Chicago native Michael McDonald returned to his old stamping grounds about a year ago to take the helm at One Sixtyblue. In the last year, he has reinvented it from a formal special occasion destination with a heavy French influence into an upscale regular hangout showcasing American seasonal cuisine. “I regard this changing of the culinary guard as a win-win,” Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel decreed. The affable 45-year-old has worked with some legends, including Jean Joho, Nobu Matsuhisa and Charlie Trotter. We checked in with him recently.
RH: You've cooked with some of the best in the business. What lessons have you learned?
McDonald: From Jean Joho I learned how to run a restaurant. We ran a four-star restaurant (Everest) and had to keep an eye on food and labor costs. I did everything from organizing the employee meal to buying toilet paper and light bulbs. I worked there for six years; when I arrived I was a nobody, and he didn't trust me, but when I left I was running the place. He taught me that good food is one thing, but you also have to have your costs in line.
Gray Kunz taught me organization. Being Swiss, he was so everything-in-a-row. I also had my first experience with Asian ingredients and spices.
From Nobu, I learned about working with great product. The recipes were not overly complicated; the food was the main star.
Charlie Trotter really hammered home the importance of taste and making everything at the last possible second, whether it's chopping herbs or sauces, and really what excellence is all about. And he always liked to keep people on their toes. There are not a lot of situations that will freak me out anymore.
RH: Where do you find inspiration for your menus?
McDonald: I'm always thinking about food. I could be at home watching SportsCenter and boom! Something occurs to me. I love to go to Whole Foods on my day off and not have any idea what I want to eat — just see what strikes me.
RH: Is it tough making your mark as “the new guy” in such a high-profile restaurant as One Sixtyblue?
McDonald: I didn't really have an identity coming here because I've always chosen to work with a famous chef. I got a bit of an identity (at Trotter's “C“ at the One and Only Palmilla Resort in Los Cabos) in Mexico; they liked what I was doing and pretty much gave me control. When I arrived here, the economic change was happening at almost the same time, so I decided to change concept, from very special occasion place to one that's more comfortable and approachable, maybe once a month. My cuisine is more market to table, so that made it easy. It's working out really well. We still maintain high standards in the dining room, but you could come here in jeans and have appetizers or split an entrée — or get dressed up and blow it out. We also decided to use the bar, which was kind of underutilized. We have Burgers, Beers and Beats (music) on Thursdays, and that's been a huge success. We've also done something similar on Friday with pizza. It's a very affordable price, and it gets people in the door so they can see what's going on in the restaurant.
RH: How does “dinner with Michael” work — and how closely are you involved?
McDonald: It's a tasting menu. When someone orders it, I'll go to the table and we talk about what they would like; the meal takes them through the whole menu.
RH: Isn't that a lot of back and forth from the kitchen for you?
McDonald: We don't offer it when we get a lot of reservations because it gets too crazy.
RH: What do you like most about your job? Least?
McDonald: I like being on the line and working. I've worked in places that are so big that you're caught up in all the meetings and projects and cooking demos. I feel like this is a very manageable-size dining room (100 seats). I'm not one of those chefs who just does expediting. I can expedite, plate and sauce at the same time. I go where I'm needed.
I dislike office work. I know it's necessary, and I do like to be organized, but I don't like to spend a great deal of time in the office.
RH: How do you like to blow off steam?
McDonald: Going to the gym. I just signed up for a boot camp on Saturdays. They're having me do things I wouldn't do normally. I also love to ride my bike up and down the Lake Michigan shore.
RH: What kind of meal do you enjoy when you eat in another restaurant?
McDonald: I like small plates and variety. I can't stand getting a big plate as an entrée that's overportioned. I pick all day, so it's hard to go to a restaurant and eat a normal entrée. My food vice is coal-fired pizza — there's a great place near my house.
RH: Who in the restaurant business and food world do you most admire?
McDonald: The cooks, with their passion, their commitment to this industry, their love of cooking. We wouldn't be anything without our team of cooks. They've got to work in hot kitchens and they don't get paid much, but they have incredible passion and potential.