The only thing busier than one of Bien Trucha Group’s restaurants on a Friday night may just be its culinary director, Abel Cortes. Though on any given day he might be ping-ponging between the group’s different properties, the recent debut of a fourth restaurant has him spending most of his time at Santo Cielo, which opened May 2 in Naperville. We caught up with the chef a few weeks after the opening to see how his day shapes up, from start to finish.
ALL ABOUT ABEL
Cortes was born in Mexico City and moved to the U.S. with his family at age 14. The oldest son of two working parents, he found himself in the kitchen as a teen, making sandwiches or eggs for his three younger sisters. His first official cooking gig was at the now-closed Bennigan’s on Michigan Avenue. Throughout his career, he has worked for notable Chicago chefs, including Michael Kornick at MK and Mindy Segal at Hot Chocolate. When friend and former colleague Rodrigo Cano mentioned he was looking for someone to run the kitchen at Bien Trucha in Geneva, Cortes was intrigued but he balked at the suburban location.
“I lived my entire life in the city, so it was a little too far out for me at that time,” he says. A few years later—when Cano and company had opened a second restaurant, A Toda Madre in Glen Ellyn—Cortes came aboard as executive chef. “I had never worked on Mexican cuisine before in my life, besides cooking at home, so it was a little scary, even though I’m Mexican,” he says. He is now responsible for the culinary director of all four of Bien Trucha Group’s restaurants.
Cortes wakes up at home in Bedford Park. “The first thing I do is kiss my wife and kiss my daughter,” he says.
He makes coffee, sits down at his kitchen island and calls the chefs of each restaurant. They discuss any special events or catering orders scheduled for the day, and troubleshoot any pressing issues, such as a staffer with a family emergency who needs the day off last-minute.
Cortes starts up his Mazda3 and heads to Santo Cielo. If he’s in the mood to listen to the radio, it’s 96.3 FM, aka B96. “Sometimes I need to think when I’m driving and it’s all silence,” he says.
He arrives at the restaurant. He checks the walk-in cooler to make sure everything they need for the day is accounted for. Each component to be prepared for dinner service is listed on Cortes’ prep sheet, which is actually multiple sheets—six pages, front and back—detailing some 200 items that are needed each day. Proteins such as miso-marinated sea bass or slow-cooked beef short ribs are the first priority to prep early in the day, as they take four hours and eight hours, respectively.
Throughout the late morning and afternoon, Cortes fields calls from the group’s different vendors and purveyors, such as microgreens supplier Closed Loop Farms. “We use a lot of local farms and they’re … getting new stuff every other day, so they’re updating me whenever they have a new vegetable or something,” he says. Cortes isn’t typically a fan of watches, but after struggling with a Bluetooth headset he started wearing an Apple watch to stay on top of phone calls when his hands are busy in the kitchen.
It’s time for the “family meal,” an all-staff break to rest and dine together before dinner service starts. “I like to come up with different fun family meals, maybe a stir-fried rice and next time I’ll do a hamburger, pasta or maybe a taco bar,” Cortes says.
Cortes sips his second coffee of the day to keep his energy up. “I also try and drink a lot of water,” he says, “and sometimes my guys do lemonade.”
Cortes leads a five-minute meeting, called pre-shift, with his kitchen staff, which includes a dishwasher, saute chef, cold station chef and two hot line chefs working “the face of the restaurant”—the grill and oven that are seen from the dining room. “We talk about if we are going to have any specials or … if we have any large parties coming in,” he says. “We have to make sure and confirm that everything is ready for service and who’s going to be working which station.”
Places everyone! “Everybody goes back to the kitchen to wash their hands, change aprons, grab clean towels,” Cortes says. “No matter what, we have to be ready for [the 5:00 p.m. start of] service by 4:45 p.m. I like to have a little gap just in case something happens at the last minute.”
Service begins and Santo Cielo typically sees its first diners by 5:05 p.m. This is usually when Cortes heads home for the day, but with the restaurant just recently opened, he may stay into the evening—sometimes until dinner service ends at 10:00 p.m. “I make sure everything is coming out the right temperature, the right consistency and the presentation always looks the same,” he says.
Cortes arrives home and spends time with his four-year-old daughter Nicole, either taking a walk to the park, helping her practice riding her bike or taking her to an evening swim class.
Bedtime for Nicole and wind-down time for Cortes and his wife Lizette. “I’ll try to read a book, or watch a little TV, check the news,” he says.
Cortes calls the chefs at each of the restaurants for an end-of-day wrap, which helps him figure out which one or ones he might need to visit the following day to work on new recipes or help out with any other issues.
Cortes heads to bed before it’s time to wake up and do it all again tomorrow.
Bien Trucha’s Reach
Santo Cielo serves seasonal cuisine with a global spin and is the fourth (first non-Mexican) restaurant for Bien Trucha Group. The name, which translates to “good heavens” in Spanish, suits its top-floor location in the Hotel Indigo on Water Street. Though the group’s other three restaurants have commonalities—namely the addictive quartets of tacos—they all have different menus and their own personalities. Cortes explained: “Over [at Bien Trucha] in Geneva, they’re really classic,” he says. “There’s a beautiful patio and it’s all about enchiladas, tortas and tacos.” At A Toda Madre in Glen Ellyn, “Those customers, for some reason, tend to enjoy seafood. So whenever I come up with specials, I try to have a fish, maybe oysters, king crab.” Quiubo in Naperville serves Sunday brunch and pachanga, an abbreviated menu served from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m., in addition to lunch and dinner offerings. From the tri-cities to the Naperville Riverwalk, Bien Trucha Group is making its mark in the west suburbs.