By Brian Min

Having a food conversation with Hugh Amano is like taking a kid to a candy store and then leaving him there. One moment, he’ll regale you with details of last night’s dinner at Lula Cafe, the next he’ll have you debating the ethics behind L.A. Times food critic S. Irene Virbila’s infamous outing by Red Medicine before seamlessly confessing his unabashed love for Jeri’s Grill in North Center. But if there’s one prevailing characteristic worth noting throughout the discussion, it’s that Amano just really likes food.

Perhaps it was his mother’s penchant for homemade comfort dishes like spaghetti & meatballs or mac & cheese in their Denver home, his grandmother’s famous hotplate sukiyaki, or visiting his father’s izakaya in Tokyo (and opting instead to eat McDonald’s) that planted the first inkling of interest. But no matter where you start the story, there’s no doubt Amano grew up infatuated with food and cooking. Even following graduation from the University of Colorado Boulder, Amano would return home more excited to experiment in the kitchen than with his day job in technical writing. It wasn’t until Amano moved to Boston that he finally began to consider his passion for cooking seriously, albeit, under less than desirable circumstances.

“When the dot-com bubble burst, there were absolutely no jobs in my field,” Amano recalls. “I was unemployed for what felt like forever. For awhile I was doing temp work and asking myself, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ It was definitely a dark time in my life, and I still had this desire to work with food.”

Amano finally decided to bite the “$70,000 bullet,” taking out student loans while passing up the likes of the CIA in New York and Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island to attend NECI (New England Culinary Institiute) in Vermont, and in following with NECI’s unique two-year “six months in, six months out” culinary program, Amano’s first internship landed him in Chicago at Atwood Cafe with former executive chef Heather Terhune (Sable Kitchen & Bar), citing his desire to work with a female chef and her background at NECI in bringing him to the Midwest.

“[Being a chef] is such a male-dominated industry, and I wanted to gain Heather’s perspective in how she dealt with it,” Amano explains. “I mean, here’s a chef who spent a good amount of time working with Jean-Louis Palladin in D.C., so she was definitely hardcore. It was important for me to make that distinction early on between gender and work ethic.”

Amano’s second internship (and subsequent first industry job) found him in Atlanta with another NECI graduate in Alton Brown and doing research and recipe development for his Food Network show, Good Eats. Then, after spending a brief period at the now-defunct Food Studio, Amano returned to Chicago after being offered a sous chef position at Terhune’s South Water Kitchen in the Kimpton‘s Hotel Monaco before taking over as executive sous chef following Ryan Jaronik’s departure in 2006. Amano credits his time at South Water Kitchen and the ability to work directly with local purveyors as a major influence in his food philosophy.

“I remember when I first started using Metropolis Coffee at the hotel, I was shaking hands with [Metropolis owner] Tony Dreyfuss and he said to me, ‘This is cool. I think we speak the same language.’ It made perfect sense and it’s those connections through good product that I find are so important to me.”

A couple years later, Amano would move on to become executive sous chef at Uncommon Ground on Devon and helped push the restaurant’s development (including the construction of the nation’s first certified organic rooftop farm) into one of the premier green restaurants in Chicago. But as the recession took hold of the city, the restaurant was forced to eliminate the executive sous chef position at both locations and Amano found himself unemployed again. It was during this time that Amano began writing his aptly-titled blog, Food On The Dole. Here was a creative outlet that utilized Amano’s long-ignored English degree and reaffirmed his strong faith in food. There was little interest in regurgitating recipes and “taking pictures of cupcakes.” Instead, Amano wrote about the intangible experiences from butchering geese, the joys of New Year’s Eve Hoppin’ John, and organizing pie-offs by the lake in an effort to help others focus on the communal aspects of food. The blog turned out to be a reasonable success and garnered him a loyal following, so it only seemed appropriate that Amano would soon find himself out of the dole and working as a chef instructor at The Chopping Block.

But despite the educational environment, Amano still felt restricted by The Chopping Block’s recipe-heavy curriculum and felt compelled to find the proper means to guide people beyond the likes of wild mushroom risotto. Thus, the idea for the Food On The Dole Salon was born, drawing inspiration from the gatherings of 17th century artists who would come together to relax, drink, and “talk shop” in an effort gain knowledge and expand their skill sets. The Food On The Dole Salon would create a similar environment acting as a hybrid between a cooking class and an underground dinner for food-minded folk to have casual conversation, exchange ideas, and actively participate in bringing a multi-course dinner to the table. The first session of the Salon involved a starter of homemade epi baguette, aged cheddar, and volpi cacciatore, followed by a watercress & herb salad with roasted beets and an herb vinaigrette, bacon-wrapped rosemary onions, smashed & fried garlic potatoes, and a plum tart crumble served with Black Dog Gelato, all revolving around the night’s main draw: a simple roast chicken.

Amano insists there’s less emphasis on surprising guests and remains focused on crafting menus based on simple, well-crafted dishes that shouldn’t be intimidating to cooking novices and can be easily replicated at home. Amano’s intent is to showcase food’s ability to transcend boundaries and foster lasting connections, and encourages people of all backgrounds to participate.

“I don’t want a bunch of chefs around the table. There’s a lot of stuff [chefs] don’t know and that’s why I want the everyman to attend the salon. I remember the sous chef at Atwood Cafe trying to teach me how to skin a salmon and it just was not registering with me. So later, the dishwasher comes over, picks up the knife and shows me his way, and something in me immediately clicked. Now I’ll always remember him whenever I break down a fish. That experience reminds me that there shouldn’t be any snobbery when it comes to food.”

In the mean time, Amano will continue to run the Salon from his Lincoln Square apartment with the hopes of expanding it into a weekly event with future plans for “brunch” sessions with trips to area farmer’s markets to learn how to shop for fresh, local product before preparing the Salon’s scheduled meal.  And despite the conceptual nature of the Salon, don’t expect him to give up on his mission any time soon.

“Eating is fucking awesome, and it’s unfortunate that cooking has become such an inconvenience to people and food this terrifying object. Now it’s all bars and manufactured meals and people have stopped learning to care. Before, you never actually learned to cook, it was simply a necessity. We’re running the risk now of snuffing out an entire generation’s worth of knowledge, and we have to claw our way back just to get in touch with our roots and ourselves again.”

Contact Hugh to participate in the next Food On The Dole Salon on March 26th where the focus of the night will be fish, either in whole roasted or bouillabaisse form. The Salon is BYOB and a donation of $50 is requested. Remember, spots are very limited (maximum 6 people per session). For more information or to sign-up, e-mail Hugh at hughamano@yahoo.com, and be sure to visit his blog at http://foodonthedole.blogspot.com for updates and other musings.

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