Spotlight on Chef Ryan McCaskey of Acadia in Chicago is another post in our 2014 Starchefs International Chefs Congress series.
Reading Chef Ryan McCaskey’s bio you can’t help but be intrigued. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, raised in the suburbs of Chicago, with summers in Maine, he traveled extensively at a young age, taking in a variety of cultures and flavors. By age 14, apparently, he was the family cook.
Though he’s a master of global flavors, Maine is where is heart seems to be. His Chicago restaurant Acadia, after all, is named after the famous national park, and his menu reflects “inspirations from Maine in many forms.” Not only does his restaurant source products direct from the state – think lobster, clams, mussels, oysters, crab, halibut, tuna – but small details like the stone vases on the tables were made especially for him in Stonington, Maine. There are also "Maine" touches with serving pieces like lichen branches, Deer Isle granite, tree sections, and moss. “It’s how I stay true to my roots and to my story,” he said.
And though some dishes have a direct correlation with his beloved New England state, McCaskey likes to have fun with "Maine in your mouth" creations that put elements of the ocean and forest together. The ones that he served at the Eat@ICC Pop-Up Restaurant at the 9th Annual StarChefs Conference featured a variety of Maine touches, albeit with a twist. His “Lobster Roll” featured pig heart tartare, scallop toast and chawanmushi (Japanese egg custard); Werp Farm Beets with granola, caviar, cauliflower and pickled blueberry; and Lamb, foraged mushrooms, pommes puree, currants and “forest floor” aromas.
What else influences McCaskey in the kitchen? “Almost anything,” he said, from art to movies, people, and landscapes. McCaskey told a story about how, years ago, after a Grateful Dead concert in San Francisco, he and a friend went in search of Chinese duck. The place in Chinatown that he knew of was closed so they stumbled upon a restaurant with no sign on the door. They went in and sat down. The place turned out to be Hakkasan – the multiple Michelin-starred establishment – and dinner ended up costing $450, when they planned on spending $19. This, too, is a page in the McCaskey book.
He says most of his non-Maine cooking influences come from the past and he credits his grandparents’ cooking. “I have such a strong food memory, I look to the past and those stories for inspiration. There is no gimmick, or hook with the food. Because those stories and inspirations are the truth.”