Chefs to Watch 2016: Noah Sandoval & Genie Kwon, Oriole, Chicago
Not many chefs dream of owning a tasting menu restaurant (So many courses! So expensive!) and even fewer manage to successfully pull it off. But that’s exactly what partners Noah Sandoval and Genie Kwon have done at Oriole, a charming 28-seat spot tucked away at the end of a desolate street in Chicago. He handles the savory courses and she the sweet ones, and from the moment the restaurant opened last March, they’ve been wowing diners and critics alike. If there’s a bad review out there, we’ve yet to see it.
Sandoval first got our attention at Senza, his Michelin-starred restaurant that featured American cuisine that was both progressive and gluten-free. It was while dining there that Kwon, a vet of Boka and Eleven Madison Park, first became enamored with Sandoval’s culinary style. When the opportunity presented itself to join him and be a part of Oriole, Kwon didn’t hesitate. “I knew what I was looking for was out there, but I hadn’t found it yet,” she says. “It wasn’t going to happen unless it was created by us.”
At Oriole, diners are entranced by those creations, often peeking into the partially glass-enclosed kitchen where Sandoval, Kwon and their small team of cooks calmly prepare the 15 or so courses presented to each table.
On the savory side, the always-evolving menu might include a langoustine spring roll with shio kombu, rhubarb and mint (recipe). “I was looking to add a small hand-held course that packs a punch,” says Sandoval. “I usually try to start with something classically perfect, whether a technique or a traditional presentation, and refine as many elements as possible, resulting in something familiar but totally new at the same time.”
For Kwon, her role as a pastry chef at a tasting menu restaurant can sometimes be challenging. “It’s always going to be, ‘How can I represent us in the best way I can without overwhelming people at the end of their meal?’” she notes. Her desserts, such as a still-warm mini cardamom croissant, manage to be flavorful and delicious without going overboard.
Besides each dish being delicious on its own, there’s a flow from one course to the next, which can only be achieved when the chefs responsible for them are in total sync and collaborating. Their collective histories served as Kwon’s muse for her New Orleans-inspired chicory custard (recipe). “I was born there, and Cara [Noah’s wife] and Noah used to live there, so it is a very special place for us,” she says.
“The freedom here breeds creativity,” says Sandoval. “Being partners with Genie, we help each other take advantage of that.”
That synergy isn’t just limited to back of the house. Another big part of Oriole’s charm is the obvious passion of its waitstaff—under the watchful eye of Cara, another industry vet—whose laid-back yet informative approach to fine-dining service adds a breath of fresh air to what can sometimes be a buttoned-up affair.
“There’s a new guard going on, and a lot of people, myself included, are finally able to do what they’ve wanted to do for a long time,” says Sandoval. “It’s extremely exciting, but it’s also intimidating because we have to keep moving forward. But if you don’t thrive under pressure you wouldn’t be in this business to begin with.”
Q&A with Noah Sandoval & Genie Kwon:
When did you realize that you loved food?
Sandoval: The earliest I can remember really thinking about what I was eating was 1989, when my dad was stationed in Scotland. We lived in a very old hotel with a really cool, tiny restaurant. Part of the rent agreement was that our family was able to eat in the restaurant for free a few nights a week. I remember shepherd’s pie, shrimp scampi and all sorts of fun stuff for a 10-year-old to eat. After school every day I’d be with my mom baking and testing out new recipes from the Betty Crocker cookbooks.
Kwon: When I was seven in summer camp, we made a trifle with strawberries, vanilla pudding, Sara Lee pound cake and whipped cream. It was the best thing I had ever eaten. It still sounds pretty great to me.
What ingredient is central to your cooking?
Sandoval: I’d be lying if I didn’t say salt. Without salt no dish will ever reach its true potential.
Kwon: Salt. Salt adds depth to flavors and rounds them out in both savory and pastry.
What meal changed how you feel about food?
Sandoval: I remember having dinner at Cafe Atlantico in Washington DC around 2005. I’d had a lot of experience dining in my hometown of Richmond, Va. but Jose Andres really opened my eyes. We had an eight-course menu and I went back to eat as much as I could after that.
Kwon: The first time I went to a teppanyaki steakhouse as a kid. It was the first "open kitchen" experience. In retrospect I have fond memories of it. I loved the interaction and communal aspect of cooking and dining.
How do you describe your food?
Sandoval: I'm focusing on clean flavors right now. I think it's the natural progression. I don't mean clean as in light with no fat, clean as in true and focused. Not confusing but still interesting. Each bite should progress on your palate the same way a tasting menu should progress throughout the meal.
Kwon: I like to cook things that are simple and nostalgic and refine them.
What would you do if you weren’t a chef?
Sandoval: That's tough. Lots of interests but not a lot of professional skills. I recently bought a '64 Galaxie and my buddy Alex has been teaching me how to fix and replace a ton of stuff on it. It's very rewarding and requires patience…which I don't have. I think that's something I'd dive head first into if I wasn't a chef.
Kwon: Segway tour guide.
What cookbook is most important to you?
Sandoval: Patrick O'Connell's Refined American Cuisine. The level of intelligence he shows in that book still blows my mind. Wit, humor and skill perfectly balanced. Also, being from Virginia, I can completely relate to the ingredients.
Kwon: On Food and Cooking. Still relevant and always answers those "why?" questions.
What’s on your cooking bucket list?
Sandoval: Three Michelin Stars.
Kwon: Owning a bakery.
How do you find calm in your kitchen?
Sandoval: The kitchen at Oriole is inherently calm. Everyone gets along great and everyone is ultra-talented. We're all in it for the same reasons. I don't have to worry about anything as long as the team is intact.
Kwon: Music always helps. Although anyone that knows me knows I sing one line from one song repeatedly.
If you could stage at any restaurant in the world, where would you go and why?
Sandoval: DOM in São Paulo. Alex Atala seems to be doing his own amazing thing. He probably plays really good music in the kitchen.
Kwon: Arzak. Elena Arzak is a great role model. I would love an opportunity to just talk to her about her experiences in the industry.