LINCOLN SQUARE — A taste of Mississippi by way of Chicago's South Side is coming to Lincoln Square with Tuesday's opening of Luella's Southern Kitchen.
After spending the past 18 years sharpening his culinary skills at various Hilton hotel properties, chef Darnell Reed has taken recipes he first learned at the elbow of his great-grandmother Luella Funches, who moved to Chicago from Mississippi in 1943, and given them a contemporary update.
"It's like me giving back to her," said Reed, 34.
The menu is packed with entrees like catfish tacos, chicken gumbo, fried green tomato BLT and shrimp and crab boil.
Reed acknowledges that Southern-style cooking has a reputation for being less healthy than other cuisines. To combat that perception, he's substituted duck fat — which is closer to olive oil in terms of "good" fat — for butter in a number of dishes and has a quinoa salad and kale ambrosia salad on the menu as lighter entree options.
On the beverage side, Luella's will offer La Colombe coffee and Reed will be making his own iced tea and a seasonal sweet tea. Alcohol is BYOB, with no corkage fee.
But the item Reed thinks will bring customers back time and again is actually a dessert.
"I think if we get any type of traction it will be for our beignets," a la Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, he said.
"There's less pressure on guests," said Reed. "You don't have to tip and you get your food fast."
The centerpiece of the decor is a series of framed prints by artist Ernie Barnes, whose work was prominently featured on the television show "Good Times," which Reed watched religiously as a youngster.
"One thing that was important to me, I had to buy that picture," he said.
Though Reed said it might have made more sense to open a Southern restaurant on the South Side, he fell in love with Lincoln Square, which is closer to his current home in Rogers Park.
After looking at spaces in Wicker Park, Bucktown and Logan Square, Reed's real estate agent showed him the Lincoln Avenue property, formerly occupied by the Mediterranean Grill.
"I knew right away. I said, 'Under no circumstances do I want someone else to get that spot,'" he said.
"The neighborhood struck me as more of a tight-knit community," Reed said.
For Reed, Luella's represents the culmination of a journey that started when he was 16 and enrolled in the culinary program at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy.
"I knew that he was always focused. He took an interest in learning all he could," said Romelle Norrington, one of Reed's instructors at Dunbar.
An internship at the Palmer House, arranged by Ron Martin, another of Reed's high school teachers, turned into a career with Hilton that lasted nearly 20 years, with Reed working his way up from prep cook to head chef at various hotel restaurants.
"Whenever good things happen for me, I think of him," Reed said of Martin, who's now retired.
It was Martin who also convinced Reed that despite his gig at the Palmer House, the teen could still benefit from continuing his education post-high school.
"When I graduated, I thought, 'I'm done,'" Reed said. "I got a job, I got my high school diploma."
Martin called him up and said, "I talked to instructors at Washburne [Culinary Institute] and you start this September."
"I asked my mom, 'Can he do that?'" Reed recalled.
Having earned his chops at Hilton and "worked under some great chefs," Reed is now ready to spread his wings.
"In hotels, you get pulled in a lot directions," he said. "Here I'll have focus."
Among those keen to get a taste of what Reed has cooked up at Luella's is the restaurant's namesake, now 91 years old.
"She's very excited," Reed said of his great-grandmother. "Her health is poor but she said, 'I want to be there, and I want to eat.'"
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: