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John Shields and Karen Urie Shields, Smyth, Chicago, IL


Are there any techniques that you picked up at Charlie Trotter's or Alinea that you now apply to Smyth? [At the former, John Shields met his wife, pastry chef Karen Urie],

JS There is no real technique that I use to this day from either Chicago chef, but their spirits and inspiration have helped shape our restaurant's creativity.

Can you talk about some of your more influential travel experiences and places that have stuck in your blood?

JS My trips to Spain have impacted me greatly. Karen and I had the greatest meals of our lives at Mugaritz in 2009 and at El Bulli in 2011. The creative spirit that came out of those two kitchens spawned generations of new chefs, including myself, for years to come. Without the vanguard of Spain, and in particular El Bulli, Copenhagen wouldn't be the powerhouse it is today.

Talk about some of the creative risks you've taken in your life and how they've influenced your authenticity.

JS The biggest risk and life-changing moment happened over the four years we lived in rural Virginia [their last restaurant Town House in Chilhowie, Virginia.] We risked completely removing ourselves from the rest of the world. That time proved invaluable, as it shaped us as people and as chefs. The seclusion and closeness to nature instrumentally nurtured a style that felt unique and genuine.

Your relationship with The Farm seems symbiotic. How do Smyth and The Farm bring out the best in each other?

JS Rebecca and Alan [Papineau] feel as passionate about growing and producing impeccable products as we feel about cooking and creating.

You mentioned something about, "letting the food tell the stories." Explain how you do that.

JS Our philosophy centers on allowing nature to take the lead. Instead of us forcing ourselves upon products, we take a step back and try to listen to what they want from us. It sounds hokey but there's real truth to it. It's about following your gut and still using your mind to create, but doing so in a very honest and soulful way.

No doubt you always learn something when you visit The Farm. Can you share a few specific examples of what has opened your eyes on recent visits?

JS Every time I go I literally create dishes by just looking around. Years of experience allow us to cook this way. What grows together goes together.

You and Karen encourage a positive culture, valuing the ability to think differently, expressing willingness to listen and learn, and exuding passion for your job. How do you teach these skills to your team?

JS The most basic way is by example. We teach by doing and explaining our philosophy along the way. In order for others to truly grasp our vision and reasoning, they need to understand with all of their senses. Only then will they truly become believers. I also believe in and try to teach the beauty of taking risks in the kitchen. Use your intuition and senses and cook less with your mind. This results in truly soulful, creative, and delicious dishes.

Can you give us an example of a setback or mistake you made and how you moved on from it?

JS I really don't believe we've made too many mistakes. Looking back and saying I would do something different would then completely negate all that I have learned from failing. I'm good at failing. I do it all the time because I'm always taking risks--calculated risks, but risks nonetheless. One of the biggest things I've always held on to is from Grant [Achatz], He is relentless in his pursuit of completing a task or bringing to life an idea. He never says 'No, that's impossible, we can't do that.' Because of him I will beat something to death until I get it right.

Now that you are back in Chicago and settling in, will you engage in chef activism in the community?

JS In due time for sure!

John Shields and Karen Urie Shields, Smyth


"What grows together, goes together," says Shields. "That's what this dish is all about: what is happening in the moment, then building on and enhancing those flavors."

"We approach the asparagus a few different ways. First, we roast asparagus like a piece of meat with plenty of very good olive oil and lemon thyme. Once it caramelizes and softens, we chop it into a paste. We then make a puree by simmering chopped asparagus and a little spinach with our cultured butter to give it a tangy grass flavor, cooking until quite soft. Once the butter and vegetables release their juices, we strain and reduce the liquid. At the bottom of the plate we spread some of the asparagus paste. Next to that we position a dollop of the asparagus puree and fresh milk curd that we manipulated by mixing with softly whipped creme fraiche. The cheese acts as a flavor carrier. We top that with thin slices of raw asparagus. On top of the dish we arrange lilacs and dress them with pine flower oil, fermented pine pollen honey, lilac vinegar, and sea salt. At the table, we spoon the asparagus cooking butter over the dish."

"Creativity takes work," Shields adds.

"The ingredients from The Farm really tell the story here." The 20-acre farm located in Bourbonnais, one hour south of Chicago, came to Shields by accident. The chef, infatuated with black walnuts and looking to construct a dish around them, discovered a proper source via Twitter. Elliott Papineau, a financial analyst answered Shields' query. His parents, Alan and Rebecca, retirees in their early 60s, planted The Farm from seed. Papineau tapped back a reply. His parents possessed an entire grove of black walnuts on The Farm, potentially for Shields' disposal. John and Karen visited the Papineau farm and secured it as the exclusive supplier to Smyth. The Farm has been onboard since Smyth opened its doors in August 2016. Shields says, "We're now just catching the tail of The Farm's first season."


We cut the fish into fillets, rub with fleur de sel, and lightly cure for 15 minutes before washing the salt away with a very good Japanese rice vinegar. We get ours from Wakayama near Osaka, which Is said to have some of the best rice and water in Japan. We grill the fillets over juniper branches. Once cooked, we season the fish with the same vinegar that's been infused with Carolina Gold rice koji. ** To serve, add young green almonds seasoned with salt and brown butter, a light gel made from the same koji infused rice vinegar, a paste of grilled plants (lettuces and seaweeds), and salad burnet to lend a crisp cucumber flavor. At the table, we sauce the plate with a cultured gutter infused with fermented .rice and fish bones. Atomize the whole plate with a fish sauce from the leftover bodies and heads."

** We make koji out of Carolina gold rice from Anson Mills. We use, this to make the finishing sauce and also to infuse' into' the rice vinegar. The koji steeps in. the rice vinegar for a week before using.

* Shima aji is also "known as striped horse mackerel.

John Shields and Karen Urie Shields, Smyth


"I was raised in Clearwater, Florida, near the beach. My Dad lived in Baltimore so I always grew up eating seafood and still have an incredible affinity for the ocean. This dish shows off my interest in seaweeds--I'm fascinated by them. James Syhabout turned me onto the Monterey Abalone Company, and I reached out to Trevor Fay, a partner and marine biologist there. We began working with fresh seaweeds back in 2008, the same year we started at Town House. Then, it was a relatively new idea."

This dish features Turkish Towel *, a thick, red type of seaweed that washes up on the beach in abundance. Its bumpy texture and shiny glaze conjure up fruit leather rollups. Shields played around with it and found that after pickling, the seaweed retained its vibrant red color. "The more astonishing discovery is that it has a tremendous amount of gelatin in it." He steeps it in vinegar and uses it as a natural thickener. "It's really the same idea as using agar. When we blend it, it turns into a viscous gel that retains its fresh seaweed taste." A lightly poached and smoked Pickle Point oyster ** takes on a creamy note when glazed with an emulsion of mayonnaise made from oysters, sea salt, and organic sunflower oil. He garnishes the dish with a lightly grilled radish gelee, grated salted and preserved radish, and cold slush of freshly-juiced radish. About the granita Shields says, "We take it to frozen stage in the slushy-style of a 7-Eleven Slurpee." Fresh seaweed garnishes the dish.

* Sourced from

** Cage-grown in the icy waters of Prince Edward Island's Point London Bay, the thick-shelled Pickle Point oyster measure 3 to 31/2 inches and possesses a briny salinity.

John Shields and Karen Urie Shields Smyth

John Shields and Karen Urie Shields, Smyth


Again, this is all about what's happening right now at The Farm. Spring seasons showcases pine, rhubarb, and sorrel.

We make a pickled spruce paste by combining pickled spruce tips, honey, organic sugar, and lemon juice. We also create a caramel made from caramelized organic sugar, cream, cultured butter, fresh yeast, and elderflower vinegar. After peeling the rhubarb's red skin away, we chop and cook it in a sous vide bag with lemon juice and organic sugar. Once fully cooked, we strain the juice from the pulp, reserving both. The juice is combined with a little fermented pine pollen honey. We add grapefruit blossoms and let the rhubarb marinate. Some really fruity olive oil is stirred in with the rhubarb juice. To the plate, we add the rhubarb pulp, a little caramel, and top it with the lovage-infused milk ice cream. Spruce oil, grapefruit blossom fermented honey and various sorrel leaves garnish. We finish the dish with rhubarb paste. This dish embodies pure, honest flavors. The milk ice cream carries the flavor of everything else. I'm in love with this dish right now. We use it to wean guests from the heavier courses and segue into something lighter.

* When their green buds swell and become soft, male cone catkins release puffs of light, golden-colored pollen. Collect the pollen by inserting the catkins into a plastic bag and shaking them to release the powder.


John Shields and Karen Urie Shields, Smyth

This dish represents another throwback and inspiration to our time at Town House when Karen and I lived in a farmhouse. Sometimes we sat outside on the porch and watched the cows eat the wild plants."

Shields uses various parts of the cow for this dish, but here he prepares it with the tongue cooked in a court bouillon of kombu dashi, beer, spring garlic, and spring onions. Once tender, he removes the outer skin and places the tongue in a Le Creuset pot. He adds small amounts of the cooking liquid along with aged beef fat, whey and beet garum to finish. The process echoes fish sauce, but with beef scraps, water, salt, and koji.

A few different sauces garnish the plate: n intense mushroom vinaigrette made from caramelizing maitake mushrooms and beef vinegar; a stock made from vinegar rather than water, simmered, strained, and reduced; the buttermilk derived from the reduced leftovers of cultured butter.

The dish has evolved, a bit, using many different types of lettuces and herbs, not just wild greens. All of the lettuces pay homage Michel Bra. We finish the dish with a touch of fresh wasabi and mushroom oil. A bread course comes on the side. Sometimes Ifs a brioche donut fried in aged beef fat. Two more accoutrement arrive: an aged beef fat au jus and a dish of cultured butter. You can dip the meat or the brioche in the aged beef jus as if a French Dip. The point is to have fun.


John Shields and Karen Urie Shields Smyth

We started working with The Farm last year in April 2016, too early in the season for growth. The chickens, however, were producing many eggs and we decided to collaborate with The Farm by doing an egg dish. A savory preparation would have been the obvious choice, but I wanted to re-explore a concept we had previously done at Town House.

Back in 2009 Karen was pregnant. With her supervision, I had been helping a lot in pastry as she prepared to be a mother for the first time. The genesis of my idea started simply. I would make creme anglaise for the ice cream base and add the sugar to the yolks before the milk base was ready. The sugar would mimic the effect of salt as an impetus to cure the yolks. At that time, I hadn't seen a sweet preparation like this and I began imagining a dessert entirely devoted to the egg. We had also explored a similar idea two years prior with great success: an egg yolk ice cream containing an exorbitant amount of yolks, curd, and baked meringue. But my new thought was 'let's not hide the egg, let's present it in its most recognizable form.' The fairly simple dish, egg yolks cured with sugar and herbs with a ricotta mousse and mandarin, unfortunately looked crude in its delivery and Karen was not impressed. She made me remove it from the menu after only a few weeks.

Fast-forward seven years and the revamped idea. By this point I had seen a few egg yolk desserts but we felt that we had some unfinished business. We soaked the egg yolk in a licorice syrup to cure the yolks while leaving the center a little runny. We then took the whites and made a Swiss meringue, folded in very good yogurt, and seasoned it with various vinegars from a good friend in Virginia. The acidity formed the yogurt and vinegar cut the sweetness from the meringue. In the Pacojet, we froze and blended the mixture.

The way we serve it today, at the bottom of the bowl we place some preserved wild blackberries (also from The Farm) and a crumb of farro koji. We spoon the frozen mousse on top and place the licorice yolk in the middle. A few grains of flaky sea salt and pickled fennel crown the top. The dish is a tour de force of concept, flavor, texture, and temperature. You pierce the chewy exterior of the yolk, exposing its still mostly liquid center that then coats the cold, acidic, fluffiness from the meringue. As you dig down further, you encounter the crunch and savoriness of the farro and intense fruitiness of the berries. It's sweet, a touch salty, and lightly acidic, and the licorice adds a faint bitterness.

This might be the closest Karen and 1 will ever come to creating the perfect dish. It combines concept with deliciousness, and familiarity with unfamiliarity.

We now use this dish as the exemplar when creating new dishes, sweet or savory.


"Our wine list caps around the 200 label mark, just enough for a staff of one to manage and still offer great variety to our guests," Christopher Harris, General Manager and Wine Director for Smyth, explains. That size, due to limited storage and the relationship with The Farm takes conscious ordering and flexibility. "With the produce coming in right now we are a little white-heavy," says Harris. "I'm enjoying the guests' reactions to Ingrid Groiss' Gruner Veltliner from Weinviertel in Austria poured with a dish of asparagus, and aioli of mint and flowers. It's a killer bottle of wine." Harris also delights over the Champetre Rouge from Laurent Cazottes calling it "a fun wine right now", and 100% Malbec from Tarn in the southwest of France. Of the latter he reveals, "It is mainly a distiller, but crafts a little wine as well. We agree it's an unnatural pairing idea--Malbec with foie gras and crab--but there's a linear relationship with the citrus quality in the wine that cuts through the foie. It was an automatic for me, the first time I tasted the dish." Since wine flights reflect 70 percent of diners' choices, Harris says, "It's our job to find wines that extend the life of flavors--not to have the wine be the star, but to create an honest synergy." Speaking of the chef-sommelier collaboration, Harris says, "Chef trusts my decisions and we have improved our understanding of each other's palates. We need to be flexible because Chef makes changes day to day, if not hour by hour." Cocktails reach from a short list of classics that aim to please guests as if they were at a dinner party at a friend's home. The opportunity to mix and drink complex cocktails exists downstairs at casual sister restaurant, The Loyalist. Sample custom roasts by Sparrow Coffee Roastery via the pour-over method complement Karen Urie Shields' desserts.

Photos by Derek Richmond

Caption: John and Karen Shields with Chef de Cuisine Nicholas Romero
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Author:Newman, Carol M.
Publication:Art Culinaire
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Sep 22, 2017
Previous Article:Cooking Outside the Lines.
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