Oak Park chef takes honors at WBEZ's Chicago Chef Battle

Up against heavyweights, underdog Hollander wins big

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By David Hammond

On Sunday, September 25, five local chefs went head-to-head at the WBEZ Chicago Chef Battle at Goose Island Brewpub. The winner was determined by an audience vote, and of 600 votes, over 400 were cast for the platter prepared by Marion Street Cheese Market Executive Chef Leonard Hollander.

Hollander was up against heavy-weights like Jill Barron, chef/partner of Mana Food Bar and 2009 Chef Battle winner, as well as Heather Terhune of Sable, who will be on next season's Top Chef.

Hollander's winning dish was Goose Island Harvest Ale brined goat, fall squash cider puree, verjus of pickled apples and smoked pecans.  It was clearly the crowd favorite, and as reported by judge/WBEZ food blogger Louisa Chu, "Chef Hollander was the underdog in the challenge. He said that he wasn't used to these kinds of events."

Before working at Marion Street Cheese Market Café, Hollander did time in the kitchens of Ambria and then at Avenues at the Peninsula Hotel (recently awarded two stars in Chicago's first-ever – and internationally prestigious – Michelin red book guide).

Hollander started his career far from the kitchen.

"Prior to cooking," Hollander told me, "I spent several years in the computer software and technology realm and had a penchant for understanding the underlying mathematical processes and process flow, which offered an interesting perspective on my kitchen experiences."

This scientific attitude is balanced by a sense of artistry that Hollander seems to have refined while working with colorful Chicago chef Graham Elliot Bowles: "In my time working with Graham Elliot, he showed me a way of thinking about ingredients in a new and unique way. We would sometimes take kitchen field trips to the Art Museum and look at our food from any number of unexpected angles."

The "chef-driven" restaurant is a concept alien to Oak Park, though it's regularly used to describe the cuisines of restaurants in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles. "Chef-driven" is a term of art used to mean that the food served at a restaurant is a reflection of a single chef and his or her specific aesthetic.

Much art is about control, the shaping of materials to fulfill an artistic vision. At a chef-driven restaurant, there's a vision, an aesthetic, a controlling intelligence behind every dish. At Marion Street Cheese Market Café, that controlling intelligence is Hollander's.

Oak Park has had some (though not many) very good restaurants. This is one of the few times a very good Oak Park restaurant has deserved the descriptor "chef-driven."

If you didn't make it to the 2011 Chef Battle, you can sample Hollander's competition-crushing preparation on the Fall menu at Marion Street Cheese Market.

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