The day starts early for Chef Dirk Flanigan and his team. It’s not every day one gets invited to cook at the prestigious James Bead House in New York City. Flawless organization and impeccable execution are requirements for this event and Chef Dirk has everything under control, moving seamlessly from one task to the next with a quiet confidence. Saturday night's dinner was already gearing up to be spectacular.
Chef Dirk is executive chef at Chicago’s wildly successful The Gage and Henri restaurants, but his path into the culinary world began in Naples, Florida. “I was 13 years old and wanted to buy a surfboard,” he says. He knew a friend that worked in a restaurant and Chef Dirk began helping out in the kitchen, slowly saving up his money. Not long after, he started working in the kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton and he eventually made his way to Chicago where he’s been cooking since the late ‘80s.
Family-owned and operated, The Gage and Henri are located right next to each other, yet have two very different menus. The Gage is a gastro pub featuring classic American cuisine and Henri offers a French-inspired menu in a more elegant setting. All Chef Dirk's dishes are executed with a certain thoughtfulness. Take the fish and chips, for example. After learning that Heston Blumenthal makes his version with vodka, Chef Dirk decided to experiment with different ingredients for the batter. The result… A fish and chips infused with Guinness and served with a malt tartar sauce, offered at The Gage. Taking a well-known favorite and giving it an elegant twist is part of Chef Dirk’s cooking style.
So, how does a chef react upon receiving the news that he will cook at the James Beard House? “It is the highlight of my career,” Chef Dirk says. “They said, ‘You’re going to cook at the James Beard House. Oh, and you have two days to submit the menu.’” He drew upon his past successes and a good dose of Midwestern inspiration. One of his first restaurant jobs was as garde-manger chef where he was in charge of creating pâtés and terrines. The skills that he refined early on in his career were highlighted in his James Beard menu this past Saturday night. As we gathered in the small reception area, hors d’oeuvres were passed around, including a foie gras and eel terrine and a goat liver pâté with pickled onions.
As we took our seats in the dining room, Chef Dirk’s first plated dish was brought out, a chicken fried lobster with a hot sauce vinaigrette. The dish played with the idea of spicy chicken wings. Next came the dover sole with cavier, followed by game hen with a Brussels sprouts puree, both dishes perfectly portioned. The last dish, venison, was served with beluga lentils.
Each course was perfectly paired with wine, the handiwork of Henri and The Gage’s sommelier, Shebnem Ince (The Gage is a recipient of Wine Spectator magazine’s Award of Excellence, under Ince’s guidance). The decadent dinner finished on a sweet note. Bananas and chocolate were elevated to out-of-this-world dimensions. Pastry Chef Carly Sullivan artfully prepared layers upon layers of banana Florentine, banana cream and chocolate cremeux.
Chef Dirk’s passion and sensitive approach were apparent in each dish that came out of the kitchen. His humbleness and friendly demeanor are refreshing, especially considering his endless talent. He is definitely a Chicago sensation.
The Gage, 24 South Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL (312) 372-4243
Henri, 18 South Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL (312) 578-0763