6 Reasons Why Sepia Is One of Chicago's Most Important Restaurants
In its 10th year in business, Sepia has entered a rare restaurant club in Chicago, among the uppermost echelons of destinations that are an indelible part of the city’s dining DNA. In line with other game-changers and industry-shapers like Blackbird, BOKA, NAHA and Topolobampo, Sepia is a timeless gem that somehow only gets better with age, much like the bottles outfitting its award-winning wine list. As the restaurant celebrates this important anniversary, and the owners spawn their highly anticipated Proxi next door, now is as good a time as any to examine the most meaningful aspects of Sepia and what makes it such a pivotal restaurant in Chicago.
1. Creativity is the core of the kitchen. Sure, culinary creativity and ingenuity is all well and good, but at Sepia that innate originality extends much deeper. This is thanks to chef Andrew Zimmerman’s upbringing, which saw him initially following his childhood dream of pursuing a career as a musician in his 20’s. As is frequently the case for many naturally creative souls, Zimmerman clocked time in restaurants in New York City as a means of making money to support himself. A newfound love for cooking quickly re-inspired his career aspirations, leading him to attend the French Culinary Institute—and graduate at the top of his class. He moved to Chicago in 2003 to cook at the Park Hyatt, eventually working in acclaimed restaurants like MOD and del Tori before stepping in as chef at Sepia. That insatiable creativity has always served Zimmerman well, resulting in one of the most dynamic seasonal menus in the city, coupled with a flair for artistic plating and presentation.
2. Sepia felt like a classic from day one. Largely due to the restaurant’s location in a former print shop built in 1890, the vintage Art Nouveau space felt seasoned and special since its inception. Harkening to that bygone era, design elements in the restaurant are timeless and elegant, outfitted with historic Chicago memorabilia. Vintage stemware, meticulous millwork and custom floor tiling exhibit a razor-sharp attention to detail that lays the foundation for a memorable meal.
3. The owner is a consummate hospitality vet. When Emmenual Nony moved to Chicago in 2000, he already had one of the most impressive resumes under his belt of anyone in the hospitality business. Working with Hyatt International, his career saw the French native criss-cross Asia working at hotels and restaurants in Hong Kong, Seoul, Fukuoka and Tokyo before heading to Chicago to open the Park Hyatt and NoMI. After falling in love with Chicago, he knew he wanted to take his career to the next level by venturing on his own and becoming apart of the city’s ever-expanding food scene. In a way, Sepia marked the culmination of a colorful, impressive career for someone with an inborn knack for hospitality and service.
4. Arthur Hon curates one of Chicago’s finest wine lists. Routinely ranked among the best sommeliers not only in Chicago, but the country at large (just check out what Food & Wine had to say recently), Hon has set a new bar for wine service. He’s been with Sepia since opening, bringing his insatiable fascination with wine into the spotlight. A deep-rooted curiosity and eagerness to learn helped Hon honed his skills and refine his personal wine education. It’s something that piloted his burgeoning career, seeing him stat as server and wine captain at Sepia before graduating to beverage director. His encyclopedic knowledge of wine lends itself well to the restaurant’s 700-bottle list, leading the restaurant to rack up the accolades for its wine list over the years. All the while, Hon’s personable, friendly and engaging approach to customer service helps break down any intimidation and make wine as dynamic and fun as any other facet of the restaurant industry.
5. The restaurant has a natural penchant for evolution. The most recent example of this is the hiring of pastry chef Sarah Mispagel, a nice new addition to a storied restaurant. With local stints at esteemed spots like Nightwood and Giant, Mispagel brings a keen eye to the table for seasonality and vibrancy in terms of both presentation and flavor; something that fits in seamlessly with the savory menu. Her latest crop of confections includes a lustrous and light pavlova served with vanilla meringue, poppy seed cake, blood orange curd and grapefruit sorbet. Her black walnut cake with carrot cake ice cream and rum-soaked golden raisins shows that she’s also got a creative streak when it comes to reinventing classic desserts, in this case turning carrot cake utterly on its head.
6. The team took its time in expansion. Unlike some mile-a-minute restaurant groups that have raced their ways to empire statuses (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the Sepia crew took its time in carefully strategizing for its follow-up project next door. Although totally different in terms of cuisine and atmosphere, the underlying ethos of seasonality and gracious hospitality weaves a common thread that’s distinctly Sepia. And it’s a sentiment that will go down in Chicago restaurant history.