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Albright College Young Alumni
Profiles A Sizzling Culinary Success

If you’re familiar with the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” then you know that Craig Fass’s creativity extends far beyond the confines of the kitchen. A number of years ago he and fellow Albright students Brian Turtle ’95 and Mike Ginelli ’95, housebound by snowy weather, came up with the popular game, which is based on the concept of “six degrees of separation.”

Picture yourself seated comfortably in a small, intimate restaurant on West Belmont Street in Chicago. The menu includes such items as apricot-stuffed pork, tuna tartare with sesame dressing, pan-seared duck breast with vegetable stir-fry, filo wrapped vegetable timbale with white bean puree and cucumber mint yogurt and, for dessert, banana cream puffs and apple upside-down cake.

What a delightful and eclectic mix, you remark, your mouth watering to try everything. One could almost call it a menagerie of flavors, which is fitting, considering that you find yourself in Chicago’s Menagerie Restaurant, recently rated by Bon Appétit as “Chicago’s Best Casual Restaurant.” When the chef appears at your side to inquire after your meal, you just have to ask where he went to culinary school.

Imagine your surprise when he replies that he didn’t.

A history and secondary education major, Craig Fass ’96 discovered soon after graduation that he just couldn’t see himself as a history teacher. “I didn’t feel the experience of the middle school classroom,” he says, and, thinking that he might be more cut out for professorship, started taking graduate school classes in English literature. To support himself he did what he had done every summer since he was 14: he got a job working in a restaurant kitchen.

But when he realized that it was the cooking, and not the graduate classes, that he found more enjoyable, Fass knew the time had come to make a decision. “I’ve always enjoyed the kitchen atmosphere,” he says, “particularly the competition and the camaraderie. It was something I was good at.” So he found himself on the road to Los Angeles, where he had family and friends, with the resolve that he would take cooking more seriously.

But Fass never made it to L.A. “I made a pit stop in Chicago,” he says, “and never left. Chicago…that’s where I fell in love with food.” An opening at the Green Dolphin Street, a four star restaurant and jazz club, caught his eye. It was his first chance at a job, and the pressure was high. When the chef asked him if he knew everything on the menu, Fass stretched the truth a bit. “I didn’t know anything on the menu,” Fass says, “but I told the chef that I did, and got the job.”

He started out as the low man on the totem pole, making just $60 a day before taxes. At times it was difficult to get by, but Fass points out that he never had to worry about food. Commitment, hard work and a lot of reading soon won him the position of number three man in charge. “I was doing what I really loved,” says Fass, “and I worked really hard at it.”

But time soon found him longing for a change. “I got burned out,” says Fass, noting that the atmosphere created by the head chef was less than stimulating. “He could be a very mean and unkind man.” After bartending for awhile to pay his bills, Fass found that he had an itch to get back into the kitchen. With several opportunities open to him, including a position at a Japanese sushi restaurant in Los Angeles, Fass had to seriously consider what most appealed to him. He decided to stay in Chicago, where he’d been offered a position at Bistro 110. And how different the atmosphere was!

The head chef of Bistro 110, Dominique Tougne, took Fass under his wing. “Many chefs are demanding and don’t give praise. Dominique was different. He was nice, kind and gentle…he opened my eyes to new ways of doing things.” In his position as senior sous chef, Fass was in charge of 30 people. He honed his managerial skills and had a hand in many other parts of the restaurant, including ordering and publicity. He also gained knowledge that would, in the next few years, prove to be quite useful. “I got to meet and cook with some of the best chefs in the world,” Fass says, “and I enjoyed it so much.”

If he had one complaint about Bistro 110, it was that the menu offered only French food. He’d been there a few years, and was longing to branch out and “try my own thing.” So when he and his friend, pastry chef Mandy Franklin, heard about a property for sale, they went to see it on a whim. They found a deal they couldn’t ignore.

The space had previously been a restaurant and was already stocked with tables, chairs and a full kitchen. “We realized that such opportunities don’t come along very often,” Fass says, “so we went ahead with it.”

What followed was “a fun struggle.” Franklin and Fass hired neither a lawyer nor a public relations firm, choosing to save money and handle everything themselves. They also put themselves in charge of painting, electrical work and obtaining a liquor license. When the doors of Menagerie Restaurant opened in February 2003, it was a dream come true. “It was just the two of us,” Fass says, “and it was really a work of love.”

This work of love, now in its second year of business, is garnering praise from the likes of Bon Appetit, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Magazine and Zagat’s, and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Fass finds the freedom of owning his own restaurant to be exhilarating. “You can do everything,” he says, proudly noting that his menu includes French, Italian, Mexican, Thai, Indian and Japanese influences. “You get to play with other styles and types, and people really seem to appreciate the mix.”

Plus, as owners and head chefs, Franklin and Fass can ensure that the atmosphere in the kitchen is a positive one. “There’s no yelling and no screaming…we make sure it stays fun,” says Fass, sharing that the kitchen often reminds him of his experience of pledging for his fraternity at Albright. “Teamwork is so important,” he says, “and I know that I am only as good as my support staff.”

Of course, there are days when the 80-hour work week, late nights and stress of ownership cause him pause. “Sometimes I’m miserable,” Fass says, “but you know what? It’s a dream come true. I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else.”

– Loren A. Morgan ’05

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