Chef Cameron Grant has worked in restaurants for much of the past two decades, a journey that has taken him from a room above a storefront in Italy to a comfortable post as one of Chicago’s culinary stalwarts. Currently, he has a wife, two boys—ages 4 and 7—and a problem that chefs throughout the industry understand all too well: of the many goals he can strive for, the one thing he can’t get enough of is time.
Despite the wear of opening six restaurants in the past 10 years, including the fast-casual concept Animale in June, Chef Grant has no intentions of leaving the restaurant business. He’s simply eager to get off the line and into the boardroom, so to speak.
Early this year, the first packages of his Langhe Pasta Company’s famous plin hit supermarkets in the Windy City. “It gets to a point where working the line and prepping food will only take you so far,” Chef Grant says. “I would like to enjoy my life and I would like to spend it with my family. And having a product line that, if it launched and was successful and could grow, would give me the ability to take nights off. For me, it’s like an out from the restaurant business.”
Local retailers such as Food Smart, Fresh Market Produce, and Half Italian are carrying the product, and Chef Grant says he’s ready to start ramping up the marketing effort. And aside from just the obvious quality of his plin, Chef Grant is selling his story. For starters, plin ravioli is Piemontese dialect for “pinch,” which, like much of Italian cuisine, is a straightforward description of what arrives on the plate.
Chef Grant learned how to make plin during a three-month internship at the Michelin-starred Ciau del Tornavento in Trieiso, Italy. Living above the legendary restaurant, Chef Grant would spend hours folding the dough, pinching the pasta, cutting it, piping the filling, and repeating. It even got to the point where, along with some colleagues, he became so frustrated that he started eating the plin to avoid making any more. “I spent days and days and days making it during my internship there. So it was kind of a love-hate relationship. I loved the way it looked and how it tasted, but doing it for hours and hours and days on end was really tedious. It has a lot of emotional ties for me,” Chef Grant says.
He returned to Trieso five years later to open his own restaurant “200 yards away” that January, but was headed back stateside the following Christmas.
Chef Grant’s Chicago career began in 2012 when he was tabbed to lead Fresco 21 in the Intercontinental Hotel in Rosemont. After two years, along with close friend Aldo Zanninoto, he opened Osteria Langhe in Logan Square.
The restaurant has been a striking success, and was named one the Chicago Tribune’s Top 50 Chicago Restaurants in 2016.
One of the most popular dishes, right from the outset really, has been the plin. It arrives simply with La Tur cheese, Parmesan, thyme, and butter. “It was so well received in the restaurant, I said, ‘Why not package it and sell it to grocery stores?’ Because when I go to a grocery store it’s really hard to find a good ravioli,” he notes.
There have been bumps along the way. A freezer problem at the old commissary kitchen cost Chef Grant 60 cases. Then there’s the obvious curve of running a brand-new operation. “It’s a totally different business. For me it’s been very interesting and it’s quite a learning process,” he says.
The team, which includes crossover as well as specific employees just for the pasta company, moved operations to Animale’s new kitchen. In addition, one of the their best customers just so happens to be themselves.
“The beauty of the company right now is that we sell the pasta to Osteria Langhe and we also sell it to Animale,” Chef Grant explains. “So, selling a product to yourself it gives you a nice little buffer in terms of having time to grow and get this thing set up.”
It also helps that customers of Osteria Langhe have been clamoring for this product for years. Chef Grant wants to foster that same experience-driven demand on a broader scope. That means selling in stores where he can demo, as well as just explain why this product is worth picking up.
“It was just blind faith, really, in terms of the fact that I think if people taste this ravioli, they’re going to want to buy it. For me, it was a no-brainer,” he says. “I figured if it doesn’t sell it’s because I haven’t marketed it properly.”
This latest step is part of his evolving career. Chef Grant says, after spending a year and a half prepping and cooking “every day I was there,” he’s set up a staff at his two restaurants more than capable of meeting expectations on their own. That’s freed him up for more executive endeavors, like the pasta company, which he notes will expand to different products, perhaps a pappardelle dry pasta, in the near future.
“I’m turning it into a better life for my family,” Chef Grant says.
By Danny Klein