Though Kumiko opened at the beginning of the year, Kikkō, the omakase tasting counter in the basement, only debuted on May 22. "We haven't been open for very long," says chef de cuisine Mariya Russell when thinking about if it was even a possibility to be recognized in the MICHELIN Guide Chicago 2020 selection. "My mind was going really crazy, like, I don't know if this is going to happen," she recalls. "Noah [Sandoval] had no idea. We're just going to sit down and wait and see what happens."
Cooking is the only career that Russell has ever known, and throughout it she has learned a number of important lessons. "[Past experiences] instilled in me I have to be better than everyone all the time," Russell says. "The person next to you, you have to be better than that person. That's what I was taught."
Despite the competitive nature of the kitchen, Russell has stayed a chef for so many years thanks to her love of the profession and industry. "It's the only thing that I've done because of that very reason," Russell shares. "I enjoy sitting down and eating a meal, enjoying it with my friends and my husband. It brings people together in a very epic way that nothing else really does. It's still my happy place."
On Thursday, September 26, Kikkō was recognized with one MICHELIN star, with inspectors calling it a "stellar attraction." "Finding that out was a crazy emotional moment for me," Russell says. "Working really hard to make sure everything worked out here . . . working so hard to do that everyday. Getting that news was a breath of fresh air."
This interview has been lightly edited.
What was your first encounter with the MICHELIN Guide?
When I was in culinary school we talked about the MICHELIN Guide, how it came about, and where MICHELIN was in the world—but they weren't in Chicago yet. After MICHELIN launched in Chicago, Green Zebra got a Bib Gourmand when I was there, which gave me more of an idea of what it was like.
What were your thoughts when you learned your restaurant received a MICHELIN star for the first time?
I just started crying. It was an emotional feeling—just sitting there waiting for the phone call was very intense. Noah answered the phone, so I still didn't know what was going on, but when he told me that we got a star, it was like I could breathe again.
How did you celebrate?
We had a little bit of Champagne when we found out. We have a very small staff here—there's only five of us preparing food upstairs and downstairs. Even though we get an award, we still have to be here and do the duty, but we were able to move some things around so I was able to go to the MICHELIN party. After that we came back to Kumiko and celebrated with everyone. We just hung around and hugged and cheersed.
How much influence/inspiration does the MICHELIN Guide have on your career?
I've worked at a good amount of MICHELIN-recognized restaurants, so I've learned the way, but I try not to let it control my life. It's a lot of pressure and it can be really scary if you think about it too much, but I just try to do my best every single day. We still have a vision attached to what we're doing. We don't lose sight of that because of it. Staying focused on what I need to be doing everyday, making sure that everything is the way it's supposed to be everyday is most important to us.
How will having a MICHELIN star impact your restaurant?
I think we will definitely be busier because of it, which is amazing. People will know us more, which is also amazing. But I don't think it will change what we're doing or what we're trying to accomplish. We like to strive to be better and better every day, so that's something that we do all the time.
What advice do you have for young chefs?
Always know who you are in this industry. Don't lose sight of who you are. Stay focused and work really hard to get what you want.
Photos courtesy of Sammy Faze Photography.