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 do you wish Americans knew about food?
Carrie Nahabedian: I wish they understood what really goes on in industrial farming, meaning [I wish] they could really understand the life of a true farmer and how that compares to the life on an industrial farm. I also wish they knew what it really takes to get their food from the field to their table, so they would respect it more, sure, but also so they would stop thinking everything has a 12-month season.
FE&S: What cuisine or food do you think Chicago does better than other cities or states?
Carrie Nahabedian: L.A. and New York City let their guard down during the recession and have been slow to catch Chicago in terms of the vast amount of chef-driven independent restaurants that have opened up in the last three years. We have more growth, talent and style in design without spending $14 million on a restaurant!
FE&S: How has your cooking philosophy changed over time?
Carrie Nahabedian: My philosophy has remained the same. What has changed is the delivery because cooks have changed. Nowadays the quality of cooks is so much greater. They have more interest in cuisine, and they don’t need as much explanation. So, my approach has changed to take advantage of that evolution.
FE&S: Any advice for the next culinary generation?
Carrie Nahabedian: I wish them good luck! No seriously, they are everywhere already and I wish them the best. It is like watching a show on TV, like Entertainment Tonight or something, and you see this young starlet who is emerging and getting famous but you’ve never seen them before. Talent seems to crop up out of nowhere.
FE&S: What do you wish culinary schools would teach students?
Carrie Nahabedian: Integrity, respect and professionalism on all levels. What I mean by that is respecting the food, the establishment, and the training you are going to get. But also respect yourself. Students need to learn professionalism — they need to learn how to get a job and move up the ladder. And finally, they should learn how to absorb everything around them. Just because they are in garde manger, doesn’t mean they can’t learn what is going on next to them. So many just concentrate on what is in front of them, but they should try to remain curious and try to know everything they can.
FE&S: What do you wish culinary schools would stop trying to teach students?
Carrie Nahabedian: That this business isn’t all fun and games. The media makes it look like we are all having a grand ‘ole time and, sure, we like what we are doing, but it would be nice if culinary schools would stop glamorizing what we do, and telling everyone they are going to be the next TV star. Cooking isn’t reality television, it is cooking.