Coming Full Circle

Chefs John and Karen Shields are known for their creative dishes, like the trout roe with seaweed and tomato water shown here.
Chefs John and Karen Shields are known for their creative dishes, like the trout roe with seaweed and tomato water shown here. Jose Moran Moya

After a successful venture in rural Virginia, Chefs John and Karen Shields return to Chicago and open Smyth + The Loyalist.

Someone’s going to need to eat his own shoe. 

That’s the premise of the film Charlie Trotter once showed to his kitchen staff as a way to prove anything is possible. In “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” director Werner Herzog lives up to his promise that he would eat his shoe if Errol Morris ever completed the film “Gates of Heaven.”

Trotter alums and husband-wife chef duo John and Karen Shields tell this story as one of the more challenging moments at the legendary restaurant. “I thought, ‘Why are we watching this film, we’re in the weeds—am I in The Twilight Zone?’ It wasn’t about what was on your cutting board; it was about what was going on around you and about awareness,” she says.

John Shields chimes in. “That was sort of Trotter’s way, these Mr. Miyagi lessons that you didn’t realize you were being taught until after you left,” he recalls. “To achieve something great you have to take the plunge and believe in yourself—like the seemingly impossible thing of eating your shoe.” 

It was at Trotter’s that the Shields met in the early 2000s, when Karen was the head pastry chef and John was the sous chef. Individually, each has been recognized nationally for culinary innovation and experience. Karen trained under pastry queen Gale Gand at Tru from 2001 to 2003, and John supported Grant Achatz as sous chef at Alinea for two years from its opening in 2005. 

Since then, the Shieldses embarked on a seemingly inconceivable direction: turning down an opportunity to collaborate with Trotter in Vegas and leaving their big-city posts at two of the nation’s most significant five-star restaurants to set off for Smyth County in Virginia, where they took over the 35-seat restaurant Town House. There, as executive chef and pastry chef, John and Karen introduced seasonally driven, artful food to the area residents, many of whom had never seen anything even remotely fine-dining-esque in their lives. 

From 2008 until 2013 the couple inspired the tiny town of Chilhowie, made it into an East Coast dining destination, married, started a family, and even ran a year-long pop-up restaurant, Riverstead Inn, in a renovated farmhouse. Then they began exploring a move back to urban living. 

After unsuccessfully looking for space in D.C. and in Karen’s native Philadelphia, the lure of culinary glamour and support from friends and fellow chefs in Chicago drew them back to the Windy City. Now, with daughters in tow—Cicely, 4, and Lily, 18 months (in January)—they bring their informal-meets-formal cooking and hospitality to their latest concept, Smyth + The Loyalist, in the fast-growing West Loop neighborhood that’s home to the city’s acclaimed restaurant row. Again, they’ve taken a seemingly improbable approach, this time opening another restaurant amid heavy culinary competition. 

“We moved to Virginia in 2007, and the city has changed exponentially since then,” Karen Shields says. “Moving back to Chicago has always been at the back of our mind. It’s inspiring to open a restaurant in a place where people appreciate food and going out.”

Smyth + The Loyalist combines a casual pub and lounge downstairs, The Loyalist, with a 65-seat, tasting-menu concept, and Smyth, upstairs, to showcase the Shieldses’ culinary capabilities. Each space has its own look and its own kitchen. 


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