"Mac and cheese is the only thing I've cooked over the past two years, and it's out of the box, and it's delicious," Jason Vincent says from his Logan Square home, where his partners Ben Lustbader (Nightwood) and Josh Perlman (Avec) are finalizing details for their forthcoming restaurant and Vincent's highly anticipated return to the kitchen. Giant should open at 3209 W. Armitage Ave. in Logan Square next month, and when it does, the little restaurant — 1,400-sq.-ft. to be exact — has big ambitions.
Those goals have less to do with the food, which will be a simple and seasonal assortment of small, medium, and large plates as well as housemade pastas, but more to do with how the restaurant is operated. It will put people first, on both sides of the equation, from cooks to servers and customers.
When Vincent left Nightwood in 2014, many argued that he was at the top of his game. How could a chef who just snagged a culinary triple crown — Food & Wine Best New Chef, Cochon 555 King of Pork, and James Beard Award semi-finalist — walk away from the kitchen? The answer was simple, but no less easy to swallow. His wife was pregnant with their second child, and Vincent needed to be a dad more than he needed to be a chef. "Would it have been OK to leave my wife with two kids while I'm working 16 hours a day?" he asks. "The hard answer is, ‘no.'"
The decision to put family first was made for Vincent years before the birth of his first child. He was at a market with another well-respected chef to purchase supplies for a Cochon 555 event. The shopping trip quickly turned into a therapy session as the other chef explained to Vincent that for the first two years of his son's life, he had been trapped in the kitchen. "By the time he was able to cut back a little bit, he had a two-year-old who was afraid of his dad," Vincent recalls. "Fuck that. I can't do that." However, the balanced lifestyle proved more difficult to achieve, as Vincent admits that for the first three-and-a-half-years of his first daughter's life, he was still working those 16-hour days. It wasn't until he reached the five-year mark at Nightwood that Vincent felt comfortable putting down his knives.
"There were definitely people who said it was a mistake, and that I would fall off the radar." To those people, Vincent says, "So what? I still know how to cook." He also has become proficient in Super Mario Bros., a hobby he shares with his daughter and one he intends to keep after opening Giant.
As important as the plancha and pasta maker are to Vincent and his partners, so is providing health insurance, accommodating maternity leave and paid sick days. "You request a day off, you get it," he says. "If you have to get out here at 4 o'clock and gave us an appropriate amount of notice because you want to go see Pearl Jam, great, have fun, and show up to work tomorrow." Vincent also hopes to offer all of his employees a weeklong paid stage at any restaurant in the world. But "this all depends on asses in the seats," Vincent admits.
The Giant team has plans to accomplish that as well. His two-year hiatus was not solely spent with King Boo and Princess Peach, but also reconnecting with the other side of the pass. Spending more time as a diner allowed Vincent to question trends, chefs' motives, and the basics of hospitality. For example, he's tired of servers telling customers, "the chef suggests you do this," and paying $20 for bread. He's confused why menus get left on tables during dinner and why dishes are still being "deconstructed." At Giant, menus will hang from hooks under the table and there will be an appropriate amount of food on every plate.
Unlike his pervious projects, the goal of Giant is not to grab Michelin stars or another James Beard Award nomination, although Vincent admits they would be nice. But rather to find some highly coveted, yet rarely achieved, balance between life as a father and career as a chef by simplifying the small restaurant. "It's just dinner, and people overthink it to a point where the concept muddles what they are actually doing," he says. "What's the concept? A restaurant."