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- More from Deborah Pankey
The burger on homemade rye on Hackney's in Lake Zurich and wasabi-crusted ahi tuna with red miso at Retro Bistro in Mount Prospect seem worlds apart to most people, but not to Christopher Barth.
Barth, the owner and chef at the acclaimed French-inspired eatery, started his restaurant career at the popular burger palace.
"I starting working for Hackney's in Lake Zurich as a busboy at 15 years old and from that time on, I never left the restaurant industry," said Barth, who grew up in Barrington.
He credits his mother, Donna Howarth, for his early interest in cooking.
"My mother was always creating something in the kitchen; she liked to experiment with new ingredients and new styles of cooking," he said. "She always had some music on and just had a good time."
He attended culinary school at Kendall College (then in Evanston) where he met his wife, Lorraine, the daughter of Dominique Legeai, founder of Retro Bistro and of D&J Bistro in Lake Zurich. In 1997 the couple took over Retro Bistro and earlier this year they celebrated the restaurant's 20th anniversary.
Besides running the restaurant, the couple is raising three children, C.J., 16, Gabrielle, 15, and Nicolette, 9.
What is your culinary philosophy? Always go seasonal. Keep it seasonal and it will always be fresh, with the best flavor and the pest price.
What has been the key to Retro Bistro's success? First my wife, Lorraine. Without her understanding of the long hours and her commitment to my family we would not have been here for 20 years.
Second, my staff. I have cooks, waitstaff and bartenders that have been with me for 15-plus years. They are dedicated, knowledgeable and care about our customers.
Third my loyal clientele. I have customers who come from all over the world and customers who come from right around the corner. I have CEOs of industry at my bar sitting next to the local plumber. We have a wonderful mix of ages and personalities.
How has the menu and your style changed over the years? Variety is so important these days. My customers want to see really interesting menu items. The availability of ingredients has really changed; now I can get next-day air items from Hawaii, France, Alaska, Australia - all over the world.
I still offer many items from my first menu, like our crab and shrimp cakes with champagne sauce, fresh ground steak tartare and the steak frites with a shallot parsley butter.
How have diners changed over the years? My customers are much better informed about food, wine and price. I also believe they are looking for value more than ever. We give them a three-course prix fixe with choices at lunch for $19 and at dinner for $28.
You and your wife work together; how does the relationship work? Working together is not easy but we have found the key to success: When she is here, she's the boss. No questions asked!
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? I think the Chicago area has some of the best locally grown heirloom tomatoes in the world - so many different kinds with just fantastic colors and flavors. Simply slice a tomato and a touch of red onion; season with extra virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt, fresh black pepper and a dash of aged balsamic vinegar.
What do you do on your free time? I love to cook and that does not end at Retro Bistro. We love to get together with friends and family, open a couple bottles of wine, cook some great food and enjoy some laughs. There's nothing better.
If I'm not cooking, I sure love golfing. My old favorite is the Mt. Prospect Golf Club.
Do you have any guilty pleasures? I love a cold Heineken in the summer and in the fall homemade warm apple pie topped with ice cream.
Tell us about this recipe. Retro Bistro has had the Crab and Rock Shrimp Crab Cake on our menu for over 20 years. Customers from all over the world have tried our crab cake and say Retro's crab cake is the best.
I think they enjoy it so much for three reasons: we use the best lump crabmeat on the market, the rock shrimp add a wonderful texture to it, and we use just a little bread crumbs to hold it together and give them some color.
Try this at home or at Retro Bistro, 1746 W. Golf Road, Mount Prospect. (847) 439-2424.
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