Travis Strickland has a respect for quality, regional ingredients. And as chef of The Local Chicago in the Windy City, Strickland blends those ingredients together in interesting and delicious ways on a daily basis.
"Our philosophy here is to create unfussy food, presented honestly and focusing on the best quality local and regional ingredients," said Strickland, who enjoys "presenting comfort food" to diners.
A native of LaPorte, Strickland eagerly took on the executive chef role recently at The Local Chicago, a joint venture of managing partners David Flom and Matt Moore. The restaurant, focusing on American fare, opened last December and is already getting raves from clientele from various locales.
Strickland, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y., was inspired in the food arena by family members.
"My mom always said I got that gene from my grandfather. He was a tremendous cook and had a beautiful garden. He was doing all those things that were cool before it was cool," the chef said. Strickland said his grandfather, a veteran of World War II, truly had that farm to table mentality.
He said his mother never really cooked extravagantly but made meals out of necessity. "She grew up in the late '50s and early '60s in the good casserole era," he said.
Today, one of the items on The Local Chicago menu is USDA Prime Meatloaf, based on his mother's recipe, which he's tweaked by adding his own special touches. "She didn't use Chinese mushroom sauce," he said, with a laugh.
Among some of the chef's items that have found favor with diners at The Local Chicago, are Jalapeno Cornbread, Shellfish Bouquet, Rotisserie Chicken Pot Pie, Dr. Pepper BBQ Baby Back Ribs, Chicken and Waffles, Pan-Roasted Scottish Salmon and a salad of Burrata and Vine-Ripened Tomatoes.
The chef said he gets a variety of ingredients from different places including Indiana locations. He orders mustard and other condiments from Local Folks Foods in Sheridan, Indiana, items from Marion Kay Spices in Southern Indiana, and Amish chickens from a Hoosier cooperative.
Though the restaurant is not a strict farm to table establishment, the chef said local ingredients are important to use, but not if it sacrifices flavor.
"At the end of the day, we want food that tastes good," he said.
Strickland, who resides in Chicago, said, prior to attending the CIA, he was always drawn to doing kitchen work as "odd jobs" and did stints in a variety of restaurants before coming to The Local Chicago. He also grew up working in his aunt and uncle's I Street Tavern in LaPorte.
The 30-year-old chef said at the age of 24 he "wanted to spread his wings" and left the area to go to Tennessee where he found work in a restaurant.
"I did front of the house management but what they didn't like about me was I kept going into the kitchen," he said. Within a few months he was running the kitchen.
One of his mentors and best friends, Robert Kabakoff, he said, encouraged him to pursue culinary studies.
Strickland and Kabakoff founded a fundraising 5K run at the CIA titled Run for Your Knives three years ago. The run raised $6,000 for scholarships for culinary students.
"It's a nice way to give back," said Strickland, adding this year's run in October will take on his name for the scholarship.
Strickland, a graduate of LaPorte High School, is the son of Don Strickand of LaPorte and Dianne Strickland of Michigan City. His father grew up in Gary while his mother was born and raised in LaPorte. Strickland's aunts and uncles and other relatives live in Valparaiso and Portage. The chef has a sister, Courtney, and brother Neal.
According to the chef, his solid Indiana upbringing helped him in the culinary industry.
"The main thing I took from my upbringing was the strong work ethic. It's a 'salt of the earth' blue collar work ethic," he said. "One of the good attributes of any good chef is that driven work ethic."
Strickland said the menu at The Local Chicago is always evolving although signature and favorite dishes will long remain on the menu. He plans to change dishes seasonally.
"We pride ourselves on listening to our guests," he said, adding he enjoys getting feedback on various recipes and what items diners would like to see presented. A chalk board hanging on the wall of the dining room lists various specials of the day. Strickland said in creating the specials, he gets a chance to flex his culinary creativity.
Last Christmas, Strickland hosted his family for a dinner at the restaurant and they had a great time dining together. He even had the chance to join them for the meal.
"It was one of the few times I've had the chance to sit down in the dining room," he said. "My family is happy that I'm happy here."
The Local Chicago, 198 E. Delaware Place, Chicago, is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. FYI: (312) 280-8887 or visit thelocalchicago.com