South Side Bridgeport, Illinois, native Kevin Hickey has garnered quite the reputation over his more than two decades in the culinary world, which includes leading kitchens at Four Seasons hotels and resorts in California, Dublin, and London before coming back to his native Chicago in 2004, where he led his team to a Michelin Star and AAA Five Diamond status.
That’s why it was quite the coup when Rockit Ranch Productions brought him into the fold in 2013 as a chef/partner of Bottlefork and The Duck Inn, and director of food & beverage for the overall Rockit Ranch Productions.
An integral part of the organization, Chef Hickey is helping groom the next generation of chefs, as well as inspiring others on the Rockit Ranch team to elevate their menus.
Case in point, last year Hickey collaborated with Rockit Bar & Grill’s executive chef/partner Amanda Downing to change up the menu at the 11-year-old popular River North destination.
“We were going through the process of closing down the River North location for a full month, giving it a new look and wanted to rework a lot of the menu and freshen it up,” Downing says. “Kevin and I worked together to evolve the menu with the times. We brainstormed and created some new things, took out some old items, and have continued bouncing ideas off one another. It’s a good partnership in that way.”
Of course, Chef Downing has earned the restaurant numerous accolades and national praise under her skillful leadership since first opening its doors in 2003, and Chef Hickey notes his involvement was as an equal partner in the process.
“She is very dedicated to her restaurant and has been an integral part of its success all along,” he says. “We clicked right away from both a creative and professional perspective. Not much had changed in 11 years so we came up with new menu ideas, tweaked some of the old menu items and just bonded over a total food creation process.”
The changes came for everything from the restaurant’s signature Rockit Burger (now consisting of wagyu beef, brie, fried shallots, medjool date aioli, and red onion brioche), to a fresh take on a nacho dish (now green chili chicken nachos with tomatillo salsa, guacamole, pickled jalapeños, and queso fundido), to adding a Lamb Burger with Feta cheese, harissa yogurt, and pickled cucumbers and onions.
“We took the regular bar & grill offerings and added a twist,” Downing says. “We also added some lighter items, such as Korean Barbecue Chicken Lettuce Wraps, Brussels sprouts, and worked in a vegan dish.”
And it wasn’t just the food that was given an upgrade. The setting received a complete facelift, as did the plates and silverware on the tables.
“We worked within the DNA of the bar & grill that really was influential when it opened in Chicago 12 years ago to embrace the casual bar style dining in an elevated way,” Hickey says. “People weren’t taking a burger seriously back then, but they joined a movement that steamrolled across the country and gave bar food a chef treatment. We stuck with that idea to offer great bar food, staying creative and inventive with it, and taking it into the 21st century.”
The new concept opened last year, but the collaboration between Downing and Hickey hasn’t stopped.
“We continue to look at trends, particularly guest preferences and react to what they are saying,” Hickey says. “If you don’t listen to customers, you are dead in the water. It’s an evolving process.”
In fact, Rockit Bar & Grill did a second mini-modification just a few months ago.
“We saw that people were requesting some of the old dishes and brought them back, and added more options,” Downing says. “It’s all about doing what’s best for the venue and our customers. That’s the goal for both of us.”
By Keith Loria