A protégé of the legendary Gordon Sinclair (of Gordon) and Jean Banchet (of Le Francais), Carrie Nahabedian entered the restaurant industry at 17 when most of her friends were lying on the beach. Starting off as a cook for Chicago’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, Nahabedian quickly rose through the industry ranks, eventually mastering fine dining in both the hotel setting and at such iconic Chicago restaurants as Le Perroquet, Le Francais and Sinclair’s. She later ran the fine dining for the Four Seasons in Chicago and in Santa Barbara, earning numerous accolades along the way. Her return to the Windy City in 2000 led to the opening of Naha, a three-star, sophisticated eatery in the former Gordon space in the River North neighborhood. With a menu inspired by her Armenian roots; support of small, local farms; contemporary American approach; and fine dining background, Nahabedian and co-owner/brother Michael Nahabedian earned several James Beard award nominations, winning Best Chef Great Lakes in 2008. On September 22, 2009, Carrie Nahabedian was inducted into the Chicago Culinary Museum and Chefs Hall of Fame with Mayor Richard M. Daley declaring that day as “Carrie Nahabedian Day in Chicago.” She has also served as a longstanding board member of Green City Market, Chicago’s largest farmer’s market.
FE&S: What advice would you give aspiring chefs?
Carrie Nahabedian: I was always taught to ”stay true to your school.“ No matter what kind of cuisine you make, it is important to understand and honor the tradition of that cuisine. If you take any shortcuts or make extreme deviations, the food just isn't as good. But more importantly, I would tell young chefs to act like a big sponge and get as much experience as you can — the chef is going to get everything they can out of you, so you should take the opportunity to get everything you can from them.
FE&S: Let’s talk food. What is your quintessential summertime dish?
Carrie Nahabedian: Fried chicken, cole slaw, corn on the cob. Pulled pork with sweet barbecue sauce, grilled shish kebab with onions and peppers on pita. At Naha, I love serving crisp soft shell crabs with a salad of sweet corn, slab bacon, basil, summer tomatoes and radishes.
FE&S: What is your quintessential food and wine pairing?
Carrie Nahabedian: Champagne and oysters or white burgundy French wine with a nice buttery brioche-crusted halibut alongside fois gras and sauternes!
FE&S: If you were to pick a favorite cookbook by another chef, what would you pick?
Carrie Nahabedian: I like the way David Chang wrote his book, especially the chapter on making it happen and putting everything on the line for your restaurant. I have a very serious cookbook collection and well over half are autographed. Also, I have a big collection of older cookbooks from earlier in the 20th century.
FE&S: Do you have a favorite food-related movie?
Carrie Nahabedian: Babette's Feast — I love the excessiveness of it all. The banquet scene in The Girl with the Pearl Earring is pretty impressive as well.
FE&S: When you are feeling in a cooking rut, what inspires you?
Carrie Nahabedian: Winter can have that effect on people...the drab weather, lack of sun, up and down weather reports. But, cooking is a journey and in a journey sometimes you need a vacation to energize you! My favorite is to do an unexpected massive menu change to shake things up. At Naha, we change the menus a couple times a week already, but sometimes we make changes with little notice...it’s perfect for that time of year.
Click here to read part one of the interview with Carrie Nahabedian.