Oak Parker Michael Shrader is chef/owner of Urban Union in Chicago's Little Italy. Shrader tells us that many of his customers make the trek from OP to LT, as we did a few weeks ago. We had a fine dinner at Urban Union, so I emailed Shrader some questions about the kind of cuisine he likes to prepare at his restaurant.
How would you describe the food you serve at Urban Union?
I would define my food at Urban Union as European inspired/focused. The countries I'm most fond of are France, Italy and Spain. I lived and worked in Paris for a year and have traveled throughout Italy and Spain. I feel a deep connection to those places, and it's definitely a major part of my food. I create my menus always with wine in mind. My goal is to have a simple sophistication, a few flavors on the plate, and great ingredients, all cooked properly.
What chefs have inspired you and the way you cook at Urban Union?
I have always been a "student of the game" so to speak. I have tons of cookbooks and respect all of the classics. My cookbook mentor – the one I have always been most moved by – is Marco Pierre White and his ex Sous Chef Gordon Ramsay. They both are really good at their craft and 100% know what they are doing. They're both direct descendants of Raymond Blanc, Pierre Koffman and the Roux Brothers, some of the biggest and best chefs in the world. I have their books as well. The most influential chef that I have ever worked with is Jeremiah Tower. I spent 3.5 years as his Sous Chef, at Stars in San Francisco. He is very much like the other chefs I mentioned: very smart man. He taught me how to do wine pairing/tasting menus properly. I to this day, cook like he taught me. I follow the same principles.
What are some of the dishes on your menu that you're most proud to serve?
On my new menu I really like the fingerling potato, avocado and bacon salad; simple, decadent and pleasing. I don't do a lot of Asian inspired dishes, but the carpaccio of beef is just wonderful: charred raw tenderloin, lime, soy, garlic, and scallions for a really great "pop" of flavors.
When we ate at Urban Union, we had a delicious farro salad. Can you tell us a little about that dish?
The farro is from Italy. We buy the really expensive stuff. The farro here in the stores is shit, to put it frankly. I prepared this farro salad in Tuscany a couple of years ago at a friend's wedding. I took what I found in the kitchen and out on the estate and that is what I came up with. I have had it on my menu since day one. I did remove it once for a menu change and the grief that I took made me put it back on.
You've put a lot of thought into the wine menu, and when we ate at Urban Union, we had all our dishes paired with wine. Charlie Trotter didn't serve cocktails because he thought liquor was too "hot" for his menu? How do you feel about mixed drinks with dinner?
I'm not big on cocktails with food. Most all liquor is too high in alcohol and just drowns out the cuisine. Chef Trotter is correct. On the other hand, I want happy guests. If a guest wants to drink Kool Aide with his dinner, then right on! Go for it! The table should be a place of happiness. Too many people take too many things too seriously. It's supposed to be fun.
1421 W Taylor St, Chicago