Chefs to Watch 2016: Ryan McCaskey, Acadia, Chicago

Liz Grossman

The culinary success of Ryan McCaskey comes down, in part, to some well-coordinated smuggling. The Saigon-born, Chicago-raised chef/owner of the two-Michelin-starred Acadia regularly raises both eyebrows and nostrils when he tries to sneak Grateful Dead-sticker-emblazoned wheeled coolers filled with 80 pounds of lobster or foie gras past the TSA. “I get flagged like you wouldn’t believe, but I’m used to it by now,” he says, recalling a recent successful transport of a 25-pound porchetta for an event. “It looked like a giant pork bomb!” Luckily, the chef, who’s spent summers with his family on Deer Isle in Maine since he was nine years old, keeps a stash of clothing at his second home in Stonington, Maine, just in case his luggage doesn’t make it out east.

McCaskey is equally passionate about the product coming into his five-year-old Chicago restaurant, which earned its first Michelin star only nine months after opening. The lobster in his famous bar-menu lobster roll comes from Stonington (a childhood friend sends the soft, buttery buns), while goat cheese and vegetables like carrots, beets, kale and even lettuce come from Yellow Birch Farm, also on Deer Isle. “It’s the most insane thing; nobody ships lettuce!” he laughs. “But I make him do it, because it’s the best lettuce I’ve ever had. There’s something weird about the soil out there. That rocky granite, sandy soil—it’s honestly the best.”

And it’s not just the lettuce that has McCaskey’s attention. He recently fell in love with kohlrabi at Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine (“I’ve been a freak about it ever since,” he says), and he recalls tasting New England clam chowder up and down the coast as a kid. “I noticed that as you go further north from Boston to Maine, chowders get thinner and the style changes to the point that by the time you get to Maine, the chowder is milk, butter, parsley and fish or shellfish and that’s it. Sometimes potatoes, sometimes not, but it’s incredibly buttery. I was maybe eight or nine, but it stuck in my head.”

At Acadia, those flavor memories appear in his own most recent iteration of chowder, a simple but stunning dish of halibut, leeks, kohlrabi, clams and clarified lobster butter (sometimes done with cod instead of halibut, with the addition of housemade oyster crackers and bacon gel). A vibrant ring of green lichen closes the land-to-sea loop (recipe). “Maine is dramatic ocean and landscape and jagged rocks, but it really butts right up to the forest, which is full of miles and miles of lichen,” McCaskey says.

That drama found in the nature he grew up with permeates presentations on his seasonal five- and 10-course tasting menus, including now-signature dishes like roast Chinese duck with caviar, smoked Berkshire pork belly with pork and crab brain sauce (“It’s totally weird, but perfect,” McCaskey says) and a deliciously soul-warming Jackson Pollock-esque mélange of potato peelings, beef brisket, truffle oil and eggs. But the years he spent working under chefs like Tony Mantuano also helped him hone a distinct style that manages to remain refined and sophisticated, yet playful and satisfying. “I don’t want to have the most garnishes or the most stuff or weirdo flavors,” he says. “I just want to cook really good food and present it in a nice way. There’s something to be said about making food that looks great and is served on interesting pieces, but there needs to be that emotional connection with diners.”

Q&A with Ryan McCaskey:

What cookbook is most important to you?
The French Laundry. It was more of a timing thing for me. It came out in the mid ’90s when I really was starting to get serious about this industry. It was like a bible for many chefs then.

Who inspires you?
Personally, my father. [He was] a CEO for many years, and I’d hear stories about him as a leader and boss, and anecdotes about his patience, kindness, fairness and equality. His work over all of those years is proof. Professionally, I’d say Henry Adaniya. He was like a mentor to me, teaching me about work ethic, passion, persistence, leadership, culture and patience.

If you had to describe your restaurant in one word, what would it be?

What's on your cooking bucket list?
I'd someday love to be able to cook alongside some greats: Keller, Ripert, Humm, to name a few.

How do you find calm in your kitchen?
I will take a moment by myself in the office. I call it my moment of Zen.

What meal changed how you feel about food?
I think it had to be my first real fine dining experience ever. It was at Café Provencal in Evanston, Ill. I recall having an amuse bouche for the first time. It was white wine-poached mussel in a curry broth. I also recall being really impressed with the sugar cubes wrapped in paper with the restaurant name on them.

What ingredient is central to your cooking?
Being inspired by my second home in Maine, I guess I'd have to say lobster. We bring it in direct from Stonington two to three times a week. You can't beat the quality or freshness.

How do you describe your food?
I think my style over the years has become both classic and contemporary. Maybe it's because I've been cooking for so long. But what used to be contemporary is now regarded as classic cuisine.

What would you do if you weren't a chef?
I thought about becoming a professor, and teaching either history, American literature or creative writing.

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