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Now at street art-themed Fulton Market Kitchen, the veteran chef of Blue 13 and Seven Lions hopes he’s found a home

by Vincent Labriola

CHEF CHRIS CURREN IS a grizzled veteran. You can see it in the bags under his eyes, the heavy way his tattooed arms fall across his chest. He looks, for a moment, like a weather-beaten statue happy to be out of the rain. In the large front room of Fulton Market Kitchen, where he was installed as executive chef in March, Curren settles into the plush bench and gives a tired, contented grin.

“It’s good to be back in the West Loop,” he says. “It fits my personality more than Michigan Avenue.”

He’s referring to his previous gig as chef of the high-volume Seven Lions, one of nine different kitchens he’s helmed during his long career in Chicago (plus another handful in his hometown of Cleveland). Being a veteran means adapting to change in an industry where restaurants come and go. It means working with countless other chefs and restaurateurs, many with strong personalities. It means walking into brand new kitchens, where anything can happen.

“It’s not as hard now,” he concedes, “but yeah: the single hardest day in your career is that first one at the head of a kitchen. You think you’re prepared for it, but you aren’t.” Now, he adds, his years of experience help him keep things in perspective. “When I walk into a new kitchen I know full well there’s gonna be people who don’t like me, don’t like what we’re doing, just don’t want to deal with the change because it’s a pain in the ass.”

He shrugs. “I like to bring people along if they want to come along.”

Curren speaks with an easy, deliberate rhythm: slow and thoughtful, like a sleepy college professor. “Each kitchen is a different challenge. You walk into a problematic kitchen, or a good kitchen looking for a change. You may have to build a kitchen from scratch.” He pauses, recalling. “I’ve done all of that.”

He looks around the high-ceilinged room, the well-stocked bar and lounge. A rotating selection of original art hangs on the walls; today an oversized painting of the Incredible Hulk looms over us. “This place isn’t a problematic restaurant.”

AN OLD WEST LOOP WAREHOUSE PAINTED in lighting bolt zebra stripes, Fulton Market Kitchen places an immediate emphasis on art in all forms. Curren’s new 25-item menu complements both a revamped beverage program and a robust commitment to supporting other artists throughout the space, a distinctive approach that helps the restaurant stand out in an increasingly crowded and high-profile landscape. It also means that Curren’s food is not the dominant attraction, but one key contributor to a larger creative whole. He admits that it’s an interesting challenge to merge the interests of the restaurant with his own ego.

You’re talking to me for a reason. That stress is with me all the time. Realistically, in this business all you have is your name.

“It’s one of my daily battles. An internal battle. I know that most people who walk through that door don’t know who I am, but my name does impact things in a certain way.” He leans forward with a quiet confidence. “You’re talking to me for a reason. That stress is with me all the time. Realistically, in this business all you have is your name.”

“At this point in my career I had options. And I was tired of trying to fit myself into someone else’s box.” It was FMK owner Daniel Alonso’s commitment to giving Curren creative freedom that persuaded him to take the job. “He gave me my budgets for food and labor and told me to go have fun. And it’s great to be able to bounce ideas off of people not just in the kitchen but the rest of the place, and the artists coming in. This is a good gauge for people to see what I can still do, for better or for worse.” He tempers the enthusiasm in his voice. “I’m trying to go for it. I don’t think we’re there yet, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

As thrilled as he is with the autonomy FMK offers, Curren’s long career underscores his willingness to fit into somebody else’s box. On a practical level, it means tailoring his own skillset to fit the needs of each new restaurant. “You’re always gonna go to certain techniques, certain flavor profiles. There are dishes that you keep in your repertoire, and tweak the theme here or there for whatever that restaurant needs.”

These standby dishes, he adds, help introduce new personality to the kitchen, establish the structure of the new chef and personnel, and let Curren feel out the clientele so that he can make new dishes specifically based on their wants. Now, he feels comfortable changing up to five dishes at a time, or 20% of FMK’s menu. Soon, the menu will fully reflect Curren’s primary attraction to the job: “I like being able to cook without the pressure of the outside stuff.”

“I like being hands on, working one-on-one in the kitchen. It’s zen, organic, me turning my brain off and just cooking.” He sighs contentedly. “It’s peaceful, but there’s a craft to it. Doing things the right way, with flavor and proper technique. Rustic, simple preparations that come from knowing the origins of ingredients. There’s soul and character in that kind of endeavor.”

Specifically, Curren hopes to keep things interesting but approachable. “I don’t use a lot of obscure ingredients,” he says, before describing a dish of monkfish stuffed with crab meat, curry coconut, and spring veggies. “All flavors that people understand. At its heart, an approachable, understandable dish.” He pauses. “Something can be comforting and refined.”

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