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A business called Simple Gourmet should be as straightforward as its food, gourmet-to-go dishes intended to be fresh but not fancied-up.
Owner Debbie Karhanek likes her food pure, not fussy. But she makes sure it is never merely plain. She has built an extensive – and complex – menu, a few elements at a time.
In creating the business of her dreams, it appears that Ms. Karhanek, a foodie since her Evanston childhood, has let no detail escape her notice. Her new shop at 1459 Elmwood Ave., in a formerly dowdy building she completely rehabbed, is a feast for the eye as well as the palate.
She seems to care – to be passionate about – everything, from her chef and co-creator (Leyla Wheelhouse) to the color of the walls (she calls it “grapefruit”) to the shape of her business cards (square), the taste of her vinaigrette (smoky and aromatic, she says, with a depth of flavor conveyed by toasting peppercorns in a pan on the stove) and the wooden trays she designed to hold “Simple Gourmet” treats by the dozen.
The spare contemporary store, enlivened with select antiques, reflects her culinary philosophy: “Food doesn’t have to be ‘busy’ to be good.”
She maintains, “You can make a wonderful vinaigrette with just a few ingredients. Ingredients make the dish great. If the ingredients are not fresh, the food won’t be great.”
A food-lover but no snob, she has, with Chef Wheelhouse, created an imaginative menu that, on a given day, might encompass anything from savory feta, olive and scallion scones to a miso-barbecue tofu wrap with rice noodles and crisp veggies to fried chicken and mac and cheese they term “the best ever.”
Simple Gourmet has something for every taste, they say, from the vegan to the “ultra meat-lover.” They create everything from scratch, with the exception of the bread from Chicago’s Red Hen bakery.
Some items – such as the simple tuna and chicken salad sandwiches and signature potato chip cookies – are available every day. Others – for example, simple lime or raspberry oatmeal or pecan bars – show up in rotation, four varieties each day.
“You can always walk in and find dinner or food for a cocktail party,” says Ms. Karhanek.
Today’s fresh food, if left over, moves tomorrow to small containers in the store refrigerator and then to the freezer, where asparagus and sweet pea soup (“like spring in your mouth,” she sighs) shares shelf space with the likes of chicken and sausage stew.
The owner and the chef taste, refine and re-taste their recipes. As restaurant veterans, both women know how unusual their tasting process is.
Chicago’s Red Light restaurant, where Ms. Wheelhouse was a sous-chef, devoted two weeks to tastings. Simple Gourmet devoted two months. “That’s how we can take a lot of pride,” she says.
Still constantly experimenting, the pair are very much in sync. “When she presents something to me, it’s beyond my wildest dreams,” says Ms. Karhanek.
Though she was a theater major at the University of Illinois, Ms. Karhanek says the food business is in her bones. She describes her mother, a professional actress and singer, as “the Martha Stewart of the 50s and 60s,” an “amazing cook who canned jam on Sundays.”
Her father had a restaurant in St. Louis. His daughter teased him about passing along “the cooking gene. I told him, ‘It’s your fault I’m working a 70-hour week,’” she says. She managed Chicago restaurants Blue Mesa and Harry Caray’s and Northfield’s Brasserie T. But it was during her 10 years with A La Carte in Wilmette that Ms. Karhanek says, “I fell in love with this business.”
Determined to start her own, she wrote a business plan and looked to locate in Evanston, to which she had returned in 1985. With construction of her store well underway, she began the hunt for a chef. On Craigslist she advertised her “new gourmet-to-go business … working atmosphere where enjoying what we do is what it’s all about.”
Ms. Wheelhouse, the executive chef at the Michigan Avenue Neiman-Marcus, was finding her job “not as hands-on as I wanted.” She says as a newlywed she “wanted to simplify.”
Her response to the ad was bold: “I am the one you should talk to.” They hit it off right away, and Ms. Karhanek hired her on Nov. 12. Then began the marathon talk-and-tasting sessions that culminated in their opening Simple Gourmet on Feb. 12.
Now, says Ms. Wheelhouse, “instead of managing 14 cooks, I come in and make scones and bundt cakes – how lucky. We share the seasons with our customers.”
They revel in return business and enjoy going the extra mile. When a mom called from Bridgeport, Conn., Ms. Wheelhouse baked three dozen birthday cupcakes (red velvet with cream cheese and fresh pistachio icing, fudge-frosted fudge and vanilla-vanilla) that Ms. Karhanek delivered – boxes balanced beneath an umbrella – to her Northwestern University son.
Three years ago, says Mr. Karhanek, she made the decision “to spend the second half of my life working for the right reasons – enjoying every day.” She says she is.