A lot of people have commented that Forbidden Root is more than just a brewpub. And a big part of that is because of Chef Dan—his menu, his dedication, and his desire for our guests to have an excellent experience. We sat down with Chef to ask him a few questions about what inspires him, what his days are like, and what he eats when he's not at work.
When did you decide to pursue being a chef?
I always loved cooking when I was a kid. I was surrounded by a lot of diverse cuisines: my grandfather was Mexican and my great-grandmother was Czech. She used to make everything from scratch. During Christmas she’d make dumplings, sauerkraut, liver dumpling soup—always great food. I think that developed my fascination with food. I always loved going to the grocery store. In sixth grade, when we had to do demonstrative speeches, I made a giant cookie. In high school, I made my famous baked potato, and the kids were like, “oh, that's why you’re fat.” When I was 15 years old, I worked behind the concession stand at a movie theater, and I realized later that I got a buzz from the energy, timing, teamwork, communications, and even scrubbing down at the end of the night. I loved that process; it all felt really productive.
Later, at College of Dupage, I filled out a long job survey. It said I should be a pastry chef, and I kinda blew it off. But then I was working at Baker’s Square and two ladies suggested I talk to a teacher at the culinary school. I did, and I fell in love with it. I realized I could be creative, and, well, everyone has to eat!
What’s your favorite part of being a chef?
The balance between creativity and business. People think as a chef you can just make whatever you want. But you can’t just make anything. You have to work within all these constraints. It’s like solving a puzzle. You have to consider ingredients, seasonality, cost, other menu offerings. You have to consider your stations and staff and understand what it will require from your team. I think about how we’re not just a brewpub, but a brewery and a restaurant. I love that challenge of pushing the envelope where it’s challenging for me and my staff but still approachable for our guests.
What’s your least favorite part of being a chef?
Time away from normalcy. It’s a hard job to balance. You have to love it otherwise you’re just a zombie. You have to love it, and you have to earn it. My mentor and first chef told me, “Dan-san, you can’t call yourself a chef until you’ve done at least 10 years.” And it’s true. Sometimes I’m surprised I’m still standing, and I’m not even as bad as some. It’s not a job. It’s a lifestyle. You can’t just all of the sudden decide to take Saturday off. And you quickly realize a lot of people get married on the weekend. Well, expect your partner to go with someone else. I know a lot of chefs who have been divorced, including myself. It’s difficult to find the balance. And ironically, to please guests you end up pissing off a lot of friends and family. That’s one reason why I think chefs are a little crazy. Because this is what they have. When we’re upset with a cook or server, it's because we’ve sacrificed so much. If there’s a bad service I feel like garbage because all that time—where’d it go?
But you surround yourself with a good team. You’ve hopefully had good mentors and been in good kitchens, and then you can create a culture for yourself and your team. And seeing people love your food—that makes you forget about everything else.
In craft beer there’s an expression that brewing is 90% cleaning. What would you say is 90% of your job?
Well, a lot of cleaning! But yes, cooking is a surprisingly small percent of what I actually do. It’s a lot of organization, delegation, expediting, planning. . . It’s not Ratatouille where you’re constantly bouncing around tasting.
Before Forbidden Root, you worked at restaurants like Avec and Trencherman. Is it different working in a kitchen that has a brewery 15 feet away?
Absolutely. I feel like I have a school at my disposal. It fuels the creativity and ideas. I pass by all these ingredients the brewery is using and Robert brings back things from his travels. BJ brings in tastes of beers. Several weeks ago I tried the Cranberry Single and immediately thought of turkey and stuffing and how I might make Forbidden Root’s version of a turkey sandwich—something that was unique but still approachable. Now we have a Turkey Rillette small plate that was inspired by and pairs with the Cranberry Single. There are so many places on the menu where we use our beer or brewery ingredients in the dishes—the jerky, pub cheese, mussels, burrata. I love it.
When you’re not at work, what do you eat or cook? Be honest.
On my days off I try to catch up on restaurants. All the cooks I started with seven years ago are now chefs, and it's awesome to visit them. This summer I was in New York visiting friends, and we realized that in the first 12 hours we had 48 plates of food. Don’t get me wrong—I wanted to die. It’s not a healthy thing. But we seized all the opportunities. It can be pretty wild to be on the other side and be a guest in other restaurants. But most of the time? It’s Subway.