Scott Harris, an award-winning and esteemed Chicago restaurateur for 20 years (and 2011 James Beard Award semi-finalist for Outstanding Restaurateur), was the brain behind Mia Francesca (circa 1992), now a 22-unit enterprise all across Chicagoland. Harris began as a chef, finishing culinary school at Joliet Junior College, and then going on to work in many well-known Chicago restaurant kitchens, including The Signature Room at the 95th, Ambria, Cucina Cucina, Harry’s Café, Sole Mio, and Trattoria L’Angelo di Roma, as well as Petthany’s in St. Croix. In recent years, Harris has partnered with Heaven on Seven chef/owner Jimmy Bannos to open The Purple Pig, and he has transformed the historic Little Italy neighborhood with a slew of new, modern eateries and bars.
FE&S: You’ve been a successful Chicago restaurateur for decades, are you a native?
Scott Harris: Yes I was born at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Chicago to parents Robert and Julia on July 22, 1961. I have lived in two homes my whole life, one in Chicago and one in Mokena.
FE&S: When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Scott Harris: A dentist. My first job was working with my dad as a laborer and carpenter. I was 14 and my parents told me I needed to start buying my own jeans and saving to buy a car so I knew I had to get a job. I didn’t know I would end up in the hospitality industry when I was in high school, though.
FE&S: When you did make your food industry debut, what was your first job?
Scott Harris: I was a dishwasher at Fox’s Pub in Orland Park. I eventually figured out I wanted to work in the restaurant industry when I was working for a Greek guy and he constantly reamed me on my food cost. I couldn’t get in any lower without sacrificing quality and I knew I wanted to do this on my own, my way. I was about 24 when I got my first head chef job. I knew that if I was going to work this hard, I wanted to work for myself not anyone else.
FE&S: If you could have written your high school yearbook, what would have been your “most likely to”?
Scott Harris: Most likely to be voted hardest working.
FE&S: What obstacles did you have to overcome early in your career?
Scott Harris: Trying to prove myself to the chef I was working for when there were so many talented people to compete with.
FE&S: What was one of your greatest learning experiences?
Scott Harris: Learning proper butchering techniques at Ambria.
FE&S: Fine dining can be more than just white tablecloths and formal clothes. What do you think the tricks are to crafting a fine dining restaurant with less of that stigma?
Scott Harris: Relaxed servers, no pretentiousness.
FE&S: What do you think chef-driven dining will look like in five years?
Scott Harris: Old school will be new again. Think Steak Diane, Oysters Rockefeller, that sort of thing. But it will be old school techniques with a twist.
FE&S: Casual concepts and affordable menu options are all the rage right now. How have you adjusted your menus to reflect this growing trend?
Scott Harris: We've dropped prices and scaled portions to reflect a more budget-conscious dining experience. But some common mistakes restaurants make when doing this are that they make it too casual and dumb-down everything too much. Service, food and the many other aspects of a restaurant still need to be kept to a standard.
FE&S: How do you feel about chef-y iPad or smartphone applications?
Scott Harris: My app would be an encyclopedia of cheese with every variation, what to pair it with. The possibilities are endless.
FE&S: How about if appliances could talk to you?
Scott Harris: Appliances that talk... this is a little too “techy” for me. If my stovetop could talk it would probably ask for a day off.