with your steak.”

Egg Harbor Cafe to open in Streeterville

By Jesse Wright | May 1, 2019

Optima Signature, a residential and retail building at 220 E. Illinois St., announced Egg Harbor Café, a restaurant specializing in breakfast, brunch and lunch, will be the open its first Chicago location this fall.

There are 20 locations in Illinois, Wisconsin and Georgia.

Egg Harbor Café’s Streeterville restaurant will be occupy 4,905-square-feet of space on upper Illinois Street, steps from Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River.

Egg Harbor Café is the latest retailer to lease space at Optima Signature. Existing businesses include GoodVets Streeterville, a full-service vet clinic; Guidepost Montessori at Magnificent Mile and RUNAWAY fitness. In addition, Bedazzled Nails & Spa will open a 1,530-square-foot salon this spring. With these leases, Optima Signature will have only one 490-square-foot retail space remaining.

“Retailers have selected Optima Signature for many of the same reasons our residents have – its prime location off Michigan Avenue and modern design aesthetic in the heart of Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood,” said Tara Hovey, president and COO of Optima, in a press release. “With Egg Harbor Café, we’re continuing to curate businesses that enhance the building’s distinctive mixed-use community and help it serve as a destination to live, work and play. More residents than ever have made Streeterville home in recent years, and a popular breakfast and lunch restaurant perfectly complements the other neighborhood restaurant offerings serving our Optima Signature residents as well as the community as a whole.”

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