Modernizing Side Dishes
How To Inject New Life into the Standards
When Erick Williams reminisces about growing up on Chicago’s tough West Side, he’s unapologetic and particularly gushes when the subject of cooking with his mother and grandmother comes up. They taught him about the importance of food and how to not treat any portion of the meal as an afterthought. That included, as his grandmother was fond of saying, “jazzing up” side dishes of canned corn, green beans, carrots and more.
Now, as executive chef at Chicago’s highly regarded MK and partner at County Barbeque, he applies that same philosophy, but of course with better ingredients. “People have grown to expect a certain level of style (at MK) and they expect bold flavors from the simplest sides,” he says. “That’s why we do frites with truffle aioli, Brussels sprouts with boar bacon and things in that vein.”
In order to achieve this level of cooking, Williams considers balance. He thinks about how great flavors work together—and how he can take them one step further.
“Brussels sprouts are just Brussels sprouts when they’re blanched, but when you caramelize them, all of a sudden they take on this earthy and crispy characteristic that they otherwise wouldn’t have if you didn’t take time to roast them,” he explains. “And then you take that flavor and add possibly a shallot that’s been pickled and add this slightly chewy, but not so smoky, full-flavored boar bacon and something that we would’ve seen as kids and pushed aside becomes something that has a new life.”
Though County Barbeque isn’t half as fancy as MK, its concept is chef-driven and Williams’ vision was inspired by the walk-up BBQ joints throughout Chicago. These establishments offer side dishes like canned beans and frozen fries as a necessity because customers don’t want to go there to just eat meat. Williams wanted to elevate the typical side dishes at County so customers would look forward to them.
“We started to really think about how we could put that real Southern, home-cooked touch to these sides without killing ourselves in terms of efficiency, in terms of giving people another really delicious bite,” he says. “Plus, nothing beats fresh.”
That most certainly can be seen in offerings like cheddar grits, garlic fries loaded with smokehouse chili and sweet potato fries with Sriracha aioli. These bites helped garner County Barbeque a Michelin Bib Gourmand for representing "quality food at a reasonable price."
Another casual Chicago eatery is newcomer Pork & Mindy’s, co-owned by Jeff Mauro, host of the Food Network’s “Sandwich King” and “The Kitchen.” The restaurant specializes in unconventional gourmet sandwiches like smoked mozzarella, chicken and waffle, and the signature Pig Candy BLT.
Mauro wanted to reflect his personal cooking style throughout the menu, so he considers the sides essential. “The menu is packed with bold, unique flavors, and we wanted to ensure those flavor profiles carried throughout the menu, not just within our signature sandwich offerings,” he says.
Though he offers modernized takes on tater tots (Tot’tine featuring Wisconsin cheddar cheese curds and smothered in house-made smoked gravy) and potato salad (sweet potato salad comes with a sweet, creamy dressing), he believes that it’s important to create side dishes that are recognizable, yet present a unique and fresh point of view.
At Greg Baker’s award-winning restaurants The Refinery as well as Fodder and Shine in Tampa Bay, Fla., the talented chef won’t make the same dish twice—once it’s off the seasonal menu. That’s because he uses premium ingredients that he buys directly from local farmers.
“We give them special treatments (every time we cook them),” says Baker, adding that he will revisit a side dish to see what he can do to make it better without overdoing it. “My usual philosophy is to take a very good ingredient and stay out of its way.”
But one of the best parts of observing diners ordering family-style sides like PBR mac ‘n’ cheese or RC Cola-baked black eyed-peas is watching them have fun in unison.
“It’s the added enjoyment when people come together at the table,” he says. “Everybody gets to experience the same thing rather than one person. It adds to the conversation at the table and brings them together.”