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The Tastemaker

Long the innovator behind some of Chicago’s most beloved restaurants, Donnie Madia prepares for his next act.

Donnie Madia

Inside Wicker Park’s The Violet Hour

Even if you don’t know who Donnie Madia is, you know his restaurants. Madia, along with his partners at One Off Hospitality—Paul Kahan, Terry Alexander, Eduard Seitan and Peter Garfield—owns some of the city’s most venerated spots, including Blackbird, Avec, The Publican, Publican Quality Meats, Big Star and The Violet Hour. Nearly 16 years after opening Blackbird, Chicago-born Madia—and the restaurants he helped create—shows no signs of slowing down (although his newborn son, Bronson, might have something to say about that). Next up for One Off? Nico, a two-story seafood-focused Italian restaurant inside the Gold Coast’s Thompson Chicago hotel (formerly Sutton Place), scheduled to open in early September, with the restaurant to follow in December.

First off, congrats on Paul Kahan’s recent James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. It was really well deserved. It was extremely blissful to see Paul win because he doesn’t enjoy the limelight. He’s very humble, and that makes him human.

I feel safe in saying that all of your projects are hits. Do you have a culinary crystal ball? Our secret is to evolve our business sensibility and not follow a trend, but create one before it becomes a trend. That’s our goal. That’s what we talked about 16 years ago. Blackbird was just a labor of love of four guys who got together. We had only one aspiration, which was to create a 65-seat dining room that people would love to be in and love the food and the experience. I think that stays true to all of our concepts. 

Your restaurants aren’t just known for their food but for their timeless interior design and vibe, too. I’d have to credit Thomas Schlesser [designer of all of One Off’s spaces] for an unbelievable design foresight, for being ahead of the times but not over-designing our restaurants. Once Thomas comes up with the design he’s happy to get our point of view. He’s kind of like our extended business partner. He cares about design, food and wine as much as we do, so it’s a healthy collaboration. I’m lucky to get to collaborate with him on materials, textiles, wallpaper and all of the good stuff that makes a restaurant look great.

After all these years, how have you and your partners managed to not only stay together but thrive? Love of the game, humanity and for one another. I think as we grow as men, we are more compassionate about each other’s privacy. Nobody wants to be inundated with more emails, text messages and Twitter information. We give each other space and we know the importance of being level-headed with one another. We’re also very competitive. We want to source the information first and we want to win the deal before anybody else. Not only on the outside but on the inside, too. We all have ideas on how we can grow this company. I think that’s a healthy competitiveness. Then there’s the fact that we don’t want to let each other or our guests down. Now it’s bigger than that: We have an entire city we have to continue to raise the bar for. There’s a lot on the line and we take that very seriously on a day-to-day basis.

What can you tell me about the new project? It’s going to be Paul, Terry and myself, and we are bringing Kimberly Phillips-Galban, our director of operations, into the fold. We’re doing all the food and beverage. The first-floor lounge and restaurant space is about 5,500 to 6,000 square feet. It’s cut up a bit. It’s going to have a beautiful outdoor seating area. The owners are doing a great job at rehabbing all the rooms and the public spaces. Tara Bernerd & Partners out of London are doing the interior design. For the kitchen, Paul and his team are going to have a battleship in the basement. We’re taking our sensibilities and using some of the characteristics from our other restaurants for the space, too.

What was it about this project that made you guys want to come on board? We always wanted to do a hotel. This was our fifth or sixth try at sitting down at a table. But the good news is we know when to say no and when to say yes. This deal was the right one for us with the right partnership. We went up against four other restaurant groups to win the bid and we are proud of that. This one’s a heavy hitter.

What do you like best about what you do? In my mind, I created a scenario just in case the universe wills me to win a James Beard Award. [Madia has been nominated for numerous Beard Awards, including twice for Outstanding Restaurateur.] I’d credit my partners, of course, but more importantly my mother and my aunt. They were incredible caretakers and role models for me, even though I learned it through complaint. They set me up for success today. Meaning that I have one job: to take care of the guests in the highest regard. I’ve held true to that since the day we opened Blackbird all the way up to today.

The secret to your success? No one person is bigger than the whole. I’m only as good as my partners and the immense amount of great talent we have around us. I like to make these analogies to baseball. Why do the Yankees hold 27 titles? Because their talent is deep. It’s not just the players that play every day. It’s also the players that get called on once every week or every other week that contribute to the hierarchy. I pull you up, you pull me up. I love that analogy and I live my life by it. I really do.