Executive Chef Roger Waysok, In His Own Words

Executive Chef Roger Waysok knows Chicago. He knows its backroads, personalities and secrets. He knows where to find its hidden finds. And he knows how to bring to the table Chicago's flair for food paired with his inimitable understanding of Midwestern cuisine.

We had a far-ranging conversation with the South Water Kitchen's executive chef about unknowingly growing up a foodie in Chicago, becoming a chef, and playing the guitar – the instrument that ultimately brought he and his wife together.

Tell me a little about your Chicago heritage?
I grew up on the outside of Chicago, on the Southside. I've been in the Chicagoland area my whole life. It's what I know.
A chef of your talents could write your own ticket to just about anywhere – why have you stayed?
There was an opportunity a little while ago to chef away from here. But South Water Kitchen was something I couldn't pass up. Kimpton (Hotels) wanted someone who could create delicious food, exciting food that speaks to Midwesterners. I have that deep familiarity with Midwestern food and I felt this was an opportunity to acknowledge my roots and then further reflect upon that through cooking.
Why did you become a chef?

When I was growing up I was always in the kitchen at my house. Mom cooked a lot. I learned by watching what she did. I got acquainted with the recipes that were handed down to her. There was a lot of heritage communicated in that kitchen.

But it never occurred to me to think of cooking as a profession because it was simply something I always did. ‘I'm not really a chef, I just cook at home.' I'd tell folks.

Then I got a job as a short-order cook and knew immediately that was what I wanted to do with my life. It fascinates me to no end. I get a little obsessed and cooking is one of those things that consumes me.

Is curiosity important for a chef?
If you don't have curiosity, you don't have a desire to explore. Cooking is a form of artistry. If you don't push the limits, you're falling backwards. Pushing the limits means you're achieving new things, and that begins with curiosity. You definitely need that as a chef.
How did you find yourself in South Water Kitchen?
I worked with Chef (Heather) Terhune, helping her open Sable from the ground up. I worked right alongside her, helping with recipes, menus, helping to build one of the more popular destinations in River North. When the South Water position became available, it just spoke to me. ‘I think it's time, I think I'm ready...' I said to Heather. She encouraged me to apply.
What aspect of being an executive chef caught you by surprise? What had you asking, "Oh, I didn't know I'd be doing this or responsible for that?"

I think it's the office work. I'm a very active person and cooking allows me to be active because a kitchen is always bustling, although my feet don't love it...

But the higher you get in your career, the further away you get from the kitchen. Then you start getting closer to the numbers (buying product, managing budgets, etc.). I'm not afraid of numbers by any means, but it wasn't something I thought I'd have to be so closely tied to. They didn't teach me that part in culinary school.

Your bio mentions "calendar driven Midwestern fare" – by the time the weather changes here, are you ready for a change of menu?
Yeah, just being in Chicago is a little bit of a challenge as a chef who cooks what grows when it grows. You have to be prepared to change with the seasons. In Chicago you can experience all four seasons in one day. My menus change with the weather. The City goes into hibernation after holiday season. Then people thaw out and it becomes grilling season. Growing up here, it's part of my internal clock. The change of menu comes naturally to me.
What recipe books do you consider must-haves for a chef's personal library?

There's one book I was given as a gift and I bring it to work everyday: Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. As far as writing a menu, it is one of the most helpful tools I know of. I use it as an idea starter.

Another is called Kitchen Confidential (by Anthony Bourdain). I read it while in culinary school. It's really an eye opener. TV really skews how people understand a chef's life. But TV is not reality. Not even close. This book explains that if you don't have that innate passion to cook, you're going to be supremely disappointed in your career choice.

What about all the cooking TV shows on the air?
The good part about them is that they spark interest. It's so great that new minds are exposed to cooking. The next new thing – like molecular gastronomy – might come from the passion inspired within a person who watched a reality cooking show.
Chefs have signature dishes. What does it take for a dish to become a signature and what is yours?

Man, this is a tough question.

It's so hard for me to pick just one (dish). I love cooking everything. I know it sounds like I'm avoiding the question. But if I see something on TV or in a magazine, I have to learn how to make it.

It's funny, my wife doesn't like to go out with me to restaurants because I have to pick a dish apart and figure out how they make it.

I can't name one dish. Impossible.

What cooking and food trends do you see the general public adopting in the near future?

There are two I can think of. One has come - and is possibly gone. It's the small plates phenomena. I kind of get the feeling that people are done with small plates. People want a meal when they go out to eat, not an appetizer. They want portions that will fill them up.

Localization is the next thing – sourcing food from a nearby location. Local beef in particular is amazing. People feel better about eating it. It's grown naturally, and by supporting local farms people realize they're giving back to their community.

Do you have local suppliers?
There are a couple of local suppliers I buy from regularly. Slagel Farms, for pork and chicken. I try to buy as much as I can from Dietzler Farms for their beef. It's absolutely amazing. They're smaller and their product is harder to get. But when we can…. It's grass fed. Even with something as simple as a burger, it's better than anything I've ever had.
What's the one thing in the kitchen you can't do without?
Hmmm... that's a tough one. I'd have to say bacon. I don't use it in everything. But a lot of times it gives whatever I'm making a deeper flavor. There are so many uses for it. You see it in so many things. Then it would have to be followed next by onions.
Let's shift to your other creative endeavor - what draws you to music?

Learning to play guitar intrigued me in the same way cooking does. ‘How do I play this?' To be able to create emotions through music makes you feel powerful. There is nothing like creating emotion through this instrument.

I play an ESP Truckster (Metallica's James Hetfield's signature guitar). My wife is a folky, which makes for a complete clash of styles. We met when she was performing at open mics and I was playing wherever I could. We named our son Marshall after our favorite amp.

Last question: If you were stranded on a desert island, what's the one dish you would have to have, or you couldn't go on living?

I would have to say it would have to be… oh, man... tough question. I would have to say Mexican food, for sure.

Wait, I'm going to take that back. This is the Chicago in me coming out: Chicago-style hotdog. That would have to be it. Poppy seed bun, yellow mustard, Vienna beef, chopped onions, neon-green relish, pickle, tomato, sport peppers, celery salt. Loaded up. It's a flavor that never gets old. Nothing fancy. Nothing healthy. And you definitely feel it after you eat it. Offer me one and I'm in.