From Tête to Tail: The Making of a Successful Restaurant

When Sausage King Doug Sohn closed his eponymous Hot Doug’s last year, Chicago mourned the loss. But fear not; chefs Thomas Rice and Kurt Guzowski are poised to assume the mantle at their West Loop restaurant.

And what better place to open a meat-centric boîte than on Randolph Street, where generations of meatpacking companies have thrived, and now the buzzy restaurant epicenter of Chicago? So in 2014, Rice and Guzowski opened Tête Charcuterie, where they preside over the dazzling panoply of made-on-premise fresh and cured charcuterie, from the namesake fromage de tête (headcheese) to duck rillettes; from Filipino longanisa sausage to mortadella.

They took over the space from Robert’s Packing Co., gutted it and worked closely with John Kelly Architects to create the space they wanted, with an open kitchen, bright red tile, exposed brick and a charcuterie bar.

“We wanted it to be very interactive to the eye,” says Guzowski. “It allows us to see what’s going on in the kitchen, and makes it easy for our guests to be a true part of the meal.”

As for that well-stocked charcuterie bar, the Tête chefs are big sushi fans, and it’s their homage to a sushi bar, where the guests watch the chefs prepare the food in front of them, slicing and plating each item with care.

Rice and Guzowski both came of age in Hoffman Estates, although they pursued very different culinary paths after high school. Rice is the more classically trained, having graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, staged in France (with Michelin superstars Alain Ducasse and Paul Haeberlin), and worked for chefs Jean-Georges Vogerichten and Paul Liebrandt in New York.

Guzowski took a more Chicago-centric route to his partnership with Rice, attending the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (CHIC), cooking at Courtright’s Restaurant in Willow Springs (where he and Rice first met), and then a stint with the Boka Group as executive chef at the now-shuttered Landmark Grill.

They reconnected in 2010 when Rice moved back to town. They shared a dream of owning their own place; more specifically, they were both thinking charcuterie, a then up-and-coming trend in the U.S.

Working in France, Rice remembers “walking into those little charcuterie shops and eating a terrine or a jambon beurre on the way home from work. And Kurt remembers growing up with his grandfather and father making sausages, so that’s how it came about.”

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The ancient culinary art of charcuterie is a labor-intensive craft. “I’m very intrigued by the science behind sausage and terrines,” says Guzowski. “There’s a lot of work that goes into getting the flavor and texture just right. And the visual… it has to appeal.”

Unlike many restaurant partnerships where one runs the kitchen while the other manages the front of the house, Rice and Guzowski insist that Tête is a 50/50 culinary partnership. “We share all aspects of the menu, talk out our ideas, push each other creatively,” says Guzowski. “Two heads are better than one.”

Lest you think that pâtés and sausage are all that they do here, know that there are Michelin-quality starters and entrées to be found as well, including a 40-ingredient vegetable cocotte that is possibly the best vegetarian dish available in Chicago right now. It’s a veritable garden of veggies, herbs and flowers, running the gamut from raw to pickled to roasted to sautéed, and garnished with smen, a traditional Middle Eastern preserved herb butter that is pure umami.

“As much technique and love that goes into our charcuterie, we wanted to carry that over into the a la carte section,” says Rice. “We wanted things to be thought out and cared for. So the vegetables and different dishes that we do, the spices, the different seasonings, we want to bring out the most flavor we can.”

Opening a restaurant takes a great leap of faith. For Rice and Guzowski, it was soul testing. First there’s the decision to go off on your own; you must raise the money; find a location; create the physical space, both front and back of the house; jump through hoops with permits and inspections; create a menu; hire a staff; and finally, open the doors and pray that customers will walk through them. Repeatedly.

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Happily for Tête Charcuterie, the doors opened and the accolades followed, including a 2014 Chicago Tribune Dining Award and a nod from Eater Chicago as a Top Newcomer of 2014. But for Rice and Guzowski, it’s about more than just acclaim.

They also believe in partnering within and giving back to the Chicago community. Each month, they partner with a fellow chef (recent guest chefs include Lee Wolin of Boka and Greg Biggers of Cafe des Architectes) for “Choucroute Night,” where each chef starts with an entire pig from Epiphany Farms and goes “hog wild” creating dishes for a family-style feast. All proceeds go to benefit a charity chosen by the visiting chef.

They try to set an example for their staff. “The mentorship aspect [of the restaurant business] is really important to us,” says Rice.

Guzowski agrees. “You want your cooks to leave here and tell people, ‘I worked at Tête.’ We want them to learn to be solid cooks,” he says. “You don’t want anyone to leave feeling that they didn’t learn something important. Nowadays, some people are just jumping in to the molecular side willy-nilly. But you have to understand where you’re coming from and what you’re doing.”

Photos by Kerri Sherman of Bloom & Focus