A decade of Sunday Dinners / by Katie Kenney

If you know good food in Chicago, chances are very high you’ve heard of Honey Butter Fried Chicken. With write ups from Huffington Post, the Chicago Tribune and a feature on Check Please, the hype around HBFC is most definitely warranted, but have you heard of it’s somewhat secret older sister—the Sunday Dinner Club?

Started nearly 10 years ago, the SDC is an underground dinner club that takes place in a space that feels like Grandma’s house (if Grandma had cool concert posters from The National or The Pixies hanging on the walls) right above HBFC with a discreet side door entrance off Roscoe St.  We caught up with Christine—co-founder of SDC, executive chef and managing partner of HBFC and, not surprisingly, one of the top chefs in Chicago—to learn more about the dinner club where we hosted our Spring 2015 Salon.

A lot of people have ideas - and I’m sure you have many yourself - so I’m curious, what sparked the idea for Sunday Dinner Club (SDC) and in turn made you pursue it and make it a reality? 

SDC was inspired by underground restaurants in NYC and Portland popping up ten years ago. I read an article in the New York Times about underground restaurants and thought it sounded like an appealing platform for the kind of food I wanted to cook and a unique dining experience.

Josh (co-chef and business partner) and I knew right away we wanted to serve five course farmers market and seasonal ingredients focused meals, plated and brought out to guests by the chefs. We wanted to serve the dinners in a home setting, giving the experience a dinner party feel.

Making it a reality was fairly simple once we decided on our format. We wrote a menu, picked a date and asked friends and family to attend. We did buy a bunch of plates, glasses, silverware, linens and tables. So personal credit cards were our original investor. :)

You’re running both a successful restaurant and a dinner club, which seems like a lotdo you ever feel overwhelmed or burnt out? How do you refresh and move forward?  

Oh boy. That’s a loaded question. Let’s go with brutal honesty: Yes, I do feel overwhelmed and burnt out at times. But now that we are two years into running two businesses, I’m much more aware of when my energy starts to sink and when I feel like my work load is going to crush me. Because I’m aware of it now, I can take action.

I have a couple of strategies to combat it, to refresh, and move forward—mostly which involve good self-management. I try to ask for help when I am struggling. We have a team mentality at HBFC and SDC—I have business partners and employees that can assist, consult, or simply just listen if needed. We keep each other motivated and encouraged when any one of us starts to get down.

I journal daily so I can write out out what needs to get out of my head. I meditate on a regular basis so I can pull myself back into the present moment when things feel out of control, unsure or moving too fast. I consult my mentors, advisors and trusted friends when I need support. And I travel when my schedule allows. Getting out of my environment, especially if I can get into nature, gives me great perspective, opens my mind and roots me.  

Are you a long-term goal/vision type of person or do you take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves? For example, did you always want to open your own restaurant? Have you thought at all about what you want for SDC over the next few years?

Both. I realize the importance of having a vision for greatness for the future, having a destination. Having an idea of what it looks like when you get there inspires you to actually get there.

That said...I also realize that opportunities present themselves in the moment and being present is the only way to seize them when they come along. Some of them will fail. Some of them will succeed. Sometimes, they will change the course of your life. All of them are part of the journey, and that’s really what it’s about anyway.

Now that said... did I always want to open my own restaurant? No. I started SDC because I wanted to cook but didn’t want to open a restaurant. But an idea and opportunity for HBFC presented itself at the right time and we took it, and I’m grateful for where that experience took me. We have be talking a lot lately about what we want for the future of SDC… nothing to report yet, but stay tuned. 

...Opportunities present themselves in the moment and being present is the only way to seize them when they come along. Some of them will fail. Some of them will succeed. Sometimes, they will change the course of your life.

Is this what you had envisioned for SDC when starting it over 5 years ago or has it, in any ways, surpassed expectations?

I’d say it surpassed expectations, but not in the way I thought it would. The community we built astounds me, it’s over 7000 people now and all them are connected to other diners and through us. It was possible that SDC could have turned into a restaurant eventually, but I’m glad it hasn’t.

It still feel special and unique to me, 10 years later. SDC has its own space now and has moved out of my home, but I don’t believe it has lost that intimate dinner party feel. Our food continues to refine and get better every year, which is a testament to all the talented people that have worked with us and work with us now. 

What inspires the monthly SDC dinner menu? Are all recipes from scratch or do you have certain sources that you look to? Is there a certain menu that's been wildly popular?

So many things inspire the menus at SDC—our travels, eating out, cookbooks, farmers markets, the seasons, what other chefs are cooking. Now that we are 10 years in, we have a loose structure to our year—we don’t usually repeat a menu, but we will return to certain themes and recipes.

The most popular dinners help shape our calendar. Cassoulet in January and February is certainly our biggest round of dinners and one of the most celebrated and attended. We also do this Spanish dish called rossejat, which kind of has a cult following among SDC diners. We do a round of burger dinners every year, usually in the spring, and a round of pizza dinners every year, usually in the fall. We do vegetarian dinners in August, when produce season is at its peak. In between, there are wine dinners, seasonal dinners, chef collaboration dinners, and all types of focused cuisine dinners, depending on what interests us in the moment.

Sometimes we create recipes from scratch, sometimes we use other people’s recipes, but most of the time we augment recipes, making them our own. 

What has been one of your favorite or most memorable Sunday Dinner Clubs and why?

I loved the Jewish food menu we did last year, mostly because cured salmon, matzo ball soup and babka are among my favorite foods to eat. I love whenever we do Thai or Mexican food, but those are my spirit cuisines.

But really, the most memorable dinners are the ones when have a meaningful experience with people. The night we discovered by accident that honey butter is really good on fried chicken. The dinners we’ve cooked for our friends and our diners to celebrate their weddings and birthdays. The prep shifts where something makes our staff laugh so hard that we are basically rolling on the floor and have inside jokes for years. The times where a diner will tell us they don’t like an ingredient but somehow it tastes good at SDC, or that an SDC dinner changed their life. Those are the most memorable to me.

We talked at the spring salon about how, as an entrepreneur, your passion can turn into a business and as it grows, can lead you further from the actual thing you love to do. As HBFC has expanded you’ve had to adopt more of the business-side of the responsibilities. Has SDC allowed you to preserve what you love to docook?

Yes, for sure. Josh and I call it our creative hub. It’s the place where we still get our hands in the food and create dishes that inspires us. Although we don’t get as much time as we’d like there, our executive sous chef Becca is a pro and executes our vision for the food well. 

While much of our time is spent running the business sides of our businesses now, Josh and I both see the value and need to stay connected to the kitchen. For me, it is crucial that I make time to cook on a regular basis, to continue my culinary education and as an outlet for my culinary pursuits.

I’m curious about the SDC space above HBFC. It feels like a home — I especially loved the National concert posters on the wall and the plated entry way. Did you have help decorating it or is that all part of your vision and personal style?

We tried to make it feel like home, even though it isn’t. So there was some thought that went into the design, to make it feel comfortable, authentic and creative. Our business partners in HBFC, Jen and Chris, helped us—they have a great eye for design, as they also own a graphic design company.

The National posters help me remember our roots—I had concert posters in my house when we hosted SDC there, so having a couple hang in the current dining room is a lovely reminder of how far we’ve come.

Lastly, you also have a blog, A Chef Who Writes, that is really refreshing and helps SDC guests and HBFC fans get to know you a little bit better. Have you always enjoyed writing? What motivated you to start your blog?

You know…I never considered myself to be much of a good communicator. I certainly have struggled with that over the years and really have to work at choosing the words that best communicate what I want to say or how I feel. Obviously a lot of communication is nonverbal, but words can definitely help hone our voices. I’ve found that writing enables me the space to communicate better.

Early in the SDC years, I started writing our invites as little narratives, little stories about the food we were serving and our experiences running SDC and living lives encompassed by food. I discovered that I loved it when I realized I was spending a couple of hours writing each invite and actually enjoying the process.

Because of the invites, I was offered an opportunity to write a story about SDC for Chicago Magazine a few years ago and I jumped at it. I still write most of the copy for SDC invites, although Josh is also a great writer and he writes the invites sometimes too.

I currently run SDC and HBFC’s social media platforms, and although it is a different, quicker medium, I see it as another opportunity to tell stories. Which ultimately is why I started my website. I still live a life encompassed by food…but also so many other things. I love the stories behind food, but also places, people, and experiences out in the world.

Writing the stories is my therapy, my comfort, and a creative outlet that helps me be a better person. Sharing the stories with others is the difficult part. Revealing those sides, those pieces of myself, my most personal self, is particularly challenging, but I think ultimately is good for me. Yes, it is a vulnerable space—but I believe that is space where people really connect. Mostly, I write stories on my website for myself but if those stories also inspire others, then I’ve fulfilled my purpose.

 We’re so thankful to SDC for hosting us this Spring and especially to Christine for taking the time to answer all our questions - be sure to check out Christine’s blog and follow both HBFC (@honeybutterchi) and SDC (@sundaydinnerchi) on social media to (try to) keep up with Ms. Cikowski.