BRIDGEPORT — Oliver Valenzuela began his culinary career in his parents' restaurant, a small outpost in a Guatemalan farm village.
"That's how I got my palate," he said.
Today, the 52-year-old chef, who's cooked for presidents and astronauts in high-end kitchens inside luxury hotels, presides over Oliver's Cafe, his 1½-year-old BYOB bistro on 31st Street.
"We're still in the process of getting known. You get up, you get down. You don't really know what you're getting into until you try. So far I can't complain." he said.
Casey Cora introduces us to the chef behind Oliver's Cafe:
His latest idea to bring in guests is a weekly international night, when he prepares from-scratch feasts inspired by a particular country. Already Valenzuela has served up Italian, Mexican and Argentinean specials.
Next week, it's the Bay of Biscay region between France and Spain. Expect tapas.
The weekly specials take place on Wednesdays. The restaurant's regular menu — pastas, seafood and beef entrees and the beloved seared scallops appetizer — is also available on those nights.
None of the weekly multi-course specials have been priced above $30 per person. That the restaurant has a BYOB policy with no corkage fee has certainly helped entice new patrons.
"To have BYOB in this type of restaurant, people appreciate it," he said.
Opening the restaurant in Bridgeport, where Valenzuela has lived since moving to Chicago in 1986, was a leap of faith.
His training in the New York City's Waldorf Astoria, Chicago's Palmer House and a New Orleans Hilton — and top chef gigs at the fancy Women's Athletic Club of Chicago and Green Acres Country Club — likely wouldn't translate to the largely blue-collar Bridgeport area.
Many of the restaurant's guests are from Downtown, the South Loop and Hyde Park areas, he said.
Now, he's trying to court more diners from the neighborhood with a planned takeout service, Sunday family-style dinners and new lunch hours, where he'll take down the bistro's cloth napkins from the tables and focus on quick foods including wraps and salads.
Valenzuela is the type of chef who likes to cook on a whim, which has led to other weekly specials. One week there's a whole roasted pig special, another week it's a seafood spectacular.
His Sunday brunch menu is a carefully created selection of indulgent choices, like a pork carnitas plate topped with poached eggs, baby arugula and chipotle hollandaise, seared ahi tuna entree and a braised short rib sandwich.
It's the type of style Valenzuela said keeps him on his toes.
"I'll do these [specials] until I find something more exciting to do," he said.
Oliver's Cafe, 451 W. 31st St., is open 4:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays. Free parking is available; check with host station.