You may stumble upon a decent version of gumbo at stalwart Heaven on Seven or some neo-Cajun spot downtown, but they’re no match for the bowl at Three Chefs ($5.99 for a small bowl, $9.99 for a large bowl). All the components that make this gumbo great—the dark and brackish roux (a cooked mix of fat and flour that thickens gumbo), chubby curls of pink shrimp, oval slivers of garlicky caramelized chicken sausage, sweet pepper and cayenne—combine to warm your body and soul.
“There’s no big pot [of gumbo] sitting around,” said owner and executive chef Wallace Effort. “We saute the shrimp and the vegetables fresh each time. People love it so much, I’m trying to figure out how to vacuum-pack it and get some of that Jewel money.”
There must be something in the water in Auburn Gresham. Before Three Chefs, chef Mary Madison was making a similarly spectacular gumbo about a mile away at Lagniappe Creole Cajun Joynt. Lagniappe closed a few years ago, but Three Chefs, which is celebrating its fourth year of business this spring, is going strong. Unlike Lagniappe, which was a full-on celebration of bayou cuisine, Effort only dabbles the Cajun and Creole. “There’s no Creole background in my bloodline that I know of,” he said. Despite that, when Effort focuses on New Orleans-style cuisine, for example serving up moist and flaky blackened catfish lacquered in a crawfish gravy on a nest of pearly white rice ($9.99), the result is—excuse me for going all Emeril on you—bam-tastic.
Before opening Three Chefs, Effort worked a number of gigs, including a stint at Spiaggia, and eventually became an executive sous chef for a major food service company. “I did well, but you know it can get political,” he said. “People always told me you have to do your own thing. So I took some time off. ” During that time, Effort, who lives in Englewood, said, “Every time I went looking for good food, I had to leave the neighborhood. I was excited when a friend found the location [for Three Chefs].” Though he heard the building had been condemned for over eight years and was in bad shape, Effort wasn’t deterred. “This is my passion and it’s what I do,” he said. “I’ll cook for free if I have to, you know. I knew I could handle [fixing up the space].”
The quality of the space wasn’t the only obstacle Effort faced. The restaurant is called Three Chefs because Effort had two other business partners that walked away before the space opened. “It was the dream of three individuals,” he said. “But, I funded everything, and sometimes things just don’t work out when money is involved.” But changing the name to One Chef Restaurant isn’t in the plans. “We do have three chefs working on weekends, so the name still works.”
Effort’s hard work is paying off. When I stopped in for lunch on recent Saturday, the place was packed. The same weekend, Mayor Emanuel stopped in and ordered takeout, Effort said.
Effort’s catfish, spectacular from-scratch biscuits topped with quivering pepper-flecked turkey sausage gravy ($3.98), and cloud-light sweet potato-pecan flapjacks ($7.70) are cooked only after you place your order. You might think this happens everywhere, but many restaurants, even high-end restaurants pre or “par” cook a lot of your food before you ever walk in the door, and heat the remainder and garnish when your order is placed. Because Three Chefs makes so much on the fly, you will wait—and wait, and wait some more—for your food to arrive. But, in a neighborhood where the restaurants are primarily Polish sausage joints, gyro kings and Italian beef stands that throw food straight from deep freeze and into the deep fryer, Three Chefs is a sweet anomaly worth waiting for.
Worth the trip: Seafood gumbo at Three Chefs Restaurant
8125 S. Halsted St. 773-483-8111
This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.