Interview by: Stefan Castellanos
Cellar Door Provisions is a restaurant and bakery serving breakfast, lunch and pastry in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. An assortment of freshly baked bread and pastry, as well as seasonal produce and meats sourced almost entirely from local farms, comprise its small, ever-changing menu. An open kitchen and adjoining dining room (seating 20 guests at communal tables) reflect the collaborative spirit of their culinary process, and the result is an experience as alive with genuine human connection as it is with natural flavor. We sat down with co-owners/chefs/bakers Tony Bezsylko, Ethan Pikas and Justin Behlke to discuss their philosophies on food, their “shepherding” approach to cooking, a love of coffee, and more.
So how did this all come about?
Ethan: Myself and Justin, we’ve worked in restaurants for a really long time, but we’ve always done dinner service. Primarily savory food. Higher end stuff, for the most part. The way that affects your life, in terms of the hours that you’re working...it has it’s appeal for a while, but ultimately if you want do anything outside of work it becomes kind of difficult. [We] all thought that opening up a bakery, while still really demanding hours-wise, would affords us evenings and maybe the occasional day off with our ladies, that type of thing. When I moved back to Chicago, at that point I thought maybe I would give pastry a shot. Tony had started learning how to bake bread, and I’d done some pastry work, but it was a new thing for us to tackle. And it ended up being something that I love, and Justin and Tony both love. So it seemed like a natural way to orient the restaurant.
More and more there are places in Logan Square that focus on breakfast and lunch, but there aren’t that many. We thought we could bring some interesting food to breakfast and lunch service.
Tony: I’m mostly from California but I lived here for a big chunk of time, til I was like 13, actually very close to where the restaurant is. I just randomly ended up back here because of my wife. Quality of life and contact with diners is a big part of why we set the whole place up the way we did. It’s just one big space so everyone is up in each other’s business. We all help bus, we all help run food, we don’t have a dishwasher, we all do dishes.
Justin: And there’s no front of house. It’s a special space, you feel so connected. It’s not just about making food anymore. You get to make the food and take it to the person. Pretty cool.
This community of diners you’ve helped cultivate, who are they?
Tony: I think the style of food - the vegetable-focused, slightly lighter, ingredient-driven fare - has brought a lot of people into the restaurant who have been looking for that in Chicago but weren’t finding quite as much of it. Ya know, people who might prefer like an interesting salad over a big meat-based dish, a richer dish. And it seems to have created a community of people who are really, really excited about splendidly-grown vegetables, really quality produce. People who, whether they consciously intuit it or not, seem to intuit that you don’t get that kind of product with having a really good relationship with an individual who knows how to grow that kind of thing.
It’s a varied customer base that we have. There’s people who are already familiar with this kind of food, who lived in California or live in France that are really happy to see this kind of food on the rise in Chicago. And lots of newcomers who aren’t sure if they’ve ever had, like, a turnip, for instance, and then tasted one and were like, ‘Wow, this thing is amazing.’ And then also, there are just people who like to have a good breakfast and lunch.
Ethan: It very well may be because of the nature of the space, and the fact that the dining room and the kitchen are attached in the way that they are. I have never worked in a kitchen where you get these really extraordinary moments with diners, where they come up to you and say how special something was. It blows me away every time. People are really affected by the food in this lovely, overwhelming way.
Like yesterday someone came up and was saying how - she was from France - seven years in the US she’s been looking for a croissant that tasted the way the croissants she ate in France tasted. And she’s like, ‘You guys have done it. Thank you.’ Which has never happened to me in any other restaurant.
And I think it has a lot to do with the way the kitchen and the dining room are connected, but I also think that there’s a connectivity between the folks that are growing the food, and our connection to them, and that connection follows through to the folks eating it. And when it works it’s really the most amazing thing.
Justin: The space allows you to interact with people much more than you normally would in a restaurant. There’s so many customers that feel like friends. They come in on a weekly basis and you have these really friendly interactions and you serve them something, and it doesn’t really feel like you’re working.
Do you still bake at home?
Justin: We rotate responsibilities in the kitchen, and right now I’m doing bread. And baking bread at home is so different than baking bread at the restaurant. Once a week baking bread at home to like ground yourself, and you’re like ‘Oh yeah, this is what it’s really about’. It’s about paying attention to the process and applying it to all the rest of the processes that we do.
Yeah, like I never not want to do it, which is a good thing. I’ll be tired and I still want to do it. It’s not just bread though it’s like everything. Like even after working all day, I come home and wanna cook food.
Ethan: I think that’s something that like sets us apart a little bit, that we’re all super into it, ya know? Which is what enables us to want to like change menus, change it all the time.
How do the physical constraints fuel creativity, influence what you do?
Ethan: Because there are so many limitations, it places constraints on the food, but those constraints guide where the food can go to some degree. I feel like it gives it a clarity. It gives it a voice. It’s something that all three of us at the restaurant wanted: less complicated food. Sometimes when there’s lots and lots of elements in a dish it becomes cluttered or seems less focused, maybe even less memorable if you don’t have like that one thing to focus your attention.
Justin: It just forces it to be less complicated, from an ingredients standpoint, a cooking standpoint. It’s pretty straightforward, just a good product.
And you take it for granted sometimes how much we do with the things we have. There’s this guy who came in, he owns this bakery in South Carolina, and he was like looking at our baked goods, the bread, and he was like ‘Holy shit, you guys do that out of that?’ It’s really cool. It’s kinda like a home.
What led you to the name ‘Cellar Door Provisions’?
Ethan: Since we opened it’s been our intention to make space for preservation techniques, especially given that the availability of produce in the wintertime around here is really limited, and we’re trying to source as locally as we can. I think that’s where the name came from. Everything that we’re involved in, at least fermentation-wise, is all fairly time-consuming stuff, if it’s done properly.
There’s a lot of fermented foods, and really I would like there to be more. I would say in almost every dish there’s at least one fermented element, including the pastries. It’s an awesome element to integrate into things because it gives another layer of complexity to the food. And as far as we’re concerned, health benefits as well. There’s something distinctive it because it’s still fairly uncommon, at least in western cooking.
Can you talk a bit about those health benefits?
Justin: It all starts with a good product and adding a natural culture. For lack of a better word, it’s good for your belly.
Ethan: [Having that fermented component] stimulates digestion. The cool thing about it is that it, hopefully at least, gives a sense of balance to the dish and you feel different in ingesting it. Maybe I’m intuiting that more, but so much food feels heavy when I eat it. And when there’s a fermented element in the dish, I get more balance ultimately.
What’s been your response to the gluten-free movement?
Tony: What we usually say when people want to have that more philosophical conversation is ‘It depends on what gluten, what wheat you’re using. Where does it come from? How is it grown? What’s it treated with? And how is it prepared into an edible product?’ A lot of times it’s not properly fermented, it’s not hydrated well. A lot of times it’s not fermented using a wild yeast starter that you make yourself. All of us think that if you get good grain and ferment it properly with really good starter then you should be able to eat it safely and feel good.
Ethan: And that is applied to everything in the restaurant. It’s also important to us to have stuff on the menu that’s not just gluten-based. A balanced menu should have something that will not require gluten to be a nice dish. [For example]: Kimchi Stew, Tomato Salad, Cucumber Soup.
Justin: Something I always think about is how personal food is. Everyone is entitled to an opinion about food, and everyone has a different one. So depending on how people approach it, you have the opportunity to learn something from an individual or teach somebody something. Just offering the moment to experience it, I think is important. A moment to try something new or to support something.
I’ve read that you think of yourselves more as shepherds than engineers. How does that work with the process of baking being so precise?
Tony: We bring a lot of exacting stuff to everything we do, but I think it’s less of a distinction between exacting and, say, mystical. I mean, shepherds are probably extremely exacting in certain ways, right? So it’s less a contrast between those things and more a contrast between how you think about the processes that you’re working on. Are they processes that begin and end with your own ingenuity? Or are they processes that are kind of out there, natural processes that are there, that you are gonna somehow harness, and in very exacting ways use to get the food to the plate? There’s a tomato. How do we get that to the plate in way that respects the nature of the tomato and its natural flavor? And you just give yourself over to the process that lends itself to that the most. The cabbage that we make kimchi out of of - how do we shepherd this natural process of fermentation in a way that respects the ingredients and produces this incredible result for whoever eats it?
Ethan: It’s important to get out of the way. It’s no longer for us an ego thing. As much as we can, let the food speak for itself, and it’s not necessarily about how we are manipulating it.
Justin: Less about here (points to temple), more about here (points to heart). It sounds really cliche but it’s true. You have to feel something when you eat food.
Alright, let’s turn to coffee. What were you looking for from a roast-profile standpoint?
Ethan: I think we were all coming here [to Caffe Streets] before the restaurant was even an idea, really. We knew we loved the coffee. We could tell that [Xavier and Darko] are super focused on the quality of the coffee and interested in it continually getting better, which is of course exactly what our food is about too. The coffee, to me, tastes super different from most other Chicago roasteries. It seems to be lighter roasted, maybe a little more acidic but also balanced in a way that most Chicago coffee doesn’t strike me as being. And it just suits our...especially our pastry service but I think all of the food really well.
When we got to know Xavier and Darko, they’re just like really awesome dudes. The quality of their product is as important to them as the quality of our product is [to us], so it was a really good partnership. And it’s really only improving, too. Xavier is now talking about doing rotating coffees in a similar way that we rotate our food, which I think is just an unbelievably awesome idea. I don’t think it can be underestimated how special the collaboration between these guys and us is. It’s one of the most unique collaborations we have.
Tony: It’s so intimate. We’re sharing feedback about the coffee with them like almost every week probably. I think some roasters it would become a headache to have that much feedback. We taste it every day, and we’re kind’ve fussy about it, like the way we taste everything. I mean, everything is scrutinized to a very high degree, and [Metric] seem to love it. And when they have ways to improve it, like, they hooked us up with a new machine just to cut out one of the variables. They helped us get a new machine so we could control it and have even more in-depth, accurate productive conversations about the quality of the beans that we were getting. It’s really special. We maybe approach business a little bit differently, but there’s some deep commonality that I haven’t hit on that is, I think, partly connected to a respect for the product they’re working with. Like they’re just uncompromising. There’s nothing that will interrupt their commitment to the quality of their beans and roasting them in way that respects the quality of those beans, which is very similar to us. And then there’s this kind’ve friendship, family-oriented approach to how they operate. Reminds me a lot of how we operate. And it just works really well.
Ethan: The other cool thing, I think, is that they are really committed to us in a way that surprised me initially because we’re a really small account for them. Tiny. But we mean a lot to them, I guess because we have this constant conversation going on and mutual respect. It’s a very cool thing.
Justin: This respect is very important. You look at the space at Cellar Door and everything is pretty much made there. The coffee is like the one thing that we’re responsible to do really well because it’s not ours. And then when you have that relationship, you really want to do that. You’re like ‘Man, I feel so responsible to make sure this coffee tastes really good.’
Tony: I hope it’s still in the early stages of the collaboration and relationship.
One more question - Is there such a thing as a gluten-free croissant?
Ethan: I think so…
Justin: A gluten-free croissant?! That’s crazy.
Tony: That’s nutso…
Cellar Door Provisions is located at 3025 W. Diversey Ave, open Wednesday-Sunday from 8AM-3PM. For more information, visit their Website, or stay connected via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.