Sunflower Team – Two chefs make Emilio’s bloom

Michael Nagrant / 06.12.07

Chris and Mary Spagnola of Emilio’s Sunflower Bistro have never been afraid to start anew.  Business majors in college, the fearless husband-and-wife team met in culinary school when they each decided to follow a new career path.

After graduating in 1997 and working as chefs in various restaurants throughout California, they had an opportunity to crew the kitchen for a privately owned yacht.  Newly wed, they put their stuff into storage and sailed throughout the Caribbean for more than a year of ingenuity and serendipity.

“As most millionaires probably do, our guy had eclectic tastes, and sometimes he’d want peanut butter cookies at 7:30 in the morning,” Chris says.  “Stuck without peanut butter, we’d find ourselves crushing peanuts and making it fresh.”

Emilio’s tropical accents are a souvenir of the couple’s experience.  Papayas, mangos and tangerines stud the menu, and sunflower paintings created by Chris and Mary line the walls of the laid-back space offering affordable fare.

Q. What do you wish you could change or pickle/preserve about the Chicago restaurant scene?

A. Chris:  We’d like to have more independently owned restaurants.  There are a lot of corporate restaurants with billion-dollar budgets now.  They’re nice and all, but it seems like the heart of a restaurant is gone.  Knowing who’s cooking your food is still an important thing.

Q. What would your last meal be?

A. Mary:  Doughnuts.

Chris:  A good old-fashioned pastrami sandwich.  Whenever we get a chance of a day off, we’ll go down to Manny’s (1141 S. Jefferson).

Q. Where do you eat before/after a shift?

A. Chris:  There’s a great place, Gene and Jude’s Hot Dogs (2720 River), in River Grove.  If we get out of the restaurant late, we’ll occasionally head over there for a dog.

Mary:  I’ve been here long enough to be shamed into not eating ketchup (on my dog).

Q. What’s the can’t-miss dish at your restaurant?

A. Mary:  Our poached egg on ciabatta with St. George cheese, jalapeno mustard and black forest ham.  I love the way the yolk turns into a sauce with the mustard when you cut through it.

Q. What should we know about your bistro that we probably don’t?

A. Mary and I are always here, and we have our hands in almost everything that’s made, from the salad dressings to the desserts to the butchering to the filleting of fish.

Emilio’s Sunflower Bistro; 30 S. La Grange, La Grange (708) 588-9890