The Daily Meal caught up with chef Peter Coenen to learn about how his travels have influenced his work. Coenen is the chef de cuisine at The Gage in Chicago, which is a restaurant and tavern near Millennium Park that serves refined comfort food. He has a degree in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University and has previously been a sous chef at The Ritz-Carlton in St. Thomas and at The Inn at Palmetto Bluff in Blufton, S.C. Before coming to The Gage, he was a junior sous chef at Chicago's BOKA.
The Daily Meal: What has been your most inspirational food experience while traveling?
Peter Coenen: My travels through Europe. I went to Spain, England, France, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. Throughout my cooking career, I was dead set on the fact that wherever I was working, whether at a hotel or free-standing restaurant, I was going to make sure that I got into a place that was Forbes 5-Star rated or had Michelin stars. Even during my move to Chicago, I only applied to Michelin-rated restaurants.
Europe really changed my whole perspective on restaurants and what food truly is. As a chef, cook, and a person who loves to go out and eat at new places, my vision changed in France. One night I went to an Alain Ducasse restaurant — 3 Michelin stars, impeccable service, and good food. The service at was over the top. You couldn't get any better. The next night I went to a small bistro near our hotel that most people would have never heard of. This place was amazing. The service was nowhere near to that of Ducasse, but it made me consider whether that was really necessary. Service was good, don't get me wrong, but nothing compared to Ducasse. They opened our wine for us and never touched the bottle again. I thought about it and really enjoyed that. I am more than capable of pouring my own wine throughout my meal.
At this small bistro, we had a very simple but wonderful traditional pot-au-feu. It was one of the best things I have ever eaten — simplicity at its best! We also had a seafood bisque with sherry and cream. Again, it was simple, but the flavors were so pure. At this bistro, I spent less than half the money that I did at the world-renowned Ducasse restaurant. We also had service that was just perfect, not stuffy or over the top. The food wasn't just good; it was memorable.
This experience really made me think about what it means to have all these accolades. Yes, there great and many good things that stem from this, but there are so many amazing restaurants in the world that no one knows anything about! Some of those that you stumble upon can open your senses to what true cooking is and can be. They're diamonds in the rough.
TDM: What’s your favorite kitchen souvenir from your travels?
PC: My favorite kitchen souvenir is from my sous chef in the Virgin Islands at the Ritz-Carlton. Presidente beer was the beer of choice there. He gave me his silver Presidente bottle opener from his key chain. It has come in handy and is used all the time (especially for a chef who loves beer)! I was also given a small cheese board from a woodworker in Atlanta — just a very small hand-crafted board and a small wooden knife for cutting cheese at home.
TDM: If you could eat your way through one country, which one would it be and why?
PC: Canada. I've done the Europe thing. One thing about Europe is that, yes, there is diversity and you can find different types of cuisines, but for the most part in France, for instance, you're going to eat French food from those particular regions where you are. In Spain, most likely, you will be eating Spanish food. Canada stems from so many countries and is very diverse. For instance, in Vancouver, you will find a Mecca of a growing food scene that can very well be put up against San Francisco, New York City, and Chicago. There is a very interesting food movement happening there that is only getting better. You can find amazing foods from all over, with global influences including Spanish, Dutch, French, Irish, Japanese, American, and Nordic. There seems to be something for everyone!