Patricia Yeo's big leap

Last March, Big Bowl hosted an invitation-only dinner that doubled as an introduction to its star culinary hire, chef Patricia Yeo. She prepared a seven-course menu that featured beef heart crudo with pickled beets and citrus, and a three-tongue course of beef, lamb and duck.

Dishes starring heart and tongue seem at odds with a Chinese/Thai chain that serves 28,000 customers a week and counts kung pao chicken and pad thai among its best-sellers. One can't help but wonder if Yeo's hire was a sign that Big Bowl — in its 21st year as the flagship chain of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group — was veering its menu toward the more eclectic and adventurous.

The short answer is no. The longer answer poses a more complicated question: When a corporate chain hires a high-profile chef, how difficult is the balance of elevating its culinary verve without alienating mainstream sensibilities?

This age-old debate of art versus commerce continues on a 51/2-acre farm in Elburn, an hour's drive west of downtown Chicago in the Fox River Valley. Here, at Rustic Road Farm, Yeo strolls past honeybee hive boxes and wild cherry trees. She is bespectacled and diminutive, cutting less an authoritative kitchen figure than a laboratory scientist — Yeo, in fact, earned a doctorate from Princeton in biochemistry before pursuing cooking.

"This is the most relaxed I've ever been," said the Oregon-born Yeo in a British accent, the byproduct of her English boarding school upbringing. No longer managing a restaurant's day-to-day operation means Yeo has spare time for the first time in years — she volunteers at the Garfield Park Conservatory and plans to take Spanish lessons. "Right now," she said, "I speak 'kitchen Spanish.'"

The addition of Yeo to the Big Bowl team in January was indeed a big splash. An already-established name in San Francisco, New York and Boston, Yeo — her Chinese parents immigrated to Malaysia — is most recognizable from her appearance on the fourth season of "Top Chef Masters," the Bravo TV cooking competition in which she finished third runner-up.

Takashi Yagihashi, chef of his eponymous Bucktown restaurant and River North's Slurping Turtle, was a competitor against Yeo on "Top Chef Masters." When he heard she was moving to Chicago, his first thought was, "What the hell are you doing?"

"I was very surprised; I heard she was doing very well in Boston," Takashi said. "Now I think it's a very good move for her. She has a diversity of technique and experiences that she can bring to any kind of kitchen."

At Big Bowl, she effectively takes the position once held by Bruce Cost, the noted chef and Asian culinary historian who's now focusing on his ginger ale business. Yeo's title is "creative director," a catchall term that translates to conceiving new menu items at Big Bowl, tweaking existing dishes and eventually developing new restaurant concepts for Lettuce Entertain You.

 

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By Kevin Pang

Chicago Tribune

(August 15, 2013)