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How Graham Elliot Is Helping Horse Thief Hollow's Gradual Evolution

By Mark Konkol | November 6, 2015 5:43am | Updated on November 9, 2015 10:56am
 When celebrity chef Graham Elliot brings his cookbook tour back to Chicago next week he’ll make a stop on the South Side at Horse Thief Hollow, a southern-inspired gastro pub that the “MasterChef” judge once ranked among the most underrated restaurants in town.
When celebrity chef Graham Elliot brings his cookbook tour back to Chicago next week he’ll make a stop on the South Side at Horse Thief Hollow, a southern-inspired gastro pub that the “MasterChef” judge once ranked among the most underrated restaurants in town.
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BEVERLY — When celebrity chef Graham Elliot brings his cookbook tour back to Chicago next week, he’ll make a stop on the South Side at Horse Thief Hollow, a southern-inspired gastro pub that the “MasterChef” judge once ranked among the most underrated restaurants in town.

Elliot plans to do more than shake hands and sign books at his tour pit stop on Western Avenue not far from his Morgan Park home.

The Michelin-rated chef and TV darling teamed up with his pal Horse Thief Hollow owner Neil Byers to celebrate his cookbook with a special three-course meal paired with three of the Beverly brewery’s best seasonal ales on Nov. 22.

What Elliot plans to serve at Horse Thief Hollow, 10426 S. Western Ave., remains a surprise. But Byers says he’s set to pair the protein in the celebrity chef’s special dishes with three seasonal brews:

First up, Uncorked, a Belgian Tripel-style made with Malbec wine grapes and aged in French oak, will go well with the starter dish.

The main course will get paired with a glass of McCarthy Ale, a hearty red ale spiked with white peppercorn and blue agave. That’s “red, white and blue,” as a tribute to a local group that supports veterans returning from war, Byers said.

Finally, the evening will end with Elliot’s special dessert served with Cheval Deux, a sweet potato “bier de garde” brewed with One Trick Pony brewery that BeerMenus.com described this way: “The only thing missing from this is pie crust and whipped cream."

“These are three of my favorite beers and they’re all going to be ready at just the right time,” he said. “With Graham, it’s going to be really special.”

Before the anticipation makes your mouth starts to water, I’ve got bad news.

Elliot’s kitchen takeover sold out almost the instant Byers announced it via Facebook.

“I posted a call for people to email for reservations and got 300 replies. We have about 29 tables,” Byers said.

Horse Thief Hollow's top chef remembers the day Elliott stopped by for a bite and a beer.

“He came in unannounced wearing those big white glasses,” Byers said. “And I was like, ‘What are you doing here, man?' ”

After giving Elliott an impromptu kitchen tour — which Byers called “a whole lot of pressure” — and serving up samplers of his finest culinary offerings, the Beverly restaurateur and the world-renowned chef got to talking.

As things turned out, they had more in common than a passion for good food and beer. Elliot’s wife went to Mother McAuley High School with Byers’ sister, and both chefs got invited to lend a hand at Ald. Matt O’Shea’s annual Thanksgiving dinner for 19th Ward senior citizens.

“I was cooking Brussels sprouts and roasted veggies. The morning news crews were there checking out [Elliot]. It was great. We used all things raised at the Ag School, even the turkeys,” Byers said. “A relationship started to build.”

Over the last few years, the chefs became friends and have collaborated. Elliot co-planned the “Summer Swelter” craft beer party at the Beverly brewery with Byers, who was awarded the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s James Tyree Emerging Business Leadership award this year.

It might not be a spot on "MasterChef," the TV show that made Elliot famous, but for Byers, a Beverly native who returned from a stint in the kitchen of a South Carolina barbecue joint with a vision to chase his culinary dreams with a restaurant in a former carpet store on the South Side Irish Parade route, it's pretty OK.

After we talked for a while, it became clear Byers’ ambitions extend far beyond being his own boss.

He hopes to slowly stock his menu with creative dishes in hopes of inspiring working class neighbors to stretch their palates and venture beyond what they expect from Western Avenue staples — Fox’s Pizza, Mr. Sub and Franconello, to name a few of my favorites.

Byers' friendship with Elliot continues to inspire him to add fancier items to the menu, including a mushroom risotto with beef cheeks that explodes with flavor in a way southwest-style egg rolls, a current crowd pleaser, never could.

“To be endorsed by a peer who is at such a high level is amazing,” Byers said.

Frankly, it’s taken nearly four years for Byers to feel comfortable challenging notoriously stubborn South Side dining sensibilities with his South Carolina-influenced foodie fare.

After all, some Beverly drinkers were shocked, if not appalled, when Horse Thief Hollow stopped serving Miller Lite and Budweiser.

But bit by bit — well, bite by bite might be closer to the truth — Horse Thief Hollow edges closer to the joint Byers always hoped it would be, a place you go for good beer, fantastic casual food with a gourmet touch that has a strong connection to the community where he was raised.

“I knew going in I couldn’t gamble on the idea of following my vision all the way right off the bat. I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as just any restaurant that no one talked about and no one got excited about. I knew I had to gain people’s trust. And now people trust Horse Thief Hollow, me as chef and Dave Williams as brewer,” Byers said.

“They let me run with it. And they’re allowing me to fulfill my life’s work. I still want to be the place you go for a burger and a beer, but I want to serve an excellent burger and a great beer.”

A little boost from Elliot, who Byers credits for nudging "Fox Good Day Chicago" host Corey McPherrin to feature Horse Thief Hollow’s pub grub on TV by dubbing the place among the city’s most underrated restaurants in town, didn’t hurt either.

Byers says he deals with the pickiest eaters with measured confidence. In a pinch, he'll  double-dog dare a diner to order a new addition to the menu.

When a regular balked at ordering the risotto with beef cheeks, Byers offered to pick up his entire tab if he didn’t like it  ... and didn't have to pay a penny.

He convinced a 10-year-old girl who proclaimed “I don’t eat duck” to take a bite of the new duck breast appetizer served with with goat cheese custard, caramelized red onion and a honey-thyme reduction.

“She loved it,” Byers said.

And at the summer craft beer bash this year, Byers served up barbacoa tacos that he’s pretty sure some folks wouldn’t have tried if they knew they were biting into beef cheeks and tongue.

“When I told people the ingredients they were like, ‘I would never go to a place and eat that.’ ” Byers said. “But if its prepared right, I told them, it’s delicious. … For me, it’s really cool to influence people that way. This is, in essence, us having fun. We’re creative people. This is our life.”

Horse Thief Hollow might be underrated, but South Side guys like Byers grew up knowing how to handle life as an underdog.

“The biggest struggle is not having a cool image. Horse Thief is kind of like how I was in grammar school. No one saw me as cool until I grew up and finally went for it and started doing things that I loved. All the sudden people respected that,” he said.

“We are probably the most family-friendly brew pub in Chicago. That might not be the coolest thing in the world but what we’re doing is earning respect. I’m good with that.”

For more information on Elliot’s book tour stop at Horse Thief Hollow on Nov. 22 at 5 p.m. click here.

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