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Long before Chicago blossomed into the world-class dining destination it is today, Everest soared above the city, a French-accented standout on the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange. Thirty years later and Jean Joho’s ode to his home country is still going strong. As the renowned chef-owner began to celebrate a milestone anniversary with a special “1986” menu of dishes served during the first year of business (available through February 10), Joho shared insights into how Everest came to be, how he keeps a legend fresh and lessons he’s learned over the decades.
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Zagat: What drew you to Chicago originally?
Jean Joho: I came to Chicago in 1984 to open Maxim’s de Paris. The people are really welcoming here, they’re very warm. The Midwest reminded me of Alsace. In the mid-’80’s, Chicago was a very growing city, foodwise; it was an exciting time.

Zagat: Can you tell us about Everest’s origins? What was it like when it opened and where did the name come from? 
JJ: When I opened Everest, I was the first one doing a lot of different things. It was the beginning of farm-to-table when I started here, and I was working with small farmers and building relationships with them. We were one of the first restaurants to have a tasting menu too. The name Everest was the middle name of one of the owners of the Chicago Stock Exchange. I’m on the 40th floor, but the view was always an accessory to me, like paintings on the wall. Best food, best service, best atmosphere that we can.

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Zagat: Can you talk about the Alsatian influence?
JJ: Alsatian food is a typical regional cuisine with more Eastern European style. Alsace was a poor area, and the people who were really wealthy were the winemakers and the farmers. This means lots of root vegetables and pork, and regional variations on things like sauerkraut. Closer to Germany, they add sweetness to their sauerkraut, while in the South they add caraway seeds. Same direction but different interpretation. I put my own spin on it with a much fresher, lighter style. We also have the largest wine list from Alsace. Our list has around 2,000 wines, with about 500-600 from Alsace. That’s a very big signature of the restaurant. The wine matching the food is what we do here.

Zagat: What inspired you to do a 1986 menu? 
JJ: I think you always want to make something new, but many times to bring something back is a very good thing. I wanted to go back to my roots when I started here, and these are still fabulous dishes. But you forget after a while. We first did the caviar spoon a long time ago, and we’re serving it again for January and February, with Alsace cabbage potage, smokedsturgeon and gougères. The first dish is a pressé of wild salmon. The second course is bass wrapped in potato and thyme. The meat course is beef tenderloin Rossini-style with horseradish crust. Then we have a cheese course. In ’86, I used all American cheeses, and by the ’90’s it was only Midwestern cheeses. For dessert, I have a chocolate-banana terrine.

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Zagat: How do you keep Everest fresh year after year? 
JJ: There are lots of little things, but most important is you have to update every day what you like to do. I always say, “Tomorrow you can be better than you are today.” All these little changes make a big change. This can mean changes in decor, in products, in the way you cook. I think when you come up with a dish, it’s an evolution. You set to update another dish, you’re not creating a new piece of art.Ingeneral you have a lot of back work behind you. It’s the same in the restaurant business.

Zagat: Have there been any surprises over the years?
JJ: What’s really interesting, with all the changes happening, is we have a lot of young clientele coming up. We’ve got very mixed clientele these days. I think it’s nice to see in the dining room. People want to again be in an atmosphere where they can have a conversation and they don’t need to be tweeting about what they’re doing the whole time. That’s who we are here. It’s elegant. People always talk “special occasion,” but I don’t think it’s a special event. If you’re healthy and happy, every day is a special event.