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.
“We always envisioned having a restaurant with a section off to the side where guests could come and have a drink and some snacks, sort of like a precursor to their meal so they don’t just sit right down, which can be awkward and utilitarian in a way,” she says. The Loyalist reflects the couple’s loyalty to their cooking style and values, but also to their guests. “We stay true to classic, pure combinations of flavors, [think] old school simple meets grilled meets preservation,” says John Shields. “We stayed loyal to our idea of what we wanted to do even though it took years.”
Intrigued by old English bars, the Shields worked with L.A.–based designer and architect Michael Francis to transform the garden-level basement into a moody, modern pub of sorts, with bar stools and lounge seating for enjoying cocktails and microbrews. Upstairs in Smyth, the Shieldses offer an eight-course and 16-course tasting menu reflective of the type of ingredient-driven, meticulously thought-out dishes in a homey, open space with residential-like appliances, millwork, and a butler’s pantry.
While the restaurant had yet to open at press time, menu plans were well underway, and hints of the cuisine to come can be found in their recent past. At Riverstead, Shields once created a tomato water and seaweed granita decorated with orange trout roe, purple sea grapes, and green tomato seeds inspired by his coastal upbringing in Florida. Sourdough rolls spiked with locally grown cabbage, ramps, and garlic paired with corn- and onion-infused butter, served in its own little crock. Braised lamb shoulder once came with a batter-less crepe made from cooked-down milk and a grassy gravy made with lamb stock, thyme, lovage, and cucumber juice.
On the pastry side, Karen Shields tends to focus on fresh flavors that are not “overly rich or coying.” Once, while pregnant and craving cucumbers and whipped cream, she froze marshmallow and cucumber in liquid nitrogen and shattered it into a multi-textured slushy softened with cream and brightened by fresh herbs and edible flowers.
Creativity aside, what also makes the Shieldses’ new venture unique is their exclusive collaboration with a 20-acre farm south of Chicago, where there are rows of black walnut, cherry, and apple trees plus rows of crops for the couple to select from. Spring crops were expected to yield beautiful sweet peas, edible flowers, herbs, and baby asparagus, followed by a special type of corn, tomatoes, and other vegetables, including many heirloom varieties, in the summer.
“The [owners] are retired and farm because they love it, but we didn’t want to put too much pressure on them since this is their first time working with a restaurant,” Shields says, admitting she had to tame John’s excitement for different plant possibilities.
Sitting together, Karen and John talk about their new restaurant with that glimmer in their eyes, chiming in as the other tells their story to paint the picture of their vision. “We work together really well when we’re not screaming at each other,” Karen says jokingly, and John chuckles. “Our personalities are pretty jovial,” he says. “Karen likes to share what she’s doing with the desserts but will get excited about something savory and suggest new ideas for me,” he adds.
Together, they’re making another seemingly impossible project come to fruition. Now, where’s that shoe?
Love in the West Loop
Just a stone’s throw from Smyth + The Loyalist in the West Loop, another husband-wife team are romancing the restaurant scene: David Posey (Blackbird) and Anna Posey (Publican) plan to open Elske, a restaurant that speaks to David’s heritage and is the Danish word for love. On track for a mid-summer opening, the bi-level restaurant will feature a seasonal menu with some Scandinavian influences and a tasting menu showcasing the fare of Midwestern farmers. The main dining will be downstairs, with a smaller private-dining area and bar space upstairs. The power couple, formerly with One Off Hospitality Group, married a year ago.