SOUTH LOOP — "This year's been a little bit of an odd year," Acadia chef Ryan McCaskey admitted.
"We've had strange things happen — gas leaks, water pipes bursting. So I think we felt we didn't have quite the continuity we'd have liked or were used to."
Yet in spite of those setbacks, and the continuing construction of a major new dog park right next door to the restaurant at 1639 S. Wabash Ave., McCaskey's Acadia maintained its Michelin Star this year when the prestigious restaurant ratings were announced for Chicago last week.
"There were moments I thought we could lose it," McCaskey said Friday afternoon while sitting in the quiet, determinedly understated dining room ahead of the evening rush. "You never want to take it for granted, because you can lose it."
Yet after first receiving a Michelin Star in 2013, not two years after opening, maintain it the restaurant did, earning what McCaskey refers to as "a solid one" on the three-star Michelin scale where a mere mention means the highest praise a restaurant can earn.
"I honestly think that it's harder to maintain," McCaskey said. "Just because, especially for us, not only is it maintaining, but we're trying to push for more. We're trying to just see how far we can go. We also know that we haven't reached our potential yet. There's room to grow.
"Every year, I want to not only improve but evolve."
It justifies McCaskey's decision to locate in the South Loop. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, but raised in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, he developed an early interest and then a career in cooking, staging here under chefs like Grant Achatz and Rick Tramonto, but also doing tours at restaurants in Wisconsin and in Maine, where his family had and has a summer home.
"I was very close to doing this restaurant in Maine," McCaskey said. "I could've done it for probably a fraction of the cost. But I really wanted to see what I could do here first.
"The biggest reason I came back to Chicago was I felt that I have so many resources here, after all this time," he added. "Not only is family here, not only are there colleagues and chef friends of mine, but I had really good resources and developed relationships over the years that I could use."
He combined that with the similar contacts he'd nurtured in Maine to develop Acadia, bridging the classic with the contemporary in a realm that harkens to the areas that were once the French colonies in America.
"I just wanted to kind of pay homage to my second home," he said. "I can source unbelievable product and have it all flown here," especially the lobsters, crabs, mussels and oysters Maine is renowned for.
Yet why the South Loop in particular?
"Part of me is stubborn," McCaskey said.
One friend told him, "You're either gonna be a genius because you're a pioneer down here before anybody else and the neighborhood's gonna grow around you, or you're gonna be the biggest idiot on the planet."
Fortunately for McCaskey, who lives just a block up the street, it's turned out to be much more the former than the latter, although he adds that he'd welcome a little competition so that he wasn't the only Michelin restaurant in the South Loop.
"I would love other notable chefs to be down here," McCaskey said. "It just draws people," he added, noting parallels with the hopping cuisine scene in the West Loop.
He pointed to the hotels being built near McCormick Place, as well as the upcoming DePaul arena and, potentially, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, and said, "Hopefully, all these things will really bring more retail and restaurants."
McCaskey added that "this year is going to be very important as far as really re-establishing those goals," foremost among them being a James Beard Award nomination after he got a semifinalist nod as best chef in the Midwest earlier this year.
Yet for now he'd settle for the dog park to finish construction, which would allow him to put in an outdoor patio for cocktails. "I knew this was coming in years before I got this space," McCaskey said. "There will be some green space, I hope.
"This makes me nervous," McCaskey said, looking out the window at the fenced-off construction zone. "It looks like they're building Jurassic Park. But we'll see how it pans out for us."
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