Hometown: Huitzuco, Guerrero, Mexico
Occupation: Executive Chef and Owner, Mexique
Years worked as a chef: 22
Years lived in Chicago: 24
Awards: 1 Michelin star (2013-2014)
Finalist, Top Chef season 11 (2013)
Chef of the Year, American Culinary Federation Windy City Chapter (2011)
Best New Restaurant, Chicago Magazine (2009)
What do you love best about Chicago’s food scene?
What I love about Chicago’s food scene is that we have a lot of different ethnic groups and each group brings the best foods from their countries.
If you had to name one personal favorite dish from Mexique, which would it be and why?
I love all the dishes from Mexique, but if I were to eat my last meal, it would be the carne asada, which consists of a New York steak accompanied by a goat cheese fondue. It is really rich, spicy and a well-balanced dish.
Describe your perfect dining out day.
My perfect dining out day would be breakfast at El Presidente for chilaquiles verdes, fried eggs and Sparrow coffee. Lunch at Mexique for fish tacos with Negra Modelo batter, Mexique slaw and chipotle aioli. Dinner, sushi at Kamehachi.
What’s your favorite neighborhood to dine out in Chicago?
River North because they have many different ethnic restaurants.
Mexique features the traditional flavors of Mexico and the cooking techniques of France. What Mexican and French restaurants in the city have impressed you?
As mentioned previously, I really enjoy the chilaquiles verdes offered at El Presidente, and Bistrot Margot for French onion soup and entrecôte au poivre. (Editor’s note: Since publication of this interview, Bistrot Margot has closed.)
Name the top restaurants and dishes that you think every visitor to Chicago should try.
Tanta, their ceviches are amazing.
Bob Chinn’s for chargrilled grouper; their seafood is extremely fresh.
El Presidente for chilaquiles verdes.
avec for stuffed dates with chorizo; very creative comfort food.
What are your favorite budget, mid-range, and high-end restaurants in Chicago?
My favorite mid-range is avec for whole fish, lamb neck, and dates and chorizo. For high-end, Blackbird and Boka for their tasting menus.
We have to ask: what’s your favorite Chicago deep dish?
Since Eats Abroad is geared toward travelers, are there any restaurants or bars at Chicago’s airports or hotels you would recommend?
Peninsula Hotel’s The Lobby restaurant. For airport, Tortas Frontera.
What’s your guilty pleasure and where in Chicago do you go to get it?
One of my guilty pleasures would have to be the banana cream pie from Hoosier Mama Pie.
What’s one dish that you tried and left you wishing you came up with the recipe yourself?
One dish that blew me away in Chicago is Tanta‘s ceviches.
Are there any foods native to Chicago that you particularly like and that visitors should try to find?
Hot dogs and BBQ ribs.
Finally, what would you say is the one thing any visitor must see or do before leaving Chicago?
A visitor must visit the Shedd Aquarium.
Chef Gaytan’s Shortlist:
Mexique, 1529 W. Chicago Avenue (Noble Square); Mexican-French, lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Sunday, brunch Saturday-Sunday, closed Monday.
El Presidente, 2558 N. Ashland Avenue (Lakeview); Mexican, lunch and dinner daily.
Kamehachi, 1531 N. Wells Street (Old Town); Japanese, lunch and dinner daily.
Bistrot Margot, 1437 N. Wells Street (Old Town); French, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Tanta, 118 W. Grand Avenue (River North); Peruvian, dinner only daily.
Bob Chinn’s Crab House, 393 S. Milwaukee Avenue, Wheeling, IL; seafood and steak, lunch and dinner daily.
avec, 615 W. Randolph Street (West Loop); Mediterranean, dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
Blackbird, 619 W. Randolph Street (West Loop); Midwestern/American, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily.
Boka, 1729 N. Halsted Street (Lincoln Park); new American, dinner only daily.
Pequod’s Pizza, 2207 N. Clybourn Avenue (Lincoln Park); deep dish pizza, lunch, dinner and late night daily.
The Lobby, The Peninsula Chicago, 108 E. Superior Street (Gold Coast); new American, breakfast and dinner daily, lunch Monday-Saturday, brunch Sunday.
Tortas Frontera, Terminals 1, 3 and 5 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD); Mexican, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Hoosier Mama Pie Shop, 1618 1/2 Chicago Avenue (Noble Square); sweet and savory pies, open Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.
Shedd Aquarium, 1200 S. Lake Shore Drive (South Loop); open daily.
About the Chef: The one thing that many chefs dream of attaining turned out to be a much-needed game changer for Chef Carlos Gaytan.
About 4.5 years after opening his award-winning restaurant, Mexique, Gaytan considered closing it due to slowed business. But then came a call that would change everything: Mexique had earned a coveted Michelin star.
When word got out, curiosity grew and Mexique’s tables filled up. The following year, the Mexican-French restaurant retained its Michelin star, and hundreds of thousands of viewers across the country got to know Gaytan when he placed in the top five on Top Chef: New Orleans.
It’s a remarkable turn of events for Gaytan, who moved to Chicago from Mexico in 1991 and humbly started out as a dishwasher in pursuit of his childhood dream of becoming a chef. He credits his mother for teaching him how to be creative with ingredients, and he says his experiences on Top Chef and earning a Michelin star further gave him the confidence to continue innovating in the kitchen.