When it first opened, it was named “Best New Restaurant” by both Chicago Magazine and Thrillist. Since then, the restaurant has been featured on Food Network. And, for four years running, it’s earned itself a Michelin star. Needless to say, Dusek’s Board and Beer is a Chicago favorite. And how could it not be, when it describes itself as celebrating “the enduring link between beer, food, and hospitality”?
When Chef Michael Galen joined Dusek’s in 2017, he followed his predecessors by committing to the status quo of a respectable restaurant—cooking with the seasons, using quality ingredients. But there were little whispers of something different. A hint of something belonged perfectly and yet not quite. A little fermented pineapple sugar to make a vinegar that brightens a protein dish. A shishito pepper in a hush puppy. Meat, roasted differently.
“My first restaurant job was a stage,” Galen explains. “That was my first real taste of kitchens. I was young—19—and had no idea what kitchens were.”
Like any good student, he watched and he learned.
At the time, the executive sous chef was a woman named Sidney Crosby. “Watching her lead and seeing how she did things…” he trails off. “She terrified me and was also the one I learned the most from.” He pauses, contemplatively. “She taught me that kitchens are hard work and that you have to be passionate and emotional towards your food. But, if you can get your team to work for you instead of making it just a job, it’s a success. The rest of it comes a lot easier.”
Galen learned that to do that required a lot from him as a person. Like many chefs, Galen grew up with the old school mentality of the brigade-system. He describes himself as “an angry chef” in his youth, following the example set around him. But by focusing on what he learned from his first stage, he saw a new setup for kitchen hierarchy.
“It’s like having an upside-down pyramid,” he carefully explains. “Instead of having them make me look good and make my job easy, it’s the other way around. I have to be the tool that sets them up for success and makes sure their quality of life is good.”
To continue to be a better chef and a better leader, Galen still plays the role of the student. Never more so than when he travels.
“My interest in food and culture go hand in hand,” he begins. “Any time I travel, I’m around a different culture. To not take something from that would be foolish to me.”
His stages around the United States and internationally last only a day or two. “Traveling and trying to do more than one day is tough because I can’t exactly take weeks off of work.”
His most unique stage was in Thailand at a café in Chiang Mai.
“The place I was staging at was not a Michelin-starred restaurant. It was a struggle because there was a big language barrier. But being immersed in that culture was so cool.”
What struck Galen the most was the techniques used in this simple restaurant. “They put so much care into everything—the way they rolled and slapped their own noodles, preserving ingredients, using different ways to develop depth of flavor.”
He took home this judicious sense of flavor-building and technique.
“We definitely have Asian influence on the menu from time to time,” he says of Dusek’s. “There are things I change and do a little differently—little surprises you wouldn’t expect.”
Overall, Galen always takes something away from every place he stages at.
“It’s the little things you take away. The way they roast a piece of meat. What pan they’re using. What spoon to use on a sauce.”
In a city like Chicago, where the competition is over 8,000 restaurants, the devil lies in the details. “Everyone’s trying to be successful on a large scale,” Galen describes. “So, it’s the small things you have to be good at.