When I brunched at The Blanchard, Lincoln Park’s hidden French gem, I was smitten. It was a perfectly executed meal the reflected all that is to love about French cuisine, and it was certainly one for the memory books. There is a reason why it is a favorite restaurant among Chicago foodies.
I was thrilled when Executive Chef Ryan Burns came to visit our table and chat with us. Young (and handsome, I might add), Chef Ryan speaks to the food at The Blanchard as beautifully as it is presented to the table.
Having had an extensive career in kitchens all around the country, Ryan returned back to his Midwest roots to become executive chef at The Blanchard, receiving awards and accolades, in addition to The Blanchard being named Chicago Magazine‘s “Best New Restaurant of 2016.”
The menu is impressive, and he and his team take dishes to an elevated level in an homage to French cooking. I was so impressed with our brunch, specifically the “Oeufs à la Yvettes” or the citrus zest crepes topped with seared foie gras, and especially my specialty mimosa made with Yuzu tapioca bubbles.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Chef Ryan and pick his brain about The Blanchard, French cooking, where he derives inspiration from, and what he eats for brunch. (Spoiler: He loves avo toast!) Check out my full brunch review of brunch of The Blanchard, here.
How did you get your start in cooking and what first drew you to it?
Actually, I got my start when one of my good friends’ neighbor owned a catering company, so I started as a dishwasher there when I was 16. I took on this job and started doing basic kitchen prep, learned knife work and had a few cooking projects and I was really enjoying it. I was excited to go into work and I had never had that feeling before. I discovered that this was something that might be for me.
How did you decide that you wanted to embark on a culinary career. Did you go to culinary school?
I was in high school at that time, and my plan was to go to architecture school. I always took art classes and the majority of my schooling was art focused. Then I learned that there was a culinary class at another technical school, and I decided to check that out. In that class you learn the basics, but additionally, other colleges would come in and give presentations on different programs and different internships at restaurants that were options. So decided that I would go to culinary school.
You initially went to school to learn French culinary techniques, correct? What drew you to become classically trained in French cooking?
During that time in college, which I never completed ultimately, I had jobs and was promoted through positions and then to sous chef really quickly, so my hours and my schedule didn’t allow for me to attend college. I really decided to take more time and invest in my cooking.
I was working at a French restaurant called the Raddison Club, which was contemporary French. There they used a lot of classic french techniques that were influenced by more forward thinking chefs, like Charlie Trotter. Trotter was doing things such as incorporating new flavors, adapting old techniques and developing them to something more evolved for his food, and his ways really inspired me.
During that time I also learned how to pair food and wine and create dishes that reflect that at a very young age, and I went on from there in terms of French cuisine.
You have a certain approach to French cuisine that I experienced when I dined here. Do you find that French cuisine is evolving, and are you more partial to old techniques or new ones?
If you research restaurants in France, especially in the Michelin caliber of French restaurants, you still see a lot of classic French techniques, but they are using modern ways to produce those same results in whatever way they imagine it.
Essentially French food is, in a way, up-to-date in that it has been using molecular techniques for a while, and the rest of the world is kind of just catching on in the last 20 years or so. French food has always been about the flavor, and the use of different ingredients from all over the world, is all over France.
The French have always loved to highlight indigenous ingredients from Europe, and stick to classic ways; there is a love for that, like octopus a la plancha, whole roasted chickens with truffles, and other classic French dishes. You will see it all over their menus. Some things are just so classic that they cannot let it go.
So do you enjoy cooking that way?
I enjoy both. I really strive to be imaginative and come up with a new idea and push myself to something that I haven’t thought of before. I also have this dying love of just sticking to what is good and has been good for many years, such as a good roasted chicken. Not everything needs to be tampered with.
What have you enjoyed most about being chef at The Blanchard?
What I enjoy most is watching it grow and evolve. When new team members come in, whether it’s in management, in the kitchen, or front of house, and I see them take on the culture and develop this love for French food and this love for the restaurant, it’s awesome. They ask themselves, “Where is this going to take us and what is next?”
Also the responses of guests. We have an open kitchen, so when someone has a good meal, either brunch or dinner, they can come up and thank us. It creates this awesome and gratifying atmosphere all of the time.
Now getting to brunch. Would you prefer to brunch in or out?
Go out always. During the week when I am working I cook breakfast at home, so when I have a day off I enjoy to go out and eat somewhere. I like to go outside, put some sunglasses on and enjoy the day. Maybe enjoy a drink or two. I am always trying somewhere new.
Where is your favorite place to brunch in Chicago right now?
I recently tried City Mouse, and it was really good. I would recommend it, most definitely. I sat on the patio, they had good drinks and coffee. Everything was simple; they have a small menu but they have everything you need, and it wasn’t too expensive.
What is your favorite dish to cook for brunch?
From our brunch menu at The Blanchard, the “Oeufs à la Yvettes” egg tart. It is a very classic French dish, and it’s a dish I didn’t really mess with. I kept it how it is traditionally made and didn’t use modern techniques.
We whip the cream really well, incorporate the eggs and the truffles, and then we source those those amazing Spanish cardinal prawns. It makes the dish feel whole—the sauce made from the shells of the prawns.
It is very simple but it does highlight what we do here—elevate simple dishes by utilizing all of the ingredients to intensify flavors and give more of an experience as you eat it. You just see a tarte when it first comes out. Then you start eating it and you don’t expect it to be so light, fluffy and rich, but it is.
What is your favorite brunch item? I imagine you don’t see the egg tart everywhere.
An avocado toast. It’s something I eat almost every day from home, I am a somewhat healthy eater. It’s gotta have an egg on top.
What are the most ordered dishes at the Blanchard?
The pork belly Benedict and the Spanish octopus are extremely popular. We braise that, fry it and then grill it.
In your opinion, what is the most overrated trend, or the food trend you are seeing more and more?
The popsicle is something I am seeing on menus everywhere. I saw a foie gras popsicle once. I could see that maybe dying out.
Bloody Mary or Mimosa?
Mimosa. Bloody Marys are for 3:30 p.m., mimosas are for the morning.
Name five people, dead or living, you’d invite to brunch if you could have anyone come?
My friend Chris, who was a mentor of mine. He had a lot of energy and everyone loved being around him. You need someone like that at the table because he brings people together and makes the dinner better.
My aunt who I grew up with. I used to brunch with her, and she’d get a few drinks in her, and she would start dancing; she made it fun. I always remember those family gatherings that would turn into something special.
My girlfriend, Eden, because we both share an extreme love of trying food and eating together, it’s something we have always shared since we first started dating.
George Azar, chef and owner at Flowers of Vietnam in Detroit. He’s one of my best friends and what he is doing at that restaurant is awesome. He is kinda like a hype man.
And then finally, my friend Kam Losonsky, who is the sous chef at The Aviary. He is another great industry person. I just want to have my favorite people at the table.