Ryan McCaskey’s journey began in Vietnam. With a given name of Tam Truong Tran, McCaskey was born to a teenage mother at the height of the war when Saigon was falling. Abandoned in a war-torn country, he would be a part of “Operation Babylift,” a mass child evacuation from South Vietnam to countries including Australia, France, Canada and the United States. McCaskey found his new home in Palatine, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. His parents, Raymond and Judy McCaskey, named him Ryan Tam to remind him of his roots.
Growing fond of cooking as a teenager, McCaskey attended Harper College as well as the School of the Culinary Arts at Kendall College in nearby Evanston. As a young cook, McCaskey worked at Goose Cove Lodge in Deer Isle, Maine and Black Locust in Madison, Wisconsin before returning to Chicago, where he found himself as chef de cuisine at Vivere and eventually Rushmore.
When Rushmore halted operations after a massive fire, McCaskey continued staging alongside some of the Windy City’s finest chefs, including Grant Achatz at Trio and Rick Tramonto at TRU. McCaskey was executive chef when Rushmore reopened and then went on to lead the kitchen at Courtright’s in Willow Springs.
McCaskey started planning for his own restaurant in 2010; Acadia opened in Chicago’s South Loop a year later. At Acadia, McCaskey serves food inspired by his many years spent in Maine; many of the ingredients on the menu are sourced directly from the Deer Isle area.
The restaurant was given a Michelin star two months shy of its one year anniversary and a second star in 2015.
Here, we chat with the humble chef about his relationship with the prestigious red guide.
What was your first encounter with the MICHELIN Guide?
Though I had known about Michelin as I came up through the ranks as a young cook, I never really understood or followed it honestly until it came to Chicago. I then started following it pretty closely.
What were your thoughts when you knew you received a star?
We were ecstatic after being open just 10 months! We knew it was a start to something great that we could continue to build upon.
How did you celebrate?
We had a party with friends and family at NAHA in Chicago.
How much influence/inspiration does the MICHELIN Guide have on your career?
It has a great deal of influence on us. Not only does it give us something tangible to strive for and continue to push for, but it also keeps eyes and focus on us. And though we don’t do what we do for accolades, we understand the relationship that stars mean to our business. If that helps people coming in the door, then we’re happy to have them!
Did the direction of your restaurant change when it received a star?
After the first star, not so much. I think people expected us to get one out of the gate. But two was much different. It allowed us some flexibility with menu and pricing, and really boosted business the year we got it.
What advice do you have for young chefs aiming for Michelin stars?
Put your head down and cook. Push to be the best you can be and all the accolades and acknowledgement will come. I think no one should cook just to aim for stars. But understand if you work hard, are passionate, humble and believe in your abilities, the better the chance you will achieve your goals and dreams.
Headshot of chef Ryan McCaskey by Anthony Tahlier.