There’s a warmth to this air that smells like freshly-baked cookies and gin. The darkened bar is bathed in a golden hue, glinting from bottles filled with white and brown spirits. It’s loud—a typical night in Chicago’s hip “hipster” Logan Square. No one in the crowd notices the man watching them.
“I try not to be creepy,” Chef Gabriel Freeman assures me. “I just want to watch people eat and see how they react. That’s the most honest form of feedback.”
Freeman has been the executive chef at Scofflaw—Logan Square’s nationally-recognized, gin-driven cocktail bar—for almost a year and a half now but, prior to that, he was a long-time patron.
“It’s been a slow process to redefine the menu. Scofflaw has been around for a while. I didn’t just want to change things. I wanted to figure out what other guests were looking for and what we could do in the kitchen.”
The space represents a powerful form of inspiration to the chef. “Particularly the fireplace. It evokes flavors that are smoky…deep…kind of warming…like our gratin, which is heavily spiced with cardamom and allspice.”
But that’s not the only inspiration that drives Scofflaw’s new menu.
“I’m a secret nerd,” Freeman admits. “I’m a big fan of books, especially The Hobbit. It’s a major food memory for me. It was the first time I read something and was able to visualize it and almost taste it and feel it. When I came here [and saw] the fireplaces and how dark it was, it was like going into somebody’s home. And maybe that someone lives deep in the woods. Maybe he’s a shapeshifting bear…” He trails off. Crazy but, in the atmosphere, totally plausible.
There’s a simplicity to this complex food memory of Freeman’s and it’s rooted in warm hospitality.
“I want to trigger feelings in people. I’m not trying to do elevated bar food. We don’t take reservations. There are no tablecloths. You can just sit on a couch and enjoy really great food and drink from our tiny little kitchen…kinda like hosting a party for family and friends.”
Freeman’s style of cooking is dictated largely by punchy flavors and a conscious effort to reduce food waste.
“I’m not just going to throw things away,” he vehemently states. “It’s very hard to make money in restaurants. If you treat it like an inspiration instead of a disadvantage, it’s more fun and the food is better for it.”
Take his popular Pappardelle dish. On the menu it’s simply pappardelle tossed with Tuscan kale, walnut butter, and pecorino. In the kitchen, it’s an effective way to utilize the mushroom stems and ends that go unused after the mushroom tops are turned into smoked chips for the Brussels Sprouts dish.
“At first, I just had a veggie stock to braise the kale for the pasta. But now I make a mushroom stock using all the ends.”
It’s no ordinary stock that Freeman makes. He uses it as an opportunity to build as much flavor as possible. First, he roasts the mushroom stems and ends with shallots, deglazing the pan with a splash of cognac. Then, there’s a hit of herbs, followed by making a reduction. The reduction gets strained and then re-reduced with the Tuscan kale and butter. That kale is then incorporated into the pappardelle.
How customers react to the food also plays a key role in Freeman’s menu planning. “A big thing for me, which comes from being a line cook, is always being aware. I come into the dining room and watch what people eat. What do they take a bite of first? What do they look like when they eat it?”
Freeman prides himself on his communication with the front of house staff. “Everything from them checking on tables to watching what food comes back on the plate. If I’m always getting a sandwich back with the pickles pulled off every time, it’s a clue.”
Articulacy is an art of Freeman’s. He is deeply connected with his purpose and knows how to convey that through food.
Perhaps the bone marrow says it best—“No pretensions necessary. It’s safe and cozy here. Be yourself. And eat”
3201 W Armitage Ave, Chicago, IL 60647