Chef Dirk Flanigan is a classically trained chef who began his career in a pretty classic way, washing dishes to save up for a summer spent surfing in his South Florida hometown. He bypassed culinary school in favor of working his way up the line, and on the way, passed through the kitchens of the Ritz-Carlton and La Tour, and eventually took over as executive chef at Meritage. There, the creativity and soul in his cooking garnered three stars from Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune. His career took flight, and in 2007, Flanigan opened his own restaurant, The Gage: a boisterous and sleek gastropub and culinary anchor to Millennium Park.
Flanigan also has had a principle hand in the growing success of the Chicago Gourmet Festival, a world-class event that boasts 3000-plus ticket sales—a far cry from what Flanigan describes as “three or four chefs and some card tables” back in 2008. The credit for its success goes partly to his dedication and hard work, but also to his boundless energy and candid, sometimes salty, sense of humor—which has a way of un-ruffling feathers.
At his elegantly styled Henri, opened next door to The Gage in 2010, Flanigan serves nimble, modern interpretations of classic French dishes with his special brand of haute rusticity. A further expression of Flanigan’s one-of-a-kind voice, Henri has already garnered three stars from the Tribune, the Chicago-Sun Times, and Time Out Chicago, proving the chef as much a critical success as a neighborhood champion.
Interview with Dirk Flanigan of The Gage and Henri
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Dirk Flanigan: I wanted to buy a surfboard. I was 13, and I started washing dishes at this restaurant in Naples, Florida. I had a friend that worked there as a dishwasher. I didn’t know how much I was going to get paid. That’s where it started. One of the first things I learned to do was butchering and then portioning veal butts. The deal was kind of like, “You’re going to portion this out into this many pieces, and don’t take more silver skin off than this or else you’re fired.”
EB: How did you get from veal butt butchery to your skill set now?
DF: I worked there for about a year. Then I worked at another spot. Inevitably, when I was at the first restaurant, they’d get a call and people would be like, “So and so called in sick.” So you go, and they teach you how to make two dishes. I had no idea what I was doing and they’d be like, “You’re going to make a chicken,” like chicken picatta—very basic stuff. They’d show you how to do one, then you did the next one, and then you’re on your own. I was 14. Here I am, this skinny kid wearing a chef coat that’s three times too big for me and a toque that’s gigantic.
EB: It sounds like a lot of on the job training, even as a teenager.
DF: It was always because, sure enough, somebody would call in sick, or “Bob called in drunk,” and “Hey Dirk, come on over you’re going to work fish.” So I worked the poissonnier station and worked it again on a busy Friday night. Then it was like, “Hey, alright we got a new guy.”
I was still going to high school at the time the Ritz-Carlton opened. My dad was working at the Ritz-Carlton as a cook. He wore many hats through his life. He was an EMT, an artist, and a painter; he had a roofing company, and he went back to cooking. It was the last job he held before he had a stroke—in a kitchen as a sous chef. He was a really good butcher, really cool. He was working at the Ritz and he put in a word, and I got in. I worked late. My junior year in high school, I started working from 9pm until 6am. And then I would go to high school after that.
EB: Is that when you knew you were hooked?
DF: Once I walked into the Ritz and saw all this stuff happening, I was intrigued. I had no idea what foie gras was, what pâté was. A year later I was making foie gras terrines and composing my own pâtés. By then I was 16 or 17 and had a big attitude. And that doesn’t really fly as much in a corporate atmosphere. The Ritz-Carlton is serious food, serious people, serious money. I was there at the Ritz for three years.
EB: How did you end up in Chicago?
DF: I had job offers at the Beverly Hills Hotel and a job offer in New York. I thought, if I go to California, chances are I’m going to surf and blow off work and go against my better judgment. If I go to New York, I’m going to go to punk rock shows and get high and blow off work. I had a girlfriend who lived in Minneapolis at the time and she was like “Alright, Chicago.” It’s weird reasoning, but I was a 17 year-old and getting ready to move out on my own. And I’d already been treated as an adult for so long, even though I was very immature. I still am very immature for my age.
EB: So what advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
DF: Shut up. Without sounding rude, I’d just say shut up. Forget what you think you know. And pay attention. And then, once you hear what the task is, apply what knowledge you have. Make sure that your head is clear.
EB: You learned behind the line. Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
DF: I didn’t go, but it’s really student-sensitive. You have to take each person individually. Two people going to the same school at the same exact time, one of them might apply themselves and one won’t. But I will hire both [with and without culinary school]. Between The Gage and Henri, there are a lot of different skill sets that I need. There’s always room for someone that’s aspiring to advance in his or her career. There’s also room for a guy that’s a broiler cook. That’s what he is, he’s great at it, and he moves like a machine. I have a sauté cook that was a dishwasher for me 10 years ago. His plates are 98 percent perfect.
EB: How do you hire the right people?
DF: You have to listen to their questions. And that’s what I really do when I bring in people for a stage, before there’s even a possibility of them being hired. You listen to their questions and watch their moves. I’ve done pretty well with that frame of mind. Because if somebody’s asking the right questions, there’s proof that they already have some knowledge or a grasp on what they’re setting out to achieve.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining? Does it vary between The Gage and Henri?
DF: At The Gage, it’s kind of refined rusticity. Some plates are very rustic but the flavors are very refined; vice versa, some plates are very refined, and you’ve got rustic flavors. I tell my cooks every day at the pre-shift meeting, “Make sure that every plate that you put up is perfect. Make sure that you’re going through all the steps you need to. Make sure you taste everything.” Trying to do your best every day, no matter whether you’re under the weather, hungover, having a problem outside of work, or whether you feel great. Every plate is supposed to be great.
EB: So it’s about each person taking ownership of his or her role?
DF: It is. My outlook at both restaurants is to respect what our farmers have done for us. To respect history. Respect cuisine. Respect the ingredients.
EB: What goes into creating a dish?
DF: I’ve been in a kitchen long enough that there are some things that just happen. If somebody says “cauliflower” at The Gage, I think curry or parmesan. At Henri, if somebody says “cauliflower,” I think gruyère and cream.
EB: So ideas come to mind based on associations?
DF: There are flavor memories. A lot of guys call them “Flaniganisms.” A cook will say, “I did this soup, and it’s pears and curry and I know you like cauliflower and curry, so I did a little bit of charred cauliflower and sliced grapes with this curried pear soup.” So they kind of justify their moves based on things that I’ve talked about.
EB: Creativity is a group process for you, then?
DF: On certain levels, yes, especially with running two restaurants on this scale. I’ve been focusing on Henri quite a bit, just because it’s a smaller menu, so you don’t have the scope of what The Gage has. You have to be specific and you have to be on. If you’re going to do 120 people a night, you can’t have mistakes because it really screws up your percentages. If I buy somebody a steak at The Gage, chances are I’ve sold enough soup to cover it. Of course I don’t want to make any mistakes. But it’s a bit more easily dealt with at The Gage.
EB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
DF: I need a purchaser. My purchaser just put in his notice. That’s my major challenge right now! Also, just really having your cooks understand what the expectation is. I’ve worked with all the chefs, the French yelling guy, the guy that wished he was the French yelling guy, nurturing guys, business guys just about doing it. You work with all of them and take what you can that helps you and apply it.
EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
DF: It’s kind of the same. Articulating my vision. I don’t want anybody to lose sleep like I’ve lost sleep. That’s just what happens as the chef. You wake up in middle of night. I’ve awoken and asked my wife, “Did you take the food to table 506?” And she’s like, “Go back to sleep, you’re working too much.”
EB: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
DF: This Rising Stars thing is up there! And having two restaurants. I was a James Beard semifinalist this year; that’s huge. To be involved in that, it’s quite an honor. I cooked at the James Beard house this year. And I have a new daughter. She’s going to be 1 on March 30. All of those have been great accomplishments.
EB: What does success mean for you?
DF: Getting Henri to be successful and viable. It already is on some levels, but getting everything to the point of being a sound operation is very important. After that, we’ve been toying around with a few more concepts. And for me, at this stage, I want to be a good mentor to the guys that are working for me. I want them to be able to use the knowledge they’ve acquired from working for me. I want them to be able to take that stuff and excel further. I think that’s success—if people can look back and say, “That guy was a great mentor. He helped me.” That’s very important to me.