John Manion on Brazilian Food in the Midwest & Chicago Dives
Though he graduated with a degree in English and political science, John Manion decided to abandon his burgeoning public relations career to pursue a love of cooking full-time, eventually turning a popular Brazilian pop-up into the successful Chicago restaurant, La Sirena Clandestina.
John Manion, Photo by Rich Shilkus
With a name meaning “hidden mermaid,” this tropically influenced spot was inspired by the five years Manion spent living in São Paulo as a child. We spoke with him about serving Latin food to Midwestern diners, why restaurateurs should pay attention to aggregate reviews and his favorite neighborhood haunts.
You worked at a PR firm in Washington, D.C. after college. At what moment did you decide you wanted to pursue a culinary career instead?
When I was growing up I always worked in restaurants but becoming a chef was not really sexy back then. It wasn’t really a vocation that people were raring to get into. You wanting to be a chef was like saying you wanted to be somebody’s butler — it was very service-oriented. So I went to school at Marquette University for English and political science. And when I graduated in 1991 it was in the midst of a recession, and there weren’t a lot of jobs to be had. I had family out in D.C., and with a double major like that I was not really qualified to do much of anything. When I first moved out there I got a job cooking and bartending and even when I got into PR, I kept that because the PR didn’t pay all that well. At some juncture — maybe a year in — I had dinner with my father and he was like, “What do you want to do when you grow up? What do you want to do, because this is not you.” When I thought I wanted to do one of two things: either teach English at a university level or be in the restaurant business, I phoned my English advisor at Marquette and he advised me to go into the restaurant business. So, the rest for me is history.
La Sirena Clandestina's dining room. Photo provided by La Sirena Clandestina
Why did you decide to move to Chicago?
The plan was to end up in Seattle — I had friends out there and there was a lot going on culturally at the time. Chicago was easy because I went to Marquette and I’m a Midwestern kid, so there were a lot of couches to crash on. I decided what I would do was enroll in the culinary program at Kendall College to learn the back of the house. I thought I was a pretty good cook. I’d worked in a few kitchens but I knew that I needed to round that out. At the same time, a friend of a friend hooked me up with Dean Zanella, who was the chef of Grappa at that time. And he gave me a very entry-level position job. So I learned a ton from him, and then I just stuck, 20+ years later.
Brazilian food doesn’t seem like an automatic match for Midwestern diners — how has it been received?
I think that people are a lot more sophisticated now through the internet, through TV shows, more educated than they were even five years ago. You look at restaurants like Fat Rice or Parachute doing very specific ethnic cuisines — it wasn’t that long ago that Macanese food was a real outlier. But Brazil is not real well known in the United States and in the Midwest. The way that I cook, I’m not Brazilian, I’m not from there, I’ll never be from there. We sort of distilled it to more of a Latin-local approach. Meaning: I live in Chicago, we have this weather, we grow these crops. I always wanted to be somewhat of a hybrid of what my first experiences as a kid were — the sights and smells and tastes of food. But that has to measured with the fact that I’m a Chicago cook.
Table setting at La Sirena Clandestina, Photo by The Barkers
How would you describe your leadership style?
I used to be a little bit more of a hothead but now, if I had to use one word it would be “collaborative.” It’s a team effort always, so you realize that, particularly as a chef and a chef/owner, you’re more of a coach then you are in the game, and if you can take a longview — your business and your team and where you’re at and where you’re trying to be — I think it’s really helpful.
In what ways have you seen tech and social media affect your business over the years?
I think it’s a very different world then when I started out. Social media has changed a lot in the three years we’ve been open. It used to be Facebook was the big influencer, and now we’re seeing a lot more on Instagram. In terms of review sites, I don’t know that anyone in the restaurant business would claim to love the practice of Yelp, but if you’re denying the fact that it exists and that it influences your business, then you’ve got your head in the sand. If you choose to ignore it (and a lot of people do), you’ve got to at least take an aggregate. There are certainly reviews that are awful, and those people are never going to be happy and are writing for themselves.
But if you see trends in your customer reviews, there’s probably some truth to them, and it would behoove you as an owner or operator to pay attention to them.
Can you describe your favorite dish on the menu?
Our whole fish — we talk to our fish guy every night. We always bring in a whole fish, usually a snapper from the Gulf. It’s been described to me as “the food that you wish you got on vacation but never get on vacation.”
Whole Fish at La Sirena Clandestina, Photo by The Barkers
What we do with it is real simple: it’s whole fish scored, dusted with Farofa which is manioc meal and we serve it with three different hot sauces, dende oil — which is one of those flavors of Brazil that’s evocative of my childhood that’ll probably always stick with me — and then some pickled chilies, herbs and green onion on top.
What would pair well with it?
Our wine list is lovely, but with that I would go with a caipirinha or a cold beer.
Any fave Chicago haunts?
To me, what’s home is a little bistro in my neighborhood called Le Bouchon which is very special to me. It’s the restaurant I’ve been to the most. There’s Rainbo, a really old bar through the alley and not fancy — there’s no mixology going on. It’s a classic Chicago spot, a lot of history there. On my block there’s a restaurant/cafe called The Winchester that I really really love. There’s another old-school place called The Matchbox — the name is fitting. The drinks are fantastic but again nothing fancy.