from Il Coniglio, Chicago
When he took a job as a dishwasher at age 13, Chef Dirk Flanigan’s goal may have been to buy a surfboard, but he quickly decided what he wanted to be when he grew up. By age 16, he was learning classical techniques and the brigade de cuisine as a Chef de Partie at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples. By age 18, he was working full-time in Chicago at the Park Hyatt La Tour, and pondering typical coming-of-age questions, like how to butcher hundreds of quail as fast as possible.
Chef Dirk continued to sharpen his skills at Chicago’s Blue Water Grill, Blue Plate, Meritage Café and Wine Bar, Echo and Madam B, earning widespread acclaim along the way, including three stars from Chicago Tribune critic Phil Vettel. In 2007, he cemented his place among Chicago’s elite chefs with the opening of The Gage on the city’s famed Michigan Avenue. "The Gage has raised the neighborhood's culinary bar to a remarkable degree," said the Chicago Tribune, of the 300-seat gastropub.
At The Gage, Chef Dirk’s “refined rusticity” cooking style took center stage. The menu centered on classic comfort food with modern touches, inspired by a cornucopia of global cuisine, from Pacific Rim and Pan-Asian to British, American and Italian. One successful dish was his lamb vindaloo, an Indian curry-inspired riff on a traditional English mutton stew.
The use of cooking technology also drove his success at The Gage, and equally acclaimed, upscale French sister restaurant, Henri, opened in 2010. “It’s great to be a traditionalist, but you also have to be open-minded enough to improve on things,” he says, of his desire to explore molecular and other techniques that can quickly create a high level of flavor. Sous vide has been a part of Chef Dirk’s repertoire since 1988, and its ability to render fat to drive flavor has enabled him to engage diners with less common cuts of lamb and beef, including top sirloin and butt steak. Transcending perceptions and delighting diners with innovative executions of “off-limits” combinations (like shellfish and blue cheese) is another challenge he welcomes.
A Busy Year
With the success of Henri and The Gage firmly under his belt, Chef Dirk departed the restaurants in January. In February, he headed Down Under for an Australian Red Meat paddock-to-plate tour with Meat & Livestock Australia, Plate Magazine and the International Corporate Chefs Association.
“I was blown away by how green it is,” he said, of his tour of the Australian countryside, where one highlight was a stop at Ray Vella’s family-owned, 18,000-acre ranch at Bald Hills, in Marlborough, Queensland. “You hear the term ‘grass-fed,’ and here, it’s like really, really grass-fed.” The time-tested nature of sustainable Australian farming practices aimed at making smart use of farming byproducts and minimizing waste, also left an impression.
On culinary tours of several Aussie cities, Chef Dirk also had the opportunity to soak up a little inspiration from butchers and fellow chefs, through culinary excursions like a Moroccan-and-Indian meal at Melbourne’s Chin Chin, and a visit to the dry-aging room (complete with Himalayan Rock Salt wall) at Victor Churchill Family Butchers in Sydney.
These days, the StarChefs 2011 “Rising Star” and James Beard Foundation “Best Chefs Great Lakes” semi-finalist is busy getting ready to open Il Coniglio (“the rabbit” in Italian), a fine-casual, 100–150 seat restaurant with a hybrid French-Italian menu. What can diners expect? “Instant nostalgia, with new memories,” says Chef. “Right when they walk in, people will feel like they’ve found something.”