Jimmy Bannos has grown up in the restaurant business, helping his parents in their various ventures in Chicago. In 1985, the Bannos family transformed their neighborhood coffee shop in the jewelry district of Chicago’s Loop into Heaven on Seven, following Jimmy Bannos’ experimentation with Creole cooking and extensive travel and study in New Orleans. Today, 26 years later, the restaurant still stands as one of Chicago’s premier Cajun eateries. Bannos was inducted in to the Chicago Chef’s Hall of Fame in 2007. His newest restaurant The Purple Pig, where his son Jimmy Bannos Jr. serves as executive chef, was named one of the ten best new restaurants for 2010 by Bon Appetit, and has won multiple other accolades for its food and wine selection.
FE&S: What was your first job in the foodservice industry?
Jimmy Bannos: Working with my dad and washing dishes, peeling 100 pounds of potatoes and 100 pounds of onions. I was always working in high school, so everybody knew I was likely to work in the restaurant business. It was definitely my choice. I was the third generation from our family to enter the restaurant business. It started with my dad’s mother, my mom’s father, then both my parents, and then I entered the business. My son, Jimmy, represents our family’s fourth generation in the business.
FE&S: What were some other jobs you held in the industry?
Jimmy Bannos: In high school and college many of us toiled away with side jobs to pay our way. I always worked at a restaurant, but from sophomore through senior year in high school, I also worked at the LaSalle Street Train Station selling magazines, etc. It was great being in high school and having money. In the summer, I used to get up at 4 a.m. and go to my dad's restaurant, where I would wash dishes and work until 3 p.m. I would then take a train to work at the train station until 10 p.m. This went on six days a week and I had a blast doing it.
FE&S: What were you known for in high school?
Jimmy Bannos: Most popular. Runner up for best dressed. Most likely to succeed. My high school years were some of my best years. I had a full high school experience.
FE&S: What obstacles did you overcome in your early career?
Jimmy Bannos: Anger when people didn't do things the way I wanted. My wife taught me how to communicate better. "You can attract more bees with honey," she said. Nobody likes to be yelled at. Back in the old days with all the screaming and yelling, I needed to learn how to delegate more.
FE&S: What's the most important lesson you’ve learned in the foodservice industry?
Jimmy Bannos: You’re only as good as the last meal you served.
FE&S: What was one of your greatest learning experiences?
Jimmy Bannos: I learned a lot from my father, who was a chef. When I went to culinary school, I worked at a restaurant called Crickets with a chef by the name of Guy Petit. This experience gave me a great appreciation of basic French cuisine and I became a really good saucier. I feel that's always helped me in my New Orleans-style cooking. The third thing is that when I went down to New Orleans for the first time it changed my life. I learned the southern way of life and the culture of the city.
FE&S: Do you recall an early "aha" moment in the foodservice industry when you knew you were hooked?
Jimmy Bannos: I knew right away because I love taking care of people and making them happy. It is like they're coming into my house.
FE&S: Do you have any upcoming projects or other hopes and dreams for the future?
Jimmy Bannos: We've shot one pilot for a reality show and it's on the shelf right now. I would love to do a tell-allbook just to tell my experiences in the restaurant business. I would love to open up a po' boy shop. That I hope is coming soon. Right now I'm working on two new concepts.
FE&S: Do you have any jobs outside of running a restaurant?
Jimmy Bannos: I do outside consulting. We teach people about New Orleans style food and how to open successful restaurants. We have a team of restaurateurs that have a combined 100 years’ experience, so we really feel good about guiding other people.
FE&S: What is the most exciting aspect of your day-to-day job?
Jimmy Bannos: It's always a challenge and, for me, you get immediate satisfaction or dissatisfaction on how the customers like or dislike your food. Thank god that 99 percent of the time they like the food.
FE&S: What do you tell people who call and ask you for advice about their own dreams of owning a restaurant?
Jimmy Bannos: I believe that you really need passion and knowledge and wherewithal to open your own restaurant. Just because you can throw a dinner party for ten doesn't allow you the privilege of owning your own restaurant. There are a lot of different variables that go into it and most people don't have the means to do it.
Click here to read part one of the interview with Jimmy Bannos.
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