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Q&A With James Beard Award Winning Chef, Carrie Nahabedian
With the final nominees for all James Beard Awards coming out tomorrow, we sat down with decorated chef Carrie Nahabedian to take a delicious walk through her amazing culinary story. From her Michelin star restaurant to her 2008 James Beard Foundation Award, Nahabedian is nothing short of spectacular.
Creative and innovative in the kitchen from the start, Nahabedian attributes her natural talents to her mother, aunts and grandmother, as well as her father’s promotion. In 1975 her father was doing the carpet for the grand opening of the first Ritz Carlton in the U.S.. He was given the opportunity to talk with all the French chefs in the kitchen about his daughter’s love for cooking, French cuisine and her interest in the history. From that moment Nahabedian got her foot in the door and began working full-time six nights a week as a senior in high school. Nahabedian credits her success to her amazing mentors and chefs, who she has remained friends with her entire life. “[Her] two mentors passed away, but they saw the success of NAHA and [herself] and they knew that their influence made the difference”. Although Nahabedian was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, she deferred the offer and instead learned from personal experience while traveling to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa “all for the love of food!”
Lara Innamorati: Why Chicago?
Carrie Nahabedian: It’s my home, plus it is such an approachable city with amazing people, sports, museums, shopping, civic pride and it’s beautiful.
LI: Are there any recipes or flavors that you feel characterize the essence of Naha or Brindille? What are they?
CN: NAHA has a distinct American contemporary feel with influences of the Mediterranean. This is my Med, not just Italy, France, Spain. I like to encompass the Middle East, Greece, North Africa and the islands. Flavors are very layered, so food never becomes boring. I feel that cooking is your expression of life, you want to feel every moment of it and experience great flavors and be refreshed. NAHA has it’s own personality, great bar food, cocktails, approachable wine lists, an ever-changing menu that keeps everyone coming back for more. Brindille is decidedly Parisian, your choice. Intricate techniques with great depth of character. Everything French, very rich and thoughtful. Sexy, intimate, inviting.
LI: What is the craziest food you have ever tried?
CN: Water hyacinth salad in South Africa, Grasshopper/ants/termite Tacos in Mexico City. Which I say…you can eat anything smothered in salsa and queso…
LI: Is there anything you’re tired of seeing on the Chicago restaurant scene?
CN: Shared plate focused menus.
LI: What is a unique challenge that you’ve encountered as a chef in Chicago?
CN: Just doing business in Chicago is a challenge for small business owners. There are so many costs involved that you never seem to get a complete hold of.
LI: What’s a meal you would cook for a laid back dinner at home?
CN: Roast Chicken Mediterranean, which can mean anything! Lemon, herbs, glazed fondant style potatoes with sweet garlic, roasted fennel, onions, caramelized belgian endive. A great salad with alot of textures and crunch.
LI: Other than your restaurants, how are you involved in the local food and restaurant community?
CN: I am on the Executive Board of the Green City Market. I also represent Chicago and the Chicago Bears each year at the Super bowl for the “Party with a Purpose” where we raise funds to Kick hunger across America (funds for Chicago go to the Greater Chicago Food Depository). I also support the USO and this Sunday I will be cooking at Great Lakes Naval Base for 450 enlisted men/families. Michael and I also do as much as we can for our church and the Armenian community.
LI: If you weren’t a chef what would you be?
CN: If I wasn’t a chef and had the talent, I would like to have been a pro golfer. But more realistic….marine biologist/designer/national geographic explorer!
LI: What are some emerging food trends that you’re noticing?
CN: North African and deep Middle Eastern “Lost culture”, cradle of civilization cuisine.
LI: What’s an ingredient that you’re using a lot of these days?
CN: I use a depth of spices in my cooking that project a clean flavor. I love a collection of spices I bought in Istanbul. I always use a good amount of green cardamom and fennel bulb roasted or shaved raw is my absolute favorite. But, each season brings a favorite, morels, vin jaune, chicken and salsify will be on the menu this week. I am also quite fond of candied lemon.
LI: Are there any ways in which you try to be more sustainable in your cooking practices and what are they?
CN: We of course source as much local products to support our neighboring states and the farmers who bring us great products for our menus. I always say I wouldn’t be able to do what we do if we didn’t have farmers with the same passion and determination as chefs. We recycle, which as a business does not come at a reasonable price. I feel the city taxes should cover this for restaurants and embrace it. We buy bio-dynamic coffee/free-trade. we buy some organic wines. We are not a certified green building since our property at both restaurants are quite old. But, we do have energy saving practices in place; how much it works, is another question. We try to recycle all of our cooking oil. We started to compost, but it can be quite an involved process that not everyone can believe in. It’s more of a concern than you could imagine from the health standpoint.
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