John Manion Lights Up Chicago with South American Fires

Chandra Ram

John Manion is from the Detroit area and runs two restaurants in Chicago, but his heart is firmly centered in the fires of Argentina and Brazil, where he spent part of his childhood. The South American tradition of hearth cooking struck a chord with Manion, who followed his dream to do a live-fire restaurant when he opened El Che Bar last year. He talked to us about the importance of fire and travel to him as a chef.

You spent five years in Brazil as a child. How did that experience inform your interest in food and live-fire cooking?

My dad worked for Ford Motor Company. He came home one night, sat at the dinner table with us and asked us how we felt about moving to Brazil. The next thing I knew, we were packing up our toys and on a jet. We landed in Rio, then flew into São Paulo, which was a mindfuck; there’s no other way to put it. I was eight years old and from the suburbs of Detroit, and it was bigger than I could have possibly imagined. São Paulo is like New York on steroids. Every culture in the world is there; every influence is there. 

All the things I found comforting in my life, like eating plain hot dogs, did not exist there. We stayed in a hotel for two months while we waited for our house to be ready. I remember the first day, looking at the menu, which was in Portuguese. I decided to have a steak sandwich, which I had never had before, but after biting into what now I guess was filet mignon on a real bread roll (which I’d never had before), with mayonnaise, chimichurri and a tomato, I thought, “This is going to be OK.” 

It was a relatively unsafe environment. The hotel was in the middle of the city, next to favelas. I’d never seen poverty like that before. Brazil was under a military dictatorship at the time, and it wasn’t a great time to be there, so we were somewhat sequestered in the hotel. So what we did do was eat—in the hotel restaurants, in the formal dining room. That was my introduction to having my mind blown by food. 

Once we settled in our house, we traveled a lot. I remember smelling the dende oil, West African cooking, ginger, rice, coconut oil, spices in the northern part of Brazil. We ate at backyard churrascas, in churrascarias. We went to the south, which is very much about the Pampa—cooking things on sticks over fire.

Did you realize at the time how important your time in Brazil was for you?

Not at all. I think traveling is the most informative thing you can do. If you’re a cook, if you want to be serious about what you do, you’ve got to leave your hometown and experience the world. To me, that’s the most important thing, to see other cultures and how people eat and how they come to the table. 

After we came back to the U.S., we downshifted from Brazil to Farmington Hills, Mich., where the closest restaurant was a Taco Bell. We ended up venturing into Detroit a lot, and it became a rule that we ate together. Food became the focal point of our lives. My mother was always into it; she was of the Julia Child generation, roasting veal bones to make stock, all of those things. She was a really good cook, and I think the South American experience just pushed it forward. 

Did you know while growing up that you wanted to become a chef?

No. I worked in restaurants all through high school and college, but the cooks were hooligans, hard-partying guys. Being a cook was something you did by default because you didn’t fit into anything else. It’s well documented (but quaint) now that a lot of cooks think they are badasses, but back then, a lot of these guys were criminals who ended up in kitchens. I didn’t see myself that way, but I was drawn to it. 

But I didn’t know what my future was. I knew I loved food and it was something that I wanted to explore, but that came from literature and traveling. My parents were very proactive about travel, and food was a big part of that. My grandfather was a journalist for The Buffalo News. When we lived in Brazil, he would send us Hemingway and Studs Terkel and things I was too young to be reading but read anyway. They talk a lot about that romanticism of the working man and food. Not about a high-end, gourmet rich person’s life, but the simple pleasures. 

And I had an influential English teacher who turned me on to Jim Harrison, who was a great American writer. At the time, he was the food editor of Esquire, which was not something I had any interest in as a sophomore in high school. But he was writing about food in a way that was interesting to me, so I got a subscription to Esquire so I could read the food articles. Like you get Playboy for the articles, except I got Esquire for his food writing. I learned that Zingerman’s existed a half hour away from me because of Jim Harrison, and started cooking out of his columns. 

How did you get into cooking?

I had a double major in college of political science with an emphasis in Chinese politics and English literature. I went to D.C. and got a job in PR, and I worked at this bar/restaurant where you cooked while bartending; the line was behind the line. After a year, my dad sat me down and told me that I needed to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to either go into the restaurant business or become an English teacher. Everyone advised me against restaurants, so I called my advisor from Marquette to ask about teaching, and he said, “Absolutely not; this life is not for you.” So I decided to go into cooking, moved to Chicago, enrolled in school, and started cooking. 

How did El Che Bar come to be?

I spent a lot of time in Argentina from 2000 to 2008, and the country got under my skin.

In 2003, I found this plaque in San Telmo in Buenos Aires that said, “El Che Bar.” There was no history of it, so I made up my own history. I didn’t make up the name of my restaurant; it found me.

I was working on [opening the restaurant], and then the unpleasantness of 2008 hit, and I lost all my backing. It allowed the idea to evolve for a long time. Then I met my business partner Daniel Boyd, who was in real estate. We found some money and a place where we could do a pop-up over two nights. It was August, and hot, and the air conditioning didn’t work, so there was a huge fan. It felt like a South American bar. We hooked up some lights, had my friend Frank come in to DJ bossa nova music, I did Brazilian food, and it felt right; it felt beachy. We took it over, but it wasn’t right for El Che Bar, so we opened our other restaurant, La Sirena Clandestina.

Once we got that cruising, I started doing a lot of outdoor events. I had the idea for El Che, but not the live-fire cooking experience, so I spent a lot of time building fires and cooking over them, having metal guys build me cockamamie contraptions. 

I spent a lot of time talking to people in the U.S. and Argentina about grilling, and learned a lot. We built a 12-foot hearth and put in grills in the center. They were great, but I kept having people build new things—chapas and rudimentary grills. I met a guy named Bobby Middleton who was doing some finishing work for us, and told him what I wanted to do, and he was really excited about it. So I’ve spent the last year changing everything but the central grills, and he’s built the chapas, the ovens, everything for us. It works really well, but it’s a work in progress. 

It’s kind of odd that I’ve been working on this for years, and wood-fired cooking is so big now. In Argentina, it’s what you do. A lot of places out in the country don’t have gas lines, so cooking with wood makes a lot more sense. Here, we made a choice to cook this way.

It’s an organic process to figure out the menu, what we can do. We have no gas hookup. I don’t want a circulator or an oven. I want [live fire] to be what we’re doing. I’ve observed that if you give yourself a wood-burning element, eventually you’ll gravitate away from using it. Your menu will evolve away from it, and you’ll do things that are easier. You might pick up a steak off the grill, or smoke things during the day, but it ends up being ornamental, and I didn’t want that. So we took away everything else. There’s no safety net; we cook everything on the grill. 

What does the fire do for dishes like the salmon steak ($29, recipe)?

We’re burning oak, which is sort of a neutral smoke, but we’re cooking over charcoal, so there’s the flavor from the coals, but smoke coming from the fire. We’re imparting a subtle flavor; it’s like nothing else. South America has a very distinct tradition of meat over charcoal. That smell of an open fire, of fat dripping into that fire; that’s something that really leaves a mark when you experience it. To this day, it’s a universal experience, whether you know it from a churrasca or from a hamburger on the Fourth of July. Everyone knows it. 

How has your cooking evolved 
with fire?

As we move forward, the techniques get more advanced. We’ve just started to play with picanha, the sirloin cap. I truss it with steel wire, hang it over the fire, and finish it on the grill, so the fat cap ends up tasting like meaty bacon. We’re evolving, but based only on what we can do on this hearth. It takes a certain kind of cook to want to work here, but the people who have stuck around have a valuable skill set that nobody else has. 

It’s kind of odd that I’ve been working on this for years, and wood-fired cooking is so big now. In Argentina, it’s what you do. A lot of places in the country don’t have gas lines, so cooking with wood makes more sense. Here, we made a choice to cook this way. It’s very fulfilling. It’s primal, but I think it’s kind of an elegant way to cook.

Watch Manion give us a tour of the hearth at El Che Bar below.

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