Chef Carrie Nahabedian never stops. At the end of the month, she’s closing and reconceptualizing NAHA, her 18-year-old Chicago stalwart, despite tearful pleas from neighborhood regulars. Reservations for the last few nights are pouring in. “It’s exciting and mentally draining,” she says. “I’ve had people call me up crying because they met here or celebrated an anniversary here.” She offers reassurance that the new location is still technically in River North about half a mile away.
She and her cousin and business partner, Michael Nahabedian, were thinking about a change for almost two years, but a number of deaths in their families spurred them to action. Carrie’s beloved father, a World War II veteran who helped liberate Paris and received the Legion of Honor for his service, passed away. And then there were three deaths in Michael’s family.
“I said to Michael, ‘We need a fresh start. It’s like our child has grown up and we need a new house,’” Carrie says. “I can’t retire and [he] can’t retire, so let’s do something brand new.” Chef friends are hugging her and telling her it’s a brave thing to do.
Luckily, they have an architect in the family, Tom Nahabedian, who won a Beard award for design for their other restaurant, Brindille. He convinced them it made more sense to start over than to try to reconfigure the old space. The as of yet unnamed restaurant is under construction and will open in the fall; there will be a new name. “It’s not going to be NAHA 2.0. I’m not going to talk about it now because I want everybody to focus on business as usual until the end of the month.”
That said, we moved on to other topics while Carrie was multitasking making some last minute changes to the dinner menu at Brindille. “I haven’t lost any of my enthusiasm for cooking. I still get so energized writing a menu,” she says.
A couple days before we spoke, she had watched the Academy Awards and felt that moment of pride when Oscar-winner Frances McDormand asked all the female nominees in the room to stand up. “She does have plenty to say, like ‘call us up like you do the men.’”
Of course, Carrie’s primary focus is on women in the restaurant industry. She does not recall personally experiencing a #metoo incident. Maybe she was just lucky. Maybe it was because she had a great mentor and protector in the late Fernand Gutierrez for whom she worked at the Ritz-Carlton. (Her father, who became an ardent Francophile during the war, had befriended the French chefs at the hotel when he was installing carpet there and helped his teenage daughter get her start in the kitchen.) Maybe it was because she started so young and worked so hard. “If guys asked me out I would tell them I was still in high school and lived at home,” she says laughing. “Have I ever been cornered in a walk-in cooler? Yeah. But you say ‘either you let me out of this cooler or this bucket of stock is going over your head.’”
Nevertheless, she lends a sympathetic ear and acknowledges that the kitchen is a macho environment. When she was on a women’s panel and heard everyone’s story, she “felt really sad so many people had really bad experiences.” She says, “That Spotted Pig story got me sick,” and was particularly affronted that chef April Bloomfield knew what was going on. Along with other noted Chicago women chefs Mindy Segal, Sarah Stegner, Sarah Gruenberg and others, she’s forming a group to mentor women in the profession. She’s particularly concerned with finding out “why so many women are leaving the industry.”
On French Food
Carrie opened Brindille in 2013, three years before Le Coucou set off a media frenzy in New York. “I really wanted to go back to my roots of French cooking where I started,” she says, admitting that she may have been a bit ahead of her time. “Now all of a sudden everybody wants French food. How do you not like French food? It’s the base of all cuisine. You never hear somebody come back from France and say they didn’t eat well.”
A panel at the recent 40th International Association of Culinary Professionals conference explored the “Evolution of our Hierarchy of Taste” from the time when French cuisine defined fine dining to its waning popularity as a multitude of other cuisines gained recognition to its recent comeback. Carrie lived through that whole cycle. “Le Coucou is doing really old school things like quenelle de brochet with Nantua sauce that I made a million times at the hotel, but I don’t know if I could sell that at Brindille. I call what we do Parisian food. And with NAHA closing, I’m going to bring a little bit Riviera, a little more Mediterranean to it.”
“We have beautiful tablecloths and china,” she says, recalling that Brindille came about “because Michael and I heard from our customers that they didn’t want to feel like the people sitting next to them were going to rob them. People want some style. We don’t have a dress code. You don’t have to have a dress code because if you walk in wearing shorts and gym shoes and a t-shirt you’re going to feel a little under-dressed.”
On NAHA’s Michelin Star
NAHA has had a Michelin star for nine years running. “Every cook, every chef always dreams of Michelin. No matter what you say about other awards, Michelin is Michelin. It’s everyone’s goal. The cooks love it because there’s a certain stature involved. People say it on their resume. In the past you could only say that if you worked in Europe. I can tell you the first time I got that phone call I was so proud—it was beyond belief. I said to my cooks ‘Anywhere you want, we’ll go out and celebrate,’” she recalls. The cooks chose Sun Wah, which is known for their Peking Duck. “So we went there. The second year we went to Takashi in the middle of winter and had awesome noodles and great Japanese food.”
“Every single year, there’s this level of apprehension. My mother once said to me, ‘You don’t get it for life?’”