The Promontory is the latest addition to chef and entrepreneur Jared Wentworth’s growing empire that also includes the wildly successful Longman & Eagle and Dusek’s, a modern brewpub in Chicago. A graduate of Kendall College, Wentworth has spent time in the kitchens of David Burke, John Hogan and the late Keith Korn. The recipient of a Michelin star for the past five years, Chef Wentworth strives to run sustainable kitchens with a devotion to local foods and seasonal fare.
FE&S: Located on Chicago’s South side, The Promontory is your latest endeavor. How would you describe the restaurant and menu?
JW: The Promontory is a neighborhood restaurant, bar and concert venue that opened last year. We named it after Hyde Park’s beloved Promontory Point overlooking Lake Michigan. Inspired by the fire pit rings that dot the shore, we designed the restaurant and bar on the first floor around a brick hearth where we do most of our cooking with fire.
FE&S: So it’s not a wood-fired oven?
JW: It’s actually a common misconception that the hearth is an oven — most folks associate the use of wood in restaurants with either BBQ or wood-fired ovens. Actually, a hearth is really just another name for a fireplace, or at least that’s what we kitchen workers call it. In colonial days, most kitchens didn’t have a stove, so the actual cooking was done in the fireplace, or hearth. A fire was built in the hearth and people used spits, grills, Dutch ovens and hanging tripods to work with different levels of heat. Our hearth burns oak wood and has an iron “rig” that holds a plancha and a grill. It can be raised and lowered with a simple wheel and cable mechanism. There are also roasting rods built into the brickwork at different heights to roast larger pieces of meats. While most wood ovens trap heat inside to bake food, our hearth doesn’t retain any heat — all the cooking is done directly on the flames so it requires a lot of skill and imparts a very unique flavor to the food.
FE&S: How would you describe “modern hearth cooking” as you call it?
JW: A lot of the necessary knowledge regarding how to cook meat by an open hearth — or cure — has been forgotten. We’re trying to reach back and explore what we can do with fire. The hearth is also an architectural piece that pays homage to the primitive cooking style of our ancestors. We focus on a lot of one-pot dishes but give them a more modern edge. There is also that social element with the hearth — just like you’d gather around a campfire with friends and family. Using the hearth actually simplifies things quite a bit because you can cook a lot of food really fast, but consistency is the hardest thing to achieve. You have to know how to tame the flame and shape the fire into a controllable medium. There are a million restaurants in the city so the hearth definitely offers a unique experience.
FE&S: What do you cook in the oven?
JW: We’ve had a lot of fun with the Kentucky Burgoo, which was inspired by an old Appalachian dish called “catch all stew” because traditionally, each guest at a dinner party would bring one ingredient to include in the pot. It’s also the official dish of the Kentucky Derby. It takes 18 hours to cook so it’s interesting to watch how all the ingredients change and develop flavor. We use seasonal vegetables and meat that’s in season — chicken, pork and even rabbit.
FE&S: Do you cook other foods aside from meat and vegetables in the hearth?
JW: We make a lot of our brunch items in the hearth, actually. We make a French toast that we dip in huckleberry bread pudding and cook off the wood-fired grill and top it with vanilla mascarpone, honey crumble, a maple brown butter emulsion and some huckleberry jam. A lot of people like the smokiness of our homemade corned beef hash because it’s also cooked in the hearth.
FE&S: What are the techniques needed for cooking with a hearth?
JW: Sometimes we make mistakes but they turn out to be useful. There are so many variables and that’s the best part about working with a hearth. During service, we have to be very efficient, but it’s easier with a hearth because of its power. As a cook making a lot of food at once, the best thing you can ask for is to have a ripping hot fire next to you at all times. During the day, we’ll use the hearth for bulk production — we roast meats, sear vegetables and char citrus for cocktails and syrups. During service, we keep a big fire under the grill and the plancha, and the prepared food is finished on the rig. We use the plancha just like a flattop to sear pork belly, sandwich buns, pork collar and venison sausage. It’s really very fast and efficient because it’s always hot. We also use the grill for short ribs, lamb burgers, octopus, pork belly and pot roast.
FE&S: Do you have to specially train people to use the hearth?
JW: Yes we do, but it is a pretty quick learning curve. It is a very simple rig, but managing the fire is definitely the most difficult part. It can be very frustrating to try and get a fire started in a short period of time. It requires a decent amount of problem solving, persistence and intellect to get it done.
FE&S: How do you maintain the hearth to keep it working properly?
JW: The hearth gets swept out every night — all the ash is moved into a metal trashcan — and the iron rig is brushed with grill brick. That process removes any carbon build-up and restores the finish. The masonry is power washed with a high-pressure sprayer once a week to keep it from collecting grease. We also oil down the iron rig every day to keep it looking nice.
FE&S: The Hyde Park neighborhood hasn’t seen a lot of action when it comes to restaurants in many years. Do you feel you’re contributing something unique to the neighborhood?
JW: We didn’t create Hyde Park, and we’re not the saviors of Hyde Park, we’re just honored to be in this very historical community. We’d like to think we’re a beacon, drawing people together with food, music and drinks simply by creating a new sense of community. The hearth also gives our cooks the opportunity to play around and come up with new, really creative ideas.