LINCOLN SQUARE — Chris Nugent, Chicago's newest culinary master, is something of a throwback.
He began his training as a child and served his apprenticeship under a series of influential chefs before taking his first executive chef position.
Nugent grew up in a small town in upstate New York. When his mother passed away, his Vietnam-vet father, unable to raise three children on his own, placed 11-year-old Chris into the care of a family friend.
Turns out that friend, John Daly, and his wife Kate, happened to run an upscale traditional French restaurant, Drovers Inn.
“John would take me over there after school, and I'd clean spinach and mushrooms and wash dishes,” said Nugent, 38, sitting at a small table wearing chef whites at his Lincoln Square restaurant, Goosefoot.
He lived with the Dalys, working at the 150-year-old inn, until he was 18.
“John Daly taught me a lot, and cooking was obviously very important,” Nugent said. “But living with he and Kate, it was more about integrity and character and the way they raised me. I'm where I am today because of them. He taught me how to be a great cook and a good person.”
Goosefoot’s proprietor seems to have stepped straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Nugent is neat, fresh-faced and irony-free, with the sincere intensity of a choir boy. He speaks gently and with humility. And his style, as a chef and a restauranteur, harks back to his upbringing and his culinary training, rooted in centuries-old European traditions.
After graduating from high school, Nugent studied at Daly's alma mater, the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I. He worked under several influential chefs — including Michael Schlow (Radius) in Boston, and Rick Tramonto (Tru) and Michael Kornick (MK) in Chicago — before accepting his first executive chef position, at Betise, a French bistro in Evanston.
“What struck me most was his intensity and focus,” says Betise owner Nancy Bressat, who worked with Nugent for four years. “Those two qualities, combined with his amazing creativity, will be key to a long and successful career.”
In late 2004, Nugent became the executive chef at Les Nomades, a classic Streeterville French restaurant that harks back to a more refined and elegant era.
But five years later another family death led to another turning point. Nugent's brother John, a police officer he hadn't seen for years, passed away unexpectedly.
“I always thought there's always going to be more time,” said Nugent, still clearly pained. “First I just put my head down and cooked, but after about a year I realized, 'I'm at a restaurant, with no benefits, no bonuses. It's a wonderful place, but if I'm going to make all these sacrifices, why don't I just do it for myself?' It was time.”
Nugent’s wife Nina, who worked as director of finance at the Hilton, saw the change as well.
“It was extremely painful because it was his only brother and something we were not expecting,” she says. “I think he started to think life is too short. If you have a dream, you have to pursue your dream.”
They began looking for a small space to make their own, and found it on a quiet stretch of Lawrence Avenue not far from their Lincoln Square home. They signed the lease in July 2011 and began building out the restaurant, using their own money. They hired and trained the staff, helped with installation of the kitchen, even washed the linens themselves, working 20-hour days.
“It was very exhausting,” Nina said. “I lost like 20 pounds, and he lost more.”
Finally, Goosefoot opened last Dec. 11.
“That was my brother's birthday,” says Nugent, who scrawled messages on one of the kitchen walls — now hidden by tiles — to his brother and to Daly, who passed away in 2010. “I was kind of hoping that would be the date, I thought it would mean a lot, and it worked out.”
Goosefoot serves about 500 dishes each night, and its 8- and 12-course prix fixe menus have won plaudits for their blending of classical French and forward-thinking cuisine — as in a coconut and Madras curry filled with butter-poached lobster, maitake mushrooms and agnolotti stuffed with Hubbard squash.
Bressat, still friends with Nugent, recently visited for dinner.
“Each dish reminded me of what I liked best about his cooking: not fussy, not too precious,” she said.
On a recent evening, Nugent came out from the kitchen and struck up a chat with a table of four ladies who had attended the University of Illinois-Chicago together but left the city to pursue their careers. Back in town for the reunion of their graduating class, their Goosefoot dinner was the first time they'd all been together in 20 years.
“I was taken aback that they would share this moment with us,” Nugent said. “It was a huge compliment, and that's what it's about, right there. … It's about watching somebody have a wonderful experience and being a part of that.”