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Yvonne Skougard has a knack for intriguing names.
The chef/owner called her Lincoln Square restaurant (now closed) ‘Ammo.’ She opened another in March, at 1840 Oak Ave. in Evanston. She calls it ‘Reverence.’
However dissimilar, the names show a common earnestness of purpose. But it is the first-class food that lures Evanston patrons back, they say.
Ms. Skougard says in the beginning Ammo drew protesters, neighborhood women offended by the military sound of the name. But they changed their minds upon seeing the restaurant’s décor – pink, white and black, embellished with toile and chandeliers.
Instead of being about guns and battle, Ammo stood for “ammunition for the body, food for the soul,” says Ms. Skougard.
No militant, she says, “I’m for our troops but against the war.” In fact, she says, “I’m from that country.” Born in Iraq, she is the daughter of Christians who had to hide their faith by worshipping in basements. The family, sponsored by two American doctors, came to the United States in 1974, when Yvonne was just a year old.
The fact that the gravity of “Reverence” contrasts with the bustle of the Evanston Farmer’s Market will not be lost on Saturday shoppers who see the large yard sign with its cheerful pink and green lettering.
But Ms. Skougard, a former stockbroker who became a private chef after a move to California, is matter-of-fact about why she chose the name. “It’s Biblical,” she says. Reverence alludes to “respect for God, our bodies, the earth,” she says, adding with an impish grin, “Call it the trinity.”
Reverence for her is about cooking and serving organic food. “I’m 90 percent organic, striving for 100 percent,” she says. It makes a difference to her that with organic farming, “the earth isn’t overworked… .I care about organic,” she says. Her customers’ preference for soda is one of the only hindrances to her being completely organic, as Coca Cola and other soft drinks are not certified organic.
She says she “doesn’t think about the day’s menu” until she arrives at 9:30 a.m. Between then and 10:45 she turns out the breakfast and brunch dishes (brioche French toast with berry or apple/walnut compote, breakfast burrito and cannoli crepes, among others) that look so tempting in the glass cases. “It’s the Iron Chef, Yvonne-style,” she says of her quick preparations.
In addition to a selection of sandwiches, she offers a couple daily hot dishes, such as her top-selling pesto-crusted salmon or the second biggest hit, wild mushroom polenta. “Hot lunch comes out about 11:15,” she says; it often disappears quickly.
Her friend and pastry chef, Megan Engel, does all the pastries. The likes of muffins, biscotti or parfaits of red velvet cake layered with vanilla cream are listed on the blackboard on the front of the counter. Ms. Skougard’s brother works the register.
Ms. Skougard and her husband moved back to Chicago from California after 9/11 – “I thought the sky was falling,” she says, “and my family was here” – and three years ago had a baby boy. As a stay-at-home mom she says she “missed cooking for others.”
She was looking for space in Chicago to open a restaurant when her realtor suggested she consider this out-of-the-way Evanston café. “I drove up and ordered a latte,” she says. “It was awful – no finesse.” She knew she could do better.
It was late January. She says she “negotiated” during February, and then, in just two weeks in March, she repainted and transformed the restaurant. She shows off the “before” images in her digital camera, the formerly red walls now refreshed with white paint that sets off the small black and white floor tiles.
“The bones were here,” she says. With crisp white tablecloths laid, an old hutch painted shabby-chic-white and photos of orchids hung on the walls, the small place glows. She painted papier-mache letters, then hung them in the hallway to spell ‘REVERENCE’ in vivid pink.
She attracts a clientele from the building next door, home to National Geographic. But there are regulars from her building, too – Patsy from Northwestern University’s Learning in Retirement, Shawn from High Performance Computers and Rafael from building maintenance. “I call it delicious,” Shawn says of the food.
Ms. Skougard makes a point of learning all their names.
Though she thinks about expanding from breakfast/brunch and lunch to dinner, she says she considers the evening meal “another beast. I’d need more woman-power.” Besides, she says, her priorities have changed. Much as she enjoys being a chef, she says, “My son is my first passion now. Before, it was cooking.”