Chefs Sarah Stegner and George Bumbaris on being a mentor and friend to many a rising star chef

In February 2012, Chicago chef Beverly Kim was in the midst of her amazing run as a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef television series. Kim had made it all the way to the episode before the finals, with only five competing chefs remaining. Unbeknownst to her, the show’s producers had brought in the contestants’ mentors to serve as coaches for the episode’s competition.

When Chef Sarah Stegner, co-owner of Prairie Grass Cafe (601 Skokie Blvd.; Northbrook, IL; 847-205-4433) walked out on stage, a wide grin came across Kim’s face. “Sarah was my first mentor, when I was 16, and I had no clue what fine dining was about—and I’m forever grateful,” Kim said to the show’s hosts. Then she turned to Sarah and said, with a tear in her eye, “Thank you for your tough love on me.”

Kim’s sentiment on that day spoke volumes about the longstanding bond Sarah had forged with her young protégé sixteen years earlier. Kim was now 32 years old and on the fast track in her career. Fast-forward to 2015, and Kim’s new Chicago restaurant, Parachute, was a finalist as the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant of 2014.

“My message to Beverly,” Stegner said to the Top Chef’s judges, “was that if you are passionate about something and you believe in it, it’s going to work for you.”

Beverly Kim is just one example of the role Stegner and her business partner, Chef George Bumbaris, have played in helping young chefs forge their own career paths. The relationship between Kim and Stegner began in 1998 when Kim worked in Stegner’s kitchen at the famed Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago. Sarah was the Restaurant Chef, and she was on her own career fast track. Stegner had earned a national reputation with two prestigious James Beard Foundation awards: Rising Star Chef in 1994 and Best Chef, Midwest, in 1998. Kim again worked for Stegner, in 2004, just after Stegner launched her very successful Prairie Grass Cafe.

As a proud mentor, Stegner beams with pride at the accomplishments of her former protégé. “Beverly spent time and effort gathering skills and sharpening her style. When she was ready it happened,” she said.

Among Stegner’s and Bumbaris’ many professional passions, one of their most powerful commitments is to provide encouragement and support to young chefs. “George and I have worked together for thirty years, and we’ve always been there to encourage and support each other, and our staff as well. It’s part of our job. We have always held to the philosophy that you give them as much information, skills, understanding and exposure to all aspects of the business as you can. It’s about believing in people and supporting them. We’re proud of all the chefs we’ve mentored who have followed their dreams.”

Perhaps the most notable chef to have come under Stegner’s and Bumbaris’ wing is Tyler Anderson, chef/owner of Millwrights in Simsbury, Connecticut. Anderson worked for Stegner at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton—Bumbaris at the time was the Ritz-Carlton’s executive chef and Sarah’s boss.

Anderson followed Stegner and Bumbaris when they opened Prairie Grass Café. Eventually he moved on to enjoy a stellar career in restaurants such as Equinox in Manchester, Vermont, the Arabelle Hotel in Vail, Colorado and the Copper Beech Inn in Ivoryton, Connecticut. Millwrights is his brainchild, a contemporary American restaurant with a New England flavor and a mission of using ingredients from local farms and artisan producers.

Anderson’s skills have earned nationwide acclaim. He has been twice nominated (2014 and 2015) for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef, Northeast award. He also was a winner of the TV show Chopped on the Food Network. Anderson cites Stegner, Bumbaris, and Charlie Trotter as major influences on his cooking style.

“Tyler is a force in the kitchen with great ideas, incredible stamina and meticulous execution,” said Stegner. “His passion for local sustainable product and serving the best products he can find is right on target.”

Stegner did more than simply guide Anderson in honing his cooking skills. As co-founder of the Green City Market in Chicago, Stegner encouraged Anderson to get involved in Chicago’s vibrant sustainability community. The many chefs, farmers and purveyors who have embraced this movement also have influenced Anderson’s culinary direction.

Anderson attributes his career growth to Stegner. “Before I started working for Sarah, I wasn’t certain that being a chef was my true calling,” said Anderson. “It was Sarah who made me fall in love with cooking.” Today, Anderson is as strongly committed to mentoring as Stegner and Bumbaris. “When a chef is very busy, it’s easy to put mentoring off to the side,” he explained, “but I believe it’s really important. You have to make time to mentor your staff, not only for their sake but also to build your legacy. Today’s best chefs, in my opinion, are those who learned from great chefs before they went on to do their own thing.”

Another James Beard award winner, Chef Bruce Sherman of North Pond (2610 N. Cannon Drive in Chicago), also worked with Stegner and Bumbaris at the Ritz-Carlton. “Bruce’s accomplishments are due to his exceptional talent and lots of dedication and hard work,” said Stegner. “He is strongly committed to sustainability and has been one of Chicago’s leading voices in promoting this movement.”

Years ago, Sherman came to the Ritz-Carlton with a diverse background and strong culinary experience. After he had had worked his way through her kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton, Stegner encouraged him to find a spot where he could shine as the executive chef. North Pond has been such a place and it’s one of Chicago’s most beloved restaurants. “Throughout the years, we have remained close friends and I have tried to be a source of information, encouragement and support to Bruce, and vice versa,” she said.

Jared Batson, owner of Nomad Pizza in Chicago, has quickly established himself as one of Chicago’s foremost young pizza masters. His mobile word burning pizza oven can be found twice a week at Green City Market, where the line for his delicious Neapolitan-style pizza is long, but worth the wait.

Stegner was first introduced to Batson through his uncle, Pascal Vingau, who was the Executive Chef at the Ritz-Carlton and Stegner’s boss before Bumbaris took over the role. When Batson began his culinary career, Vingau introduced Batson to Stegner. Batson was a perfect fit for Prairie Grass Cafe, where he spent a year. Later, Batson attended the famed Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland. It was there that he came up with his entrepreneurial vision to begin a pizza business. His hand-crafted artisan pizzas are made from one hundred percent local and organic ingredients and they are prepared with a masterful touch.

“Jared is someone who is easy to root for,” said Stegner. “He was a very dedicated and hard-working chef in our kitchen and remains as passionate, talented, and amiable as ever. What’s more, he brings great culinary creativity to his pizza. We’ve been thrilled to support him through the formative stages of his business. We fully expect to see Jared succeed in a variety of exciting challenges as his career progresses.”

Another Stegner/Bumbaris protégé with an accelerating career trajectory is Anselmo Ramirez, originally from Mexico, who spent two years in their kitchen. Previous to that he worked at Chef Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill. Ramirez will soon launch his own restaurant, the Ixcateco Grill (3402 W. Montrose, in one of Chicago’s hottest new restaurant neighborhoods, Albany Park). Ixcateco Grill, which opens in July, will be a traditional, authentic Mexican restaurant featuring colorful, robust dishes from the central and southern regions of the country, prepared with Ramirez’s masterful touch.

“I learned so much from Chefs Stegner and Bumbaris,” declared Ramirez. “They taught me how to manage people, to cook with the best local ingredients, and manage a kitchen.”

Executive Chef Sotero Gallegos at La Sardine (111 N. Carpenter, Chicago; 312-421-2800) is another veteran of the Ritz-Carlton kitchen, having served as Stegner’s sous chef at The Dining Room. Born in Mexico, Gallegos built his career at Jean-Claude Poilevey’s La Fontaine, a fashionable French bistro in Chicago, where he worked for 13 years. In 1993 he moved to the Ritz-Carlton where he worked for both Bumbaris and Stegner. In 1998, Poilevely invited Gallegos to become the executive chef at his new La Sardine, and Gallegos has been there ever since.

Stegner and Bumbaris strongly believe that if they can help young chefs and encourage them to follow their dreams, then they will have made a big difference in their career lives. “As chefs,” said Stegner, “we are truly part of a larger restaurant family and we need to look out for each other. The restaurant business is a demanding one and without mutual support and encouragement from culinary mentors, chefs can easily put aside their dreams. That would be everyone’s loss.”

About Prairie Grass Cafe
Prairie Grass Cafe (601 Skokie Blvd.; Northbrook, IL; 847-205-4433) supports Chicago’s Green City Market and local sustainable farms, selecting the freshest ingredients to reflect the season. Prairie Grass Cafe currently serves lunch Monday - Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner Monday through Sunday. Dinner is served Tuesday - Thursday from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Monday and Sunday 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Prairie Grass Cafe also serves breakfast Saturdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sundays 9:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. Light fare is available in the bar Monday through Friday 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information or to make a reservation, please call (847) 205-4433 or visit www.prairiegrasscafe.com.

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