Restaurant Michael in Winnetka feels a bit like stepping back into the famed Le Francais dining room in Wheeling, except it's cozier, a touch more casual, with brighter lighting and upbeat jazz gently playing on the speakers. It all makes sense because chef Michael Lachowicz cut his culinary teeth at Le Francais and in Lyon, France, but he is also a dedicated Harley rider who started working in his grandfather's family restaurant in Chicago at a very young age. His love of French cooking, the kind that is hearty, full-bodied and artistically satisfying, saturates the menu with such items as confit cabbage, pommes Anna, salade Lyonnaise and pork galantine. Just back from some R and R and a successful marriage proposal in Florida, Lachowicz and I talked over a plate of pates in his newest addition to the restaurant, a charming side dining room, complete with a fireplace. This is an edited version of that conversation.
Q: Congratulations on the big news. Have you celebrated the event at a restaurant back here in Chicago?
A: Alexis (fiancee) and I haven't had time since getting back into town. But, you know, I eat differently now. I eat real lean and disciplined. It comes from cleaning up everything from before: the pills, the alcohol, overeating. I'm public about my challenges and proud that I am clean for several years. Now, I eat strategically. Monday is my splurge day, and only one meal. Instead, I work out compulsively, six days a week, which is a better addiction. On Monday, if my meal is breakfast, I go to Walker Brothers (in Wilmette). You can't find that kind of good American food with a bit of German thrown in anywhere else. For lunch, it would be Hot Doug's (in Wicker Park) for duck sausage and duck fat fries. It could also be a great burger at Kuma's Corner. For dinner, it is Sprout (in Lincoln Park) with Dale Levitksi. He is doing some really different stuff there.
Q: But you haven't told me where you would go to celebrate.
A: Spiaggia. (Chef) Tony Mantuano is just delicious old-school cooking. I respect that. He's really talented and a great guy.
Q: What about another restaurant on the North Shore where you like to go?
A: Oceanique in Evanston. (Chef) Mark (Grosz) and his family have been making great food there for so many years. I especially like his crudo selections. He has a way of doing raw fish I haven't tasted other places. I don't do raw here, so it's great to have something different. I am not an oyster fan, and I only eat them there. They are served super fresh with really nice treatments/accompaniments.
Q: You obviously have French cuisine in your veins. Is there another French restaurant you like to go to?
A: I'm pretty simple — Le Bouchon in Bucktown. I like the way I feel in the place when I'm there. It brings me back to France. The food is traditional, a throwback. It's not the slick experience offered in many restaurants today. It is authentic.
Q: So, given your disciplined eating regime, where to you go for a healthy nosh?
A: Bob San on Division over by Damen. I'm a huge sushi fan. They go through a lot of product, so it's always really fresh. They also don't try to be a hot kitchen so much and stick to the raw stuff. Their sushi really is great.
Christopher Koetke is the vice president of the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College. He also hosts the cooking show "Let's Dish" on the Live Well Network.