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In the Kitchen with Chef John Manion of El Che Bar

The flavors of South America arrive in Chicagoland

John Manion’s star is rising in Chicago. Despite the fact that he’s been a Chicago-area chef for nearly two decades, the last few years have put him on the culinary map. When Manion was just eight years old, his family was transplanted to sprawling São Paulo, Brazil, introducing him to a whole new world of food at a young age, inspiring his culinary trajectory.

His first restaurant, La Sirena Clandestina, is Brazilian-inspired—what Manion envisioned as a sort of mysterious, hidden spot you might stumble upon in coastal Brazil. Translated as “The Hidden Mermaid,” La Sirena Clandestina serves simple, beachy Brazilian classics like Pao de Queijo, Moqueca, and Caipirinhas.

Now, Manion has opened a second South America-inspired restaurant, El Che Bar, a nod to his travels throughout Argentina. DiningOut recently sat down with Chef Manion to talk about life down south.

DiningOut: When you were growing up, your family moved from Detroit to São Paulo, Brazil. Did you have a sophisticated palate when you arrived?

John Manion: No, I was a total goofball. I was such a picky eater and ate like any American kid. Nothing familiar food-wise existed down there. We would eat out every night and I discovered all these new dishes and flavors—shrimp and garlic, lobster, spaghetti Bolognese, and an amazing steak sandwich from the hotel pool bar where we stayed. I found flavors I never knew existed, like dende oil, manioc flour, and rice and beans. Rice and beans is a true staple dish in Brazil. I was also struck by the size of the cities in Brazil. They are immense. You had luxury right next to poverty in the favela. When we first arrived, I thought, “Where are we?”

That experience obviously opened your eyes at a young age. How were you influenced by Argentina’s cuisine for your new restaurant, El Che Bar?

When I was cooking at Mas, I spent a month every year going to Argentina. My days were spent wandering cities eating and discovering what was going on. Eventually, I started spending time in the local restaurants cooking and learning whatever I could. With work, I had to cut back my travel, but the past few years I’ve started going back again. El Che has been a restaurant I’ve wanted to open for almost 12 years. It’s changed and morphed over that time, but it’s always been there in my mind.

So La Sirena Clandestina wasn’t the first restaurant idea?

No. When we found that space, I knew it wasn’t El Che. I couldn’t force that idea into that space. It wouldn’t have worked.

When you found the space that El Che Bar sits in now, did you know right away that it was the spot?

The outside is so simple, perhaps even non-descript and when you walk in you find this warm, modern, large restaurant. El Che was built from the cooking hearth out towards the dining room. I found an old bar plaque years ago that’s mounted over the hearth that says “El Che Bar.” When you see the space from the outside, you don’t expect it to be this big on the inside. I knew this space would allow us to do wood-fired cooking. With the hearth, you remove any kind of safety net and only cook over oak coals. If we gave ourselves the option to have burners or an oven, we would use them. We don’t have any of that here except for on the pastry line.

 

How would you describe the cuisine at El Che Bar?

It’s definitely food I want to eat. The food isn’t complicated. We get great locally sourced ingredients and cook them with Argentinian grilling techniques. And yet, I would say the restaurant serves American food for sure. I don’t want people to think coming here you’re going to get a “typical” Argentinian grill menu.

It seems 2016 was the trend of restaurants using a hearth. You’ve had this idea for over a decade. Do you have any objections about suddenly everyone using a hearth?

No, none at all. Though it is funny that we opened at the same time as a number of other spots touting the hearth concept. But all of our restaurants are different and doing different food. I don’t worry about it too much.

What has changed for you now that you have more than one place?

I spend more time walking through the restaurant talking to the guests. I also look forward to the progression of the menu and where it will go next. I’ve been around long enough to know you need to give people what they want while staying focused on your own thing. Most importantly, I’m having the most fun in my career right now.

Interview by Joe Campagna