Considerable experience, contagious energy and a sincere devotion to comfort food drove Rob Guenthner and his co-owners at Kettlestrings Tavern, 800 S. Oak Park Ave., to hire Chef Laura White. Only it wasn’t the first time the veteran chef had worked in the restaurant’s kitchen.
White was hired as a consulting chef and stayed on as executive chef at Kinderhook Tavern, formerly housed in the same location. She worked at the well-loved neighborhood bar from 2010 to 2011 and was responsible for collaborative development of the Kinderhook menu.
“After we saw her resume, we thought she had applied by mistake because she had so much experience, but we had no idea she had worked here before,” said Guenthner. “After we found out, we thought we would give her a few days, but the word started getting out quickly that she was back.”
Industry-wide staffing shortages had left the tavern without a chef for more than a month and owners were worried their menu needed updating. Chef White took over the Kettlestrings kitchen on Sept. 23 and immediately began breathing new life into the business.
“I like to make dishes that warm my heart, and it warms my heart to nourish your soul,” said White who finds cooking therapeutic.
She savors Kettlestings’ menu standouts like the Oak Park burger, double-fried chicken and fish and chips and has already brought back the pork schnitzel sandwich made popular at Kinderhook more than a decade ago. The versatile chef is also adding specials like shrimp and grits, pan borracha, and spicy shrimp to the menu offerings. Diners should also expect “Soul Food Sundays” to become part of the restaurant’s repertory. White is prepared to turn out her favorite foods, including braised short ribs, southern baked mac & cheese, collard greens and smothered sweet potatoes.
“I have an eye toward serving good, sustainable and healthy food,” said White. “I want to make food that fits the community.”
As a child, she was the primary cook in her family despite being the youngest child. When she was a student in community college, she took a summer job at the Double Tree Hotel on Michigan Avenue, stacking trays and filling the cafeteria line, to help cover her tuition. One day she capitalized on a “no-call no-show” and seized the opportunity to cook lunch for 300 people. She talked her way into the kitchen with little more than the courage of her conviction and turned out chopped steak and bow tie pasta with roasted vegetables.
“Chef told me I had a good palate,” said White. “He fought to have me transferred to his kitchen for a week. Once he got me, he put me right on the breakfast hot line. Within two years I was the head banquet chef and in time became the executive sous chef.”
The owners of Kettlestrings are on the precipice of opening a second restaurant in Oak Park and went looking for a chef whose experience and skill level would benefit both operations. White’s tenacity and experience level made her an ideal candidate to handle expanding responsibilities.
“Chef Laura is keeping the integrity of Kettlestrings and bumping things up a little,” said Guenthner. “The more people learn she is here, the more people are showing up. She is a draw and it is impossible to be around her without feeling her positive energy.”