“I’m not really qualified to be in this article,” Brian Fisher says before taking another sip of Ovum Riesling. It’s one of several natural wines that is on the list at the newly opened Entente. The restaurant is the first to have the 34-year-old chef’s name leading the bill. He’s terrified. My presence, under the veiled guise that I’m rounding up Chicago’s up-and-coming chefs, doesn’t help calm his nerves. The wine, though, does. “I just don’t feel like I’m there yet.”
Chicken liver mousse topped with concord grape jam and house-made bread that tastes like a grown-up peanut butter and jelly sandwich betrays his "not really qualified" statement. Then again, Fisher has always let his food do the talking -- from now-closed Maverick in San Francisco with Matt Brimer (currently executive chef at Haven) and Joshua Pinsky (currently executive chef at Momofuku Nishi) to his most recent stint as consulting chef at Wicker Park’s Saved by the Bell pop-up. The trick now is finding his voice, after playing second fiddle to some of the country’s best chefs for the past decade. The most overshadowing of which is his former boss, mentor, and, in a lot of ways, a reflection of himself: Michael Carlson.
“He comes off a little burly, but he’s a teddy bear,” Carlson says of Fisher. “He started out rather shy, and that doesn’t hold true to too many people who come through here. As he blossomed as a chef, he also became more forthcoming with his personality. He’s just a super-great guy in every facet.”
Fisher spent four years in Carlson’s closet-sized kitchen at Schwa -- an almost unheard of amount of time, unless you have “executive chef” in your title -- working his way up from line cook to chef de cuisine of the Michelin-starred restaurant. It was the creativity, camaraderie, and Carlson that kept him there for so long. Fisher’s fellow cooks became his adoptive family (his mother died when he was young and, since then, he’s bounced from city to city, until he found the sense of family he was looking for in the culinary industry).
“I wouldn’t be here having this conversation with you if it wasn’t for Carlson. I owe everything to him,” Fisher says. Carlson taught him more than the skills he needed to run his own kitchen, but also the importance of hospitality. “One of the first things he ever said to me is, ‘There’s no reason that someone who does the same job we do can’t come and eat here, even if they can’t afford it,’” Fisher says in reference to Carlson’s habit of letting cooks from other restaurants eat at Schwa for free. “People don’t give shit away at restaurants -- it’s the antithesis of what we should do -- and that’s when it hit me: It’s not about money, success, and fame. It’s about doing something really well and sharing that with people who give a fuck.”
Fisher probably would have stayed at Schwa another four years if Carlson hadn’t showed him the door. Not in a "pack your tweezers and go" way. More a mama bird pushing baby bird out of the nest move. “You can only hope the best for the little birds when they leave the nest,” Carlson says. Instead of flying, Fisher barricaded himself in his apartment for a month. He was afraid, he recalls, so accustomed to his day-to-day routine at Schwa that he didn’t know who he was as a chef or a person without it. It took fellow chef and friend Won Kim of Kimski to draw him out of his reclusion and back into the kitchen.
Together they cooked a pop-up dinner at at Haywood Tavern this past January. It was an opportunity for Fisher to put the ideas he had been playing around with in his head for the past few months onto plates. It was a shit show, according to Fisher -- cooking for a full dining room in an unfamiliar kitchen with ingredients that he had to ask his chef friends to order on his behalf.
“I was angry and ready to not do it by the third day of prep,” he recalls. But Fisher pulled through and offered Chicago its first taste of his food -- everything bagel with spice-cured salmon and cream cheese spuma, pork cheek pozole with hominy and avocado, and cereal milk served as a gelatinous bar. It was a huge success, according to Kim, “You can see passion and genuine curiosity with everything he does. He knows his shit and is pretty humble when asked about what he does. It's this humility that makes it easy to work with or for him.”
Despite all but swearing off pop-ups after the one-night dinner, Fisher ended up back in the temporary restaurant game five months later, when a friend at Goose Island threw his name into the ring to create the menu for an exact replica of The Max diner in Saved by the Bell. “I grew up watching the show and I thought it would be fun,” he says.
So, he agreed to run the kitchen of the throwback diner -- red vinyl booths, linoleum tables, neon pink lights, the works. The conception of dishes such as Snow White and the Seven Dorks (Lebanese seven-spiced chicken wings), Preppy BLT (pork belly, Kewpie mayonnaise, gem lettuce, and tomato), and The Kelly Kapowski (prosciutto, Gruyere cheese, mayo, and mustard sandwich with spiced maple syrup) happened under less wholesome circumstances. “I got really high and I thought, ‘If I were to go to a diner right now, what would I eat?’ That’s exactly what’s on the menu,” Fisher says. “I’m pretty sure people look at me like an asshole for doing that.”
His next move had to be a big one, into a real restaurant, where he can serve his food to a crowd of eager diners, who are there to eat it and not just gawk at vintage photos of A.C. Slater. That’s where owner Ty Fujimura comes in. A collaboration dinner at Fujimura’s restaurant Arami, followed by a series of post-shift sake deliveries to Schwa, led to a friendship between the restaurateur and chef. When it came time for Fisher to open his own place, he approached Fujimura with a concept that walked the line between fine-dining restaurant and neighborhood hangout, with fun food and a vibrant bar yet impeccable service. “The stars totally aligned,” Fujimura says. “He was looking for a spot, I had a spot and wanted to do something different.”
There’s a curveball in this equation, and that’s the restaurant’s location: 3056 N. Lincoln Ave. It is formerly the home of Fujimura’s restaurant Ani, a sister spot to Arami in West Town that lasted two years. There’s a Starbuck’s on the corner and Jimmy John’s across the street. It’s not exactly a fine-dining destination. Hell, it’s not even a regular dining destination. It’s a dead zone between bustling Belmont and the more vibrant block of Lincoln that is home to Delilah’s and Barrelhouse Flat. It means the team must slowly build trust with a clientele that might not know what “natural wine” is (essentially wine made with little interference, artificial ingredients, or chemicals) or want to eat sweetbreads. Fisher toes the line by using familiar ingredients with elevated preparations and presentations, while Fujimura makes sure the staff is educated about every element of every dish as well as every wine on the list.
The words “approachable” and “simple” are apt in describing Fisher’s food at Entente. There’s a burger, but there’s also duck with smoked blackberries and miso yogurt. The wedge salad is a sliced head of lettuce with the center cut out. It looks like a donut. The lettuce round is garnished with a mosaic of bacon, gorgonzola, and croutons with green goddess dressing filling the hole in the middle. A simple bowl of Carolina Gold rice is upgraded with drops of duck egg yolk and truffle shavings, while chicken breasts are brined in chai tea and served alongside curry and coffee. The restraint adds another layer to Fisher’s intrigue. It’s fancy food for not-so-fancy eaters.
Will this delicate balance of high-end food in a casual restaurant with pedestrian ingredients transformed by gourmet techniques translate to the diner, or just leave them in a confused culinary haze? Will they care about food that looks like it should be served on white tablecloths alongside a bottle of wine that costs as much as your rent, but instead is offered a la carte for about $18 dollars per plate? Will they even know who Brian Fisher is? Therein lies the source of the uncertainty that keeps creeping its way into our conversation in between tracks of Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book” album. We’re on our second glass of wine and Fisher is still trying to figure out who else is on my imaginary “best new chefs” list. I turn his curiosity on him, asking him how he compares himself to other Chicago chefs.
“I don’t,” Fisher says (although his harping on the other chefs on my radar suggests otherwise). “If I were to do that, I would never do anything. I would be too wrapped up in my own head, too nervous. If I were to sit and compare myself to other people, I’d probably kill myself.” Enter pastry chef Mari Katsumura, quite literally, with a plate of lime green gel that looks like slime but tastes like sesame, soy, and nasturtium. Like Fisher, much of her career has been defined by the household-name chefs she worked for. These names include Curtis Duffy at Grace, Ryan McCaskey at Acadia, and Dana Cree at Blackbird. Their menus, both savory and sweet, were not entirely their own, dictated by the chefs who they reported to, until Entente. Together, her and Fisher are stumbling across the finish line that is having opened their first restaurant.
“I have definitely never worked with anybody exactly like Fisher,” Katsumura says. “He’s a free spirit, very driven, super-creative -- kind of like a savant, silent-genius type of guy -- things just organically come about and you don’t really know where they come from, but they are so brilliant and perfect.”
As Carlson taught him, being a great chef has less to do with what’s on the menu and more to do with how people feel while eating it. Fisher’s favorite moments at Schwa were the minutes after the meal, when satisfied diners made their way back into the kitchen to share a shot or beer with the staff. Evenings, filled with gluttony and excess, turned into parties, Fisher recalls. It’s an atmosphere Fisher strives to replicate in the Entente kitchen. “That’s always been my favorite thing about kitchens -- that hour you spend bullshitting at the end of the night, just bullshitting and talking about food,” he says. “That’s where some of the best ideas come from.”
An hour has passed since we sat down at what will be the chef’s table, made from a single slice of a fallen tree, the jagged edges of the bark still intact. I’m no more convinced that I can make the case for Fisher being Chicago’s next great chef than he can for himself. Carlson calls this trait in Fisher “sincerity.” I call it a damn difficult interview, so I turn off my recorder as a farmer comes in with a box of hatch chilies. Fisher picks up a green one and immediately starts spitballing ideas: hot sauce or green curry or green curry hot sauce. He orders the last of this season’s supply before turning his attention back to me. “I don’t want to be in an article about me,” he says as I try to squeeze one last drop of wine from my empty glass. “That would be strange, very strange.” Sorry, bud, it’s all about you, and people are definitely going to give a fuck.