At the height of his game, Chef Jason Vincent stepped away from the restaurant business. Two years later, his Chicago return is one of the summer's most exciting restaurant openings.
Jason Vincent’s checklist was turning up a whole lot of X’s. Move to Boston?
“I hate the Red Sox.”
The Big Apple?
“ I don’t want to live in New York.”
Washington, D.C., Wisconsin, big market, small market. Vincent’s pros and cons chart was starting to resemble an English major’s marked-up calculus test. “It was an alarming amount of no, no, no, no, no,” he says.
It had been more than two years since Vincent pulled off the culinary equivalent of Barry Sanders hanging it up before the 1998 NFL season.
At the top of his game in 2014, Vincent, a Food & Wine Best New Chef and a James Beard Best Chef: Great Lakes semifinalist, decided to step away and spend time with his family.
As that sabbatical drew to a close, Vincent naturally struggled with the details of what came next. The strife led to some clarity, however.
“When you boiled it down, the only answer left was OK, I’m going to open my own restaurant and do it my way,” Vincent says.
In early July, Vincent opened Giant in Chicago’s Logan Square with partners Ben Lustbader and Josh Perlman. Lustbader cooked with Vincent at Lula Café and Nightwood—the now-shuttered concept where Vincent garnered national acclaim. Perlman, hailing from the renowned avec, is the concept’s front-of-house guru. And for all the careful and painstaking planning, it’s really the spontaneity and pliability of Giant that has made it special.
The 1,400-square-foot restaurant seats only 40 guests, but has covered 147 on its busiest night, and is one of those Windy City restaurants where walk-ins shouldn’t even approach the door until after 9 p.m.
A reasonable bystander then might ask about the size, or lack thereof. Even with two years outside the business, Vincent’s resume could have been scribbled with crayon on loose-leaf paper and still gripped investor attention. Yet during that hiatus, Vincent says he observed the industry from a renewed perspective. The experience left him feeling like a jaded musician whose band sold out.
“Through that unique path of having a couple of years off, I spent a whole lot of time being bummed out by restaurants,” he says. “It was just the constant concepts being rammed down your throat and just the failure on restaurant’s end to live up to it. If you’re going to do a Spanish restaurant, do a Spanish restaurant.”
In response: “We came up with a gameplan of oversimplifying it.”
The restaurant industry is one of those places where “simplify” is often actually code for “futile.” It’s one of those fine-dining themes operators are more likely to treat as lip service than actually live by. But at Giant, Vincent is getting down to cooking food that simply makes people happy. “I guess the theme is that there is no theme. It’s decidedly opened ended,” he explains.
And the reduced size of the restaurant is an intentional verdict. The fact it juxtaposes so clearly with the name isn’t really a mistake, either, although there’s a deeper tale there. Beloved poet Shel Silverstein, who happened to grow up in Logan Square, wrote “Me and My Giant,” which has become a favorite of Vincent’s daughter. A poster of the first two stanzas hangs down a wall in the restaurant.
The 40-seat setup also allows Vincent to dial the experience to his precise temperature every night. “It’s like a warm blanket. It’s a stuffed-animal kind of feeling,” he says.
“I can see all the seats and I’m literally the food runner,” Vincent continues. “I can take all the food to all the tables. That helps me feel that we’re in control even though we’re not yet.”
There is still some flux to the flow, but Vincent’s Giant has passed the chef’s first test. The way he sees it, if a restaurant can thrill into its third week, you’re doing something right. “The first week is a love fest. All of our friends and family come in and says it’s great, great, great, great. They’ll lie to you,” he notes.
When second-week diners started making reservations on their way out the door, Vincent began to relax a bit.
Here’s an honest detail: Vincent understands his team isn’t going to be able to stuff their bank accounts from a 40-seat venture, no matter how well it does. The point of this operation, though, isn’t that superficial, he says. Vincent wants to culture a staff where workplace freedom extends past the occasional shift off and employees are eager to voice their thoughts. “We got open with money in the bank and people are showing up. So now we’re looking forward to hopefully doing our patio next year and kind of getting into paying for health insurance for everybody and really kind of just doing it right,” he says.
Personally, Vincent will file away his last restaurant lesson for constant reflection. He spent five years at Nightwood before he decided to walk away. His second daughter was born a month later and it took some real time to get back in the good graces of his first, who was just 3 and a half. Vincent didn’t answer the phone the three months his wife was on maternity leave. He cooked here and there, but mostly it was just helping and hanging out, something he says could never be exchanged or cashed in for any accolade or measure of fame.
The early success of Giant has enabled Vincent to set a reasonable schedule—a mythical thought for many infant concepts.
“The work-life balance, no matter how you cut it, depends on if you’re busy,” he explains. “If we were slow, I would be working all the time. We would have to open up Sundays and Mondays to do brunch to make ends meat. I can’t pretend that I’ve got it all figured out. But right now, we’re closed Sundays and Mondays and I get to spend that time with my family. That’s pretty huge for a month-old restaurant.”