The road to the kitchen throne at The Monarch
was not an obvious or easy route for Peter Coenen, recently tapped executive chef at the Wicker Park gastropub. Rather, the East Coast-bred chef fell into the realm of cookery out of youthful necessity and a restless energy that behooved him to kitchen life. As the dexterous chef takes the reins and settles in at his new role, completely overhauling the menu and accentuating his own culinary voice, it's an apt time to get to know one of Chicago's most under-the-radar up-and-comers.
(Peter Coenen hard at work at The Monarch)
Coenen's offbeat trajectory began at a boarding school outside Boston. Not the most commonplace setting for a burgeoning culinarian to develop an interest in cooking, but as a teenager it afforded him the opportunity to get a job in a kitchen washing dishes. I know I know, that old "dishwasher to prep cook to sous chef to chef" chestnut, right? Well sure, but Coenen's rise through the ranks had a lot more zing to it. Case in point: Coenen cites memories of hanging out with his friend whose dad owned a restaurant and who lived above said restaurant. Whereas most teens would be content playing video games or zipping around on bikes, Coenen had different interests. "We would go down and see the burners and servers. We'd grab things off the line and make sandwiches," says Coenen. "I liked the hustle and bustle of the kitchen. I never liked sitting still." That restless leg syndrome would turn out to be a huge boon to Chicago's culinary landscape, just you wait.
From those days in boarding school and kitchen antics, Coenen progressed to Johnson & Wales in Providence. Like many creatives with a penchant for hands-on learning, Coenen preferred spending time at work. "I wish I got more out of culinary school. I preferred the movement of the kitchen," he explains. After school, he bounced around the continent clocking time in Arizona, South Carolina, and the Virgin Islands. "I hadn't seen winter in god knows how long," he says of that fortuitous period in his life right before he moved to Chicago and remembered what frozen breath feels like. "Chicago has an amazing food scene. It was only going to be a one-year stint, but we fell in love with the city." And just like that, he was hooked on Chicago. A stint at BOKA
turned into a six-year tenure, followed by an executive chef role at The Gage
. But despite his love for all of it, there was still something missing; the desire to work someplace with some grit and some challenge. That place turned out to be The Monarch.
Right as he was planning on departing Chicago, the opportunity to take over at The Monarch fell into his lap. For the insatiable creative, the chance to work at a small bar-type setting with palpable gristle was something he yearned for. It allowed him to re-concept the menu, build a vertical garden, and "undersell and over-deliver." The latter is his ethos at The Monarch, a place he bills as a "contemporary American gastropub" chock full of invigorated familiar flavors. Like roast chicken with cornbread grits and buttery popcorn sauce or a stunning beet salad with licorice gastrique and goat cheese terrine amplified with pureed red and yellow beets.
Hot on the heels of re-calibrating the menu layout, Coenen is also contemplating implementing a sort of chef's table at the kitchen pass. With only four or five seats, the intimate up-close-and-personal nook would enable Coenen to cook customized tasting menus for one seating a couple nights a week, personalizing the menus to diners.
It's the latest culmination of a colorful culinary journey that took a boarding school alum all over the country and into a gritty kitchen in Wicker Park, where he finally feels at home and that restless tick is finally sated.
- Matt Kirouac