How to Survive Year 1: A Reflection With 2018 JBF Best Chef Nominee Zoe Schor
In just the first year owning her own restaurant, Zoe Schor, chef/owner of Chicago's Split Rail, was nominated for Best Chef: Great Lakes by the James Beard Foundation. Previously the Executive Chef at Ada Street (DMK restaurant group), Zoe took a risk when she opened her own place but it's clear she's put together a winning recipe.
Photo of Zoe Schor, chef/owner of Spilt Rail in Chicago, IL.
With the one-year anniversary of your restaurant coming up, what would you say has been your proudest moment to-date? I think that’s a hard one because on the one hand just getting the restaurant open was a big accomplishment. That moment, that day, that sort of realizing that we could never again do this for the first time—that we had done it for the first time—that’s a big one. I think every day the things that Michelle [GM of Split Rail] and I are proudest of are our people. The smaller accomplishments we achieve every day in terms of creating an environment of hospitality, and every day that we read a Yelp review or have a guest stop us on the way out to tell us how great their server or bartender was, those are the things we are proudest of.
What do you feel is the most important and/or challenging aspect of being a leader of your own team vs. leading the team for someone else? What are some elements of management that you are most proud to implement in your space? Even when I've worked for somebody else, I have always put everything into what I’ve done. The big difference is there's no walking away from it. This is what we’re doing. There are days that you’re totally overwhelmed and the idea that there is no other option or path can be a little bit exhausting. The idea that we are not working for other people kind of presents itself in little ways throughout the day where Michelle and I will be talking about something and be like “Okay, we just decided that!” We don’t have to ask anybody or tell anybody. Not having to get anyone’s approval is refreshing and also puts more responsibility on us to make sure we make the right decision. When there was somebody higher up who might say yes or might say no we were able to say to ourselves “This could be a terrible idea but let’s just run it past them and see what they think” and now we’re the last word. It’s pressure to make the right choices. Pressure to make sure we make choices for the right reasons. We're here every day and every decision made impacts us. There’s no sitting in an office saying we will do this or won’t do that with somebody else carrying the weight. It’s us carrying the weight.
Your menu is whimsical and full of re-imagined versions of some American favorites. Do you have a process for coming up with new dishes? How do you foresee the menu evolving over time? I don’t have a specific process. The kind of food we do is finding the fun in things but also the minimum threshold is making sure that if we are reimagining something or redoing something, that it's better than the original. We need to have a leg up on the original dish. We are inspired by the food we like to eat (my sous chef and myself). We all grew up with certain framework for food. What is delicious? What is evocative? What is nostalgic? But also, a lot of the food we grew up eating was not delicious and not made with great ingredients. It’s really easy to take a great idea and make it better or take an idea that hasn’t always been well executed and execute it well. It shows in dishes like our nachos and our chicken nuggets which are straightforward interpretations of the classic dish. No reimagining in either of those dishes; those are the dishes. But then there are things like our fajitas reimagined or the loaded baked potato gnocchi where we've completely reimagined in a way that you wouldn't recognize it if you saw it but when you taste it you know what it is supposed to evoke.
The rustic, Americana interior of Split Rail.
Anything specific dish you are working on for the near future? We’re working on a hot pocket right now, like the one you remember from childhood.
What advice would you give other chefs looking to open their own restaurant? Can I say "don’t do it"? Is that allowed? In Chicago, and across the country, every day there are new restaurants opening. Whether you are a chef or ops/FOH person, you better make sure you have a strong partner doing it with you. I would never recommend doing it without that. And be really f**king sure there is nothing else on this planet that you could do with your time. You should only open a restaurant if there is nothing else that is going to make you happy. It's so hard and it's so uniquely challenging and the competition is fiercer every day for guests and also for team members. The craziest thing is when you see somebody open a restaurant that does not have a chef partner and then you watch chefs go in and out; anyone without a strong partner is probably doomed for failure.
What are your goals for next year? Or what will you consider the next milestone achievement? Michelle and I are working on a couple different things. We don’t necessarily want to show all our cards at this point but we definitely have some things in the works. Over the next year, we'd like to grow the business here in the restaurant and see ourselves have greater exposure to a wider audience particularly in our neighborhood but also across the city. Nobody was more surprised than I was to make the long list for James Beard this year. Honestly, I was shocked that happened. We’d like to just be here still in a year!
How are you celebrating the big 1 year? With a party! A first-birthday themed party complete with funfetti birthday cake, a magician, and karaoke.
A big thanks to Zoe for offering her time to speak with us and for her partnership with Reserve. Do you too want to be featured? Email your Restaurant Success Manager and let us know!