Rob Levitt: Butcher & LarderAdviser | Tuesday, November 30th, 2010 | 1 Comment »
For a moment, there appeared to be a lull in Rob Levitt’s life and it seemed like he didn’t know what to do with himself now that he had time on his hands. Like the coffee we were drinking at Asado Coffee Company, it was a new experience for him but one that he appeared to be relishing at the moment. We sat in the quiet coffee shop for hours, just chatting casually about life, his career, and mutual contacts and I couldn’t help but think I was taking up too much of his precious time. He assured me that I wasn’t and we carried on over a second cup.
During his last week at Mado in late October, he had worked from 8 A.M. to 2 A.M. five nights in a row, roasted a pig for Kuma’s Corner for their Halloween weekend party, and finished Sunday’s family dinner service at the restaurant. A day later, Levitt and his wife Allie, the pastry chef, informed their staff they would be leaving Mado. After three years, it was time for a change and they placed all of their efforts on their new project: The Butcher and Larder.
From Chef to butcher shop proprietor was a natural progression for Levitt. His whole animal approach towards cooking at Mado required more butchery of him at the restaurant which furthered his passion for the craft. Now, it’s all that he can see himself doing at this time. Although this progression is logical in his life at this moment, the road into the food industry was not.
“After seeing a man dancing practically naked at a wedding, I realized that I had enough of music,” said Levitt.
A wedding musician or possibly even a band director was the path that Levitt was headed towards and he just knew it wasn’t for him. Studying music at the University of Illinois was no longer fulfilling. The passion didn’t exist even though he had been playing and practicing for years. Fortunately, he didn’t have to search far for his calling as he had already started working in the food industry as a college student. His first job was a dishwashing position for extra pay at a small grocery store called Strawberry Fields. He landed his first job cooking at Timpone’s, which still to this day takes a more natural and organic approach towards food . A voracious reader, Levitt rifled through cook books, studying theory and recipes and watched worthwhile cooking shows on television. Once he graduated with his Bachelor’s Degree, he moved back to Wheeling. Through a contact, Harry Crane, he secured a stage at Le Titi de Paris in Arlington Heights.
“When I went into Le Titi de Paris, I showed up in a jacket and tie because I wanted to appear as if I was dining there to show respect to the establishment. I changed into my whites, did everything they asked for and hoped for a call back,” said Levitt.
He was called back and worked for a year at the classic French establishment for a year before enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Before making the decision to attend the acclaimed school, he wanted to make sure it was right for him by working in a more professional and demanding environment. By the end of his stint at Le Titi de Paris, he knew that he wanted to make the investment in a formal culinary education.
While attending the Culinary Institute of America from 2000-2001, Levitt met a few people that would help shape his life and career. Chef Michael Pardus became a mentor for Levitt when he gave him a chance to become his teaching assistant on a volunteer basis. Leadership skills, networking and the refinement of the culinary fundamentals were just a few things he gained by working under Pardus. They are still in touch to this day. Another important person was a pastry student by the name of Allie.
“I was an English tutor and I first met her when I had to proofread her paper,” said Levitt. They ended up marrying in 2002.
Like many CIA graduates, Levitt worked long hours in New York, improving his skills and gaining experience. After returning to Chicago, he worked at 312 Chicago, North Pond, del Toro, Fiddlehead Café (his first role as the Chef)and Landmark while waiting for Mado to open.
As a Sous Chef at 312 Chicago, several of his friends and teacher’s from his days of playing the Tenor Saxophone had stopped in for dinner after a convention. They were shocked that he was working behind the line. Levitt didn’t feel he was missing out on that life at all.
While at del Toro, he was promoted from line cook to Sous Chef under Chef Andrew Zimmerman. It was a short but beneficial learning experience for him.
“I was told early on in my career, Sous Chef is the worst job in the restaurant and it is. You work more than anybody else to make the chef look good and if you are a good Sous Chef, you take a lot of pride in that,” said Levitt. “It was a classic case of good cop, bad cop. Everyone thought he (Zimmerman)was the man and he still is. It was my job to tell them when they were messing up and not doing things right. Man, did they hate that. They used to complain about me to the chef and the chef always came to my defense every time. “
Levitt appreciated the chef’s loyalty and says that he can look back at it and laugh today.
“There was one guy that just didn’t like me,” said Levitt. “One day, he had to make a basic spicy tomato sauce. I walked down the line and saw tomatoes going into a pot of practically raw onions. He didn’t sweat the onions and that’s how chef wanted it done. I picked an onion up and ate it. It was crunchy so I told him to have one and if that onion was sweated out, I would leave him alone. He ate it and he said I was right. I didn’t want to be an asshole but they weren’t doing it right.”
Before del Toro closed, Levitt left for the Fiddlehead Cafe and then eventually moved on to Landmark. While waiting for Mado to open, Levitt was asked to come back by the Chef of 312 Chicago to help out a few days a week. He spent up to 90 hours a week between 312 Chicago and Landmark, which he called a “temporary job.” The work ethic that was instilled, possibly from his days practicing the same notes over and over on the sax, allowed him to plug away while waiting for the opportunity to return to the role of Chef at Mado. With Allie at his side as the Pastry Chef, the couple and a skeleton staff would handle the operation for three years.
It’s the end of November and Levitt is simply waiting to hear back from the contractors so he can get the inspectors in. This is why he has time to relax and drink coffee for two hours. It’s a waiting game and no longer in his hands. If everything is approved, Levitt has to make sure all of the equipment for his new butcher shop is delivered so the store can be organized, painted, and ready for business for a December opening. Even though it will require long hours and sleep-deprived nights, it really doesn’t bother him. He actually seems to enjoy it.
“It’s the hardest and most stressful thing you will ever do. It’s a mentally taxing, unfulfilling, and unrewarding until it becomes a reality. If you want it that bad, you go after it and you don’t compromise. No matter how much it will cost, if it becomes everything you want it to be, then it’s worth it.”