My Guest Chef Experience: iNG Restaurant is Good People

I won dinner for two at moto restaurant and guest chef for a day at iNG restaurant in Chicago as part of the Scorcese Menu contest. There are many reasons why you should dine at iNG. The cuisine is delightfully imaginative. Flavor tripping with the miracle berry is sui generis. The service is excellent. And as I learned during my guest chef experience, iNG restaurant is good people.

Guest Chef at iNG

The iNG kitchen staff made my guest chef experience incredibly rewarding. Let me introduce the team behind iNG’s awesome meals, starting from the fourth person on the left: Luis, Vince, me (guest chef), Charlie, Liam, Austin, D’Andre, Hugo, and Trevor (sorry I didn’t get the names of the three fellows on the left). They were all generous with their time despite the heavy workload and supervised me in small tasks that contributed to that night’s service. I want to thank them for being so welcoming and gracious; babysitting an inexperienced stage is an unenviable task.

I love Chef Homaro Cantu’s style and approach to molecular gastronomy/modernist cuisine, so I was excited to go behind the scenes at iNG. My stage experience began at 1:30pm and ended just past 5pm when service began. I only saw a small part of the staff’s true work schedule; they start prepping early in the morning and finish when the last diner has been served, approaching a 16 hour work day. I appreciate how much time, hard work, and care goes into crafting each bite.

When I arrived I was given a chef’s jacket and an apron. Hugo assigned my first task of mixing a batch of crepe batter: blend eggs, milk, and flour with an immersion blender until smooth and then strain to remove any remaining clumps of flour.

Next, it was time to clean and organize the kitchen. The whole kitchen pauses every day at 2pm to wipe down all surfaces, mop the floors, and take out the trash. Vince said I didn’t need to help with the clean up because I was a guest, but every stage takes out the trash and I didn’t want to be an exception.

After clean up, Hugo had me pour molten taleggio cheese into silicone gun molds. Both the crepe batter and the taleggio cheese guns are part of the “9 mm” course.

Following the taleggio guns, Charlie had me scoop risotto into white arancini “cue balls” for the “The Color of Money” course pictured below.  The arancini was accompanied by shortbread “chalk” and a basil tea “felt” to complete the billiards themed dish. The shortbread looked like chalk and the crumbly texture evoked the feel of chalk.

“The Color of Money” course holds special meaning to me because I won the Scorcese contest by submitting a Color of Money scene. I wore Tom Cruise’s “VINCE” shirt underneath my chef’s jacket while I worked in the kitchen.

Up next was my favorite part of the afternoon because I learned a new technique. D’Andre had me assemble the aromatic candles shown below. This candle has a secret; to avoid ruining the surprise, you’ll have to visit iNG for yourself to see why I think this candle is so cool.

D’Andre outlined the basic process of how he created the candle. He experimented and tweaked 8 different variations before settling on his candle formulation. Imagine how much experimentation and refinement goes into every course.

D’Andre also showed me the pig he was breaking down to make everything from scratch, including fresh pork rinds. After all of this was over, it was time for staff meal at 3:15pm. I went upstairs to have my lasagna, salad, and watermelon with the wait staff in the main dining area. The kitchen staff stayed in the kitchen, where they wolfed down their food and got back to work as soon as possible.

Upon my return from lunch, I breaded the aforementioned arancini balls. Then I shaped and deep-fried the wonton skins that make up the “Cannoli” course shown below. It’s a deliciously crunchy cannoli; the last savory course masquerading as a dessert right before the dessert courses begin. Tricksters.

At 4:15pm I attended the joint staff meeting between moto and iNG, where all hands review the night’s menu and service schedule. Once that was over, I went back to frying wonton cannoli shells. Before I knew it, it was 5pm, the demo dishes had been prepared, service was about to start, and my time as a stage was over.

I returned later in the evening for an 8PM dinner reservation (note: this dinner at iNG was not included as part of the contest prize). I’m from San Francisco and was visiting my aunt and uncle in Chicago, so I treated them to dinner at iNG. We had the 10 course menu and I got to show-off everything I’d been working on during that afternoon. Smiles all around as we enjoyed a great meal.

I highly recommend ordering the “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” cocktail right after you receive the first miracle berry course. This is an awesome drink with a fun presentation. The cocktail is placed in a vacuum chamber (you can see the outlines of a glass in the chamber shown below). The vacuum chamber is filled with smoke. Let the drink sit in the chamber for a few minutes to infuse it with a nice smoky flavor. When you open the lid, you’re greeted with a waft of smoke. The miracle berry masks some of the bitter aspects from the bourbon, giving you a very smooth, smoky whiskey, similar to an Islay scotch. Perfect.

I’ve only ever cooked for friends and family before. It was surreal watching strangers eat something I’d handled. I was always looking around at other tables, worried that somehow my tiny little contribution wouldn’t be up to iNG’s high standards.  Thankfully, everything went off perfectly.

I needn’t have worried because I was in the good hands of the chefs in the kitchen. Not only are they passionate about what they do, but they’re good people who welcome and take care of newcomers. At iNG you’ll find innovative food, great flavors, surprising presentations, and fantastic service. But there’s more than that; the kitchen staff at iNG are great people, adding one more reason why you should visit them.

Dinner at moto

The prize also included dinner at moto. The dining experience at moto is par excellence. Each bite is an elegant economy of motion, like watching Usain Bolt sprint. Flavors are distilled and combined to communicate a complex point as simple as possible, but not simpler (paraphrasing Einstein). There is a thoughtful progression, both in terms of the sequence of bites within each course and the order of the courses themselves. The beautiful presentation will make you smile like a small child. The service is impeccable. There’s really not much more I can add to the superlatives many others have already written about moto; it was the best meal I’ve ever had.

Here’s a picture of me in the moto lab, followed by videos of some of the courses on the menu when I visited. Thank you, moto and iNG, for an unforgettable experience.