By Mary Stanton | From the Summer 2011 issue of Roosevelt Review
Alumnus Shin Thompson, who has created one of the most tantalizing and acclaimed restaurants in Chicago, Bonsoirée, says that Roosevelt prepared him and fellow alumnus Dozzy Ibekwe well for the real world of hospitality.
Featuring French techniques, Japanese presentation and Asian-inspired fare, Bonsoirée was recognized earlier this year with a highly coveted Michelin Star, which is bestowed on only a few establishments in the United States for their food quality, mastery of technique, personality and food consistency.
“When Shin got the Michelin Star, I wasn’t surprised,” says Chuck Hamburg, associate professor of hospitality and tourism management and the first director of Roosevelt’s hospitality program. “Shin is a craftsman – very serious – and I knew he would become a top chef, dedicated to his art.”
Michelin isn’t the only publication to recognize Bonsoirée’s excellence. Food and Wine magazine placed the restaurant on its “Go List” of Best Local Dining Destinations in the World. And for his part, Thompson is one of seven chefs among 18 Chicago culinary professionals dubbed “Rising Stars” by the online culinary magazine StarChefs.com.
“Bonsoirée is making some of the most creatively flavor-packed dishes in the city,” one customer said in a recent review. “It is all about food, not pretense or snobbishness.” What might Bonsoirée’s diners find on their eight-course tasting menu? For starters, a quail lollipop with sour orange curry, Thai flavors and basil, lemongrass and kumquat puree. Subsequent dishes on the spring 2011 seasonal menu included coriander butter-poached Tasmanian ocean trout with fava bean and fennel pudding, Genmaicha pork tenderloin and “reverse cheese and crackers.”
Thompson’s culinary imagination can be traced to his days as a university wrestler. An accomplished high school wrestler, he attended the University of Iowa because it had the top-ranked wresting team in the country. While Thompson admits now that wrestling wasn’t for him, he believes the sport played a big part in his success as a chef. “It sharpened my senses when I ate certain foods,” he says. “When you’re in wrestling, you’ve got to cut a lot of weight. There would be three days when I couldn’t eat what I wanted. I discovered that when I could and did eat what I wanted, the flavors would be so much more intense.”
During the year Thompson spent at Iowa, he held a workstudy job assisting a chef who had a catering company. That was when he made the decision to do, as he says, what he wanted to do. Before he entered Roosevelt University to earn his bachelor’s in hospitality and tourism management, he worked as a sous-chef at Karma, an Asian-influenced restaurant in Chicago’s northern suburbs and earned his associate’s degree at the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts.
“This just came about,” says Thompson, referring to the restaurant at 2728 W. Armitage Ave. that occupies him nearly 100 hours every week. “I’ve always liked the idea of owning my own restaurant. I didn’t know how feasible it would be at the time I went to culinary school. It wasn’t until later, when I went to Roosevelt, that I learned I could sow the seed and make it a reality.”
“I chose Roosevelt because it has an excellent reputation for hospitality,” says Thompson of the Manfred Steinfeld School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, the only school in Illinois to offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in this field.
Seeking to expand his culinary experiences, Thompson moved to Washington, D.C., after he graduated from Roosevelt in December 2003. For nearly two years, he was chef de cuisine at the Grand Hyatt, before returning to Chicago where he assisted the executive chef at Soldier Field. “What I really wanted to do was open a restaurant,” says Thompson. “But that was difficult, so my friends and I decided to start as caterers. Besides,” he adds, smiling, “none of us had any money.”
In their spare time, Thompson and his colleagues started preparing dinners at their homes, inviting friends and family to try their creative fare, charging only for the cost of the food. “It wasn’t intended to make money,” says Thompson, “just to show people our food. For $25 they got this huge meal, with so many different options, and people loved that.” Those family and friends started inviting their family and friends, who in turn extended their own invitations. From the first 20 people grew an email database, which now includes 10,000 people, who continue to vie to be one of the first-come, first-served 45 diners every Saturday for the invitation-only “Underground” dinner at the restaurant.
It was on the way to his fellow Underground chef’s house that Thompson spotted a “for sale” sign on a small boardedup building. He peeked through the windows to discover the beat-up property had a full restaurant kitchen. “I thought, ‘Okay, that is a plus when you don’t have any money,’” says Thompson. He went home and wrote a business plan that night. After being denied by 13 banks, he obtained financing from bank number 14 to open his business.
“I could tell Shin would make it,” says Hamburg, a seasoned restaurant consultant who has been developing restaurants worldwide for the past 30 years. “If he has one drawback, it would be that he’s quiet. He doesn’t toot his own horn.”
That’s where Dozzy Ibekwe comes in. “Dozzy has tremendous personality and people skills,” says Hamburg. “He’s a great front man. And that’s a rare gift.” A classmate of Thompson’s at Roosevelt, Ibekwe, a native of Nigeria, is ideal for his role as Bonsoirée’s catering and events director. He’s a gregarious, smiling professional who works with clients and vendors in managing weddings, corporate gatherings and any and all events outside of the restaurant. Ibekwe was studying computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago and working as a concierge before he went to Roosevelt. “I discovered that I actually enjoyed what I was doing to pay for school more than what I was studying,” he says.
Attracted to Roosevelt’s hospitality and tourism management program because of its unique lodging management emphasis, Ibekwe continued working as a concierge during and after his years at the University, including posts at the Allerton Hotel and then the Amalfi Hotel.
“When I opened Bonsoirée in September 2006, it was very different,” Thompson says, recounting that he initially sold sandwiches. Before long, customers wanted dinner service. So he came up with a dinner menu, starting simply and inexpensively, but elegantly. Over time the food became more sophisticated, and the restaurant came to be known for the quality and inventiveness of the fare and for allowing diners to bring their own wine. Ibekwe informally offered his advice and expertise to Thompson for a few years and eventually left his job as a concierge at the five-star, five-diamond Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago to join the Bonsoirée team in 2010.
“In order to grow the business, I couldn’t spend time maintaining a high level of quality in the kitchen if I focused on events,” says Thompson. “Dozzy handles the details of all that, specializing in high-end clientele from his experience as a concierge.”
Thompson and Ibekwe credit their professional preparation to the practical approaches of Hamburg and other Roosevelt professors. They both say that Jerry Rosen (BC, ’57), a Roosevelt adjunct professor and current hospitality industry consultant, had a big impact on their educations and careers. “What I really liked at Roosevelt was when professors shared real-life situations,” Thompson says. “Professor Rosen took us to Medieval Times (in Palatine, Ill.) for a tour of the entire facility. We got to see how to run an operation on a massive scale … and how to prepare 4,000 chickens.”
“I don’t just talk nuts and bolts of kitchens and beverages,” says Rosen. “As a business person myself, I talk about what it’s like to employ 150 people. I discuss how employers make decisions, what to do, what not to do. Students may not remember a theory or formula, but they may remember a story.”
Thompson’s journey to culinary celebré is one of diverse cultural experiences. Shortly after he was born in Hawaii, his family moved to Japan — where his parents had met — and he lived there for the first four years of his life. From Japan they moved to Boston, then to San Francisco, and finally to Chicago’s northern suburb of Evanston, where Thompson attended middle school and high school. “With so much family in Japan, I would stay in Japan for a month at a time” says Thompson. “It was kind of like I lived there, too.”
Those international travels greatly impacted the food cooked at home when Thompson was growing up. “In Japan, home-cooked meals are a prominent part of the culture,” he says. “Both of my parents really loved to cook at home. My mother cooked strictly Japanese food. My father is more of an international cuisine artist. He lived all over the world, including Nepal and India ... so he’d prepare all kinds of cuisines. His passion was cooking at home – learning from people he worked with, including when he was in the Peace Corps.”
Both Thompson and Ibekwe take seriously their contributions to Chicago’s culinary landscape. “I think we’ve contributed something good and unique,” says Ibekwe. Quite true. Bonsoirée has truly elevated “bring-your-own” dining in Chicago and beyond. One of only two Michelin-rated BYOB restaurants in Chicago and one of three in the country, it was named among the best BYOB destinations by Travel and Leisure magazine in 2011. And thanks to a one-of-a-kind program established and managed by Ibekwe, diners wondering what wines to bring can visit bonsoireechicago.com to see what local wine shops suggest.
In recent years Bonsoirée also has instituted, under Ibekwe’s direction, Bonsoirée at Home, in which a chef and assistant prepare meals at guests’ homes, returning to the restaurant’s roots to share the Bonsoirée experience in an intimate, friends-and-family setting. “What differentiates Chicago as a culinary city is that there are chefs willing to take risks — in certain types of cuisine, in different styles — which I think is what you need to gain recognition, nationally or internationally,” says Thompson. “There are a lot of younger chefs here who are not afraid to take that risk, and they’re able to do so because Chicago is inexpensive, compared to other cities in the country.”
So what’s next? Bonsoirée, while still housed in an unmarked structure on West Armitage, has nearly doubled in size, with a new patio and retractable roof. And Thompson plans on earning his sommelier license certification. Meantime, the Roosevelt community toasts his success.
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