As winter begins to take grasp—and it’s often an extra-firm grip in Chicago—diners seek out warmth in the much-loved world of comfort food. Elevating those culinary memories to the fine-dining forum, and doing so in surprising and contemporary fashion, is one of Chef Ryan McCaskey’s specialties.
The chef and proprietor of Acadia, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in the city’s South Loop, believes there are many nuances to the time-honed tradition. The key is allowing the past to play a role in the creative process. “That’s really what we do here. I don’t ever claim that we’re reinventing anything or trying to be super progressive; we just want to make food that tastes great and is somewhat familiar to people; flavors that are familiar, and things that might invoke a memory or a smile on their face,” he says.
McCaskey begins with a story. “One of my favorite things to eat when I was sick, and that I remember eating as a kid with my grandmother, was chicken noodle soup. A lot of people used to eat tomato soup but I was always the chicken noodle guy.”
That simple thread was all McCaskey needed to get started in the kitchen. He says the goal was to serve a soup that, in some ways, confused guests when it arrived at the table. But then, one spoon in, it would flood them with memories and leave the impression of it “being the best chicken soup they ever had.” Here’s the result: a soup that instead of having chicken and noodles in it, gets by without either. Instead, there’s a chicken noodle, which like it sounds, is a noodle made of chicken. Truffled crouton, carrot, celery, pearl onion, and chicken veloute rounds out the design.
“It’s presented in a way that, ‘Oh that doesn’t look familiar, but I’ll give it a try.’ And then once they get into actually eating it, they love it and it brings them back to past memories,” he says.
McCaskey also makes a risotto made from potatoes, a contemporary version of New England clam chowder, and a carrot cake dish with cream cheese frosting and foie gras. Another favorite is a turn on the Chinese take-out staple beef and broccoli, which Acadia debuted to overwhelming praise two Valentine’s Day’s back. The plate is prepared with Wagyu beef, cashews, broccoli couscous, hijiki seaweed, poached oyster, and oyster fermented black bean sauce. He says it’s a 2.0 version of the former dish. That kind of spontaneous thinking is another characteristic of the restaurant. “Sometimes in mid-stream I’ll change something just because I feel like it,” he says, noting that the menu at Acadia, which arrives in a five-course or 10-course tasting varieties, changes by the season or when “I get bored of something.”
McCaskey also highlights a mushroom soup that stems from the cream of mushroom Campbell’s cans he would have growing up. And, starting in February, Acadia was serving a take on pot roast showcasing beef cheeks, braised for seven hours. “We have red wine, and there’s vegetables and all sorts of other stuff that goes into that braising liquid. Then what I do is I take the braising liquid and I reduce it into a sauce, add a little bit of black vinegar and a little bit of mushroom soy, and it just tastes like a really great pot roast.”
The very definition of “comfort food” can be stretched past the seasons, McCaskey adds. It’s not so much about what’s warm and hearty, as it is about the nature of the word itself.
“I think every season has its comfortable, more familiar dishes,” he explains. “Maybe in the spring, I might do something that’s not as comforting exactly, but I might do something people associate with comfort food just because they’re familiar with it. I think that’s the kind of effect we’re going for.”