Thursday, April 10, 2014

Geja's Cafe + Interview with Jeff Lawler

I have another exciting food experience to share this week! On Sunday, K and I had the opportunity to attend a cooking class on making cheese fondue at Geja's Cafe in the neighborhood Lincoln Park {don't worry, I went for a run first - everything in moderation, right?} Geja's is currently celebrating National Cheese Fondue Week {April 6th to April 11th} and Friday {tomorrow!} is actually National Cheese Fondue Day.

This was my second time dining at Geja's Cafe, and it was exciting to learn about and receive the recipe for the restaurant's famous Swiss gruyere cheese fondue. Even better, proceeds from the event benefited the Greater Chicago Food Depository. We learned that fondue started several hundred years ago, as goat and sheep herders transported cheese, bread, and wine across the mountains to stay alive - herders eventually figured out how to melt the cheese and wine together {a great idea}.

I also had the wonderful opportunity to talk to Managing Partner Jeff Lawler last week before the cooking class, about his work and passion for Geja's Cafe. To celebrate this week, guests of the restaurant who mention National Cheese Fondue Week {through this Friday the 11th} receive $5 off each premier dinner, and complimentary cheese fondue samples at the bar if visiting for a drink instead of dinner.

Jeff has been working in the food industry for 30 years, and at Geja's Cafe for 20 years. As he told me and as is so evident in the care presented to diners of Geja's Cafe, "it lights me up."

What is your background, and how long have you worked in the food industry?
Jeff was 17 years old when he realized he was going to sit the bench in football that year. Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, he pursued a job as a short order cook at a carry-out restaurant instead of being a football star. Jeff ended up working at that restaurant through his junior year of college. This lead to more jobs in the food industry as a busboy and waiter, and a realization that he loved the business at 21 years old.

Does Geja's celebrate national cheese week every year?
The restaurant has been giving out free samples of fondue during cheese week for several years, but this year is the second anniversary of the cooking class. In 2013, the class filled up the same day it was announced. This year, it filled up in only a day and a half. 

What is the typical visitor to Geja's Cafe doing? Visiting Chicago, celebrating a special occasion, or dining as a local?
Geja's is often described as a "very celebratory restaurant." It has been reviewed as Chicago's most romantic restaurant, and that reputation remains. Guests often come back to celebrate special events, a number of which dine at Geja's every year on their anniversary. Jeff mentioned one particular couple that has been celebrating at Geja's for 31 years straight. Many guests come from the Chicagoland area, with 25% "from Geja's backyard," in the neighborhood itself. Another 25% are city dwellers living in other neighborhoods, and 25% come from the northwest suburbs. Around 7% of guests are out-of-town tourists, and the rest come from other suburbs of the city.

What is the background and history of the restaurant?
Geja's started in 1965 in Old Town at 1244 N Wells, as the first wine bar in the city of Chicago. At the time, Geja's only served wine, with gourmet meats and cheeses - there was no fondue. The restaurant moved to its present location {Armitage and Clark} due to neighborhood concerns. It was a larger space, and owner John Davis realized he needed a more diverse menu to attract diners. The chef started offering American-style options, like chili, spaghetti, and burgers.

How did Geja's start offering fondue? 
Owner John experienced fondue for the first time on a weekend trip to Michigan, not long after moving the restaurant to the Armitage location. Soon after, John caught his chef at the time in a precarious situation and decided it was time for a change. Geja's started offering fondue and has ever since.

Has Geja's cheese fondue recipe changed over the years? 
The cheese fondue recipe has not changed for the past 20 years. The cheese fondue dish starts with white wine {a chablis}, and includes Swiss gruyere and several spices. Jeff said if you were to pick one course that is a typical diner's favorite, "cheese wins the contest."

What is your favorite part of the experience at Geja's, that you would recommend to a new diner?
Close to one-third of guests are first-time diners of fondue, and to Geja's itself. Dining at Geja's is a very interactive experience, and there are four courses involved if you select the "premier" dinner option. As Jeff said, many people come in with the perception, "how do you cook beef and lobster in cheese?" You don't, of course.  

The word fondue means a dish where food is dipped into a hot sauce or cooking sauce. The premier dinner at Geja's starts with cheese fondue, in which you can dip different types of bread, grapes, and apples. The cheese fondue is followed by a salad, and the main entree comes with dipping sauces {8 in total}. Entrees include a few different options, like beef, shrimp, chicken, and lobster, cooked in a special oil at the table. Dessert is chocolate fondue, and you even have the option of roasting marshmallows over an open fire to finish.

The celebration of National Cheese Fondue Week ends tomorrow, April 11th. Geja's Cafe is located at 340 W. Armitage Avenue, in Chicago.

{I was not compensated for this post, and all opinions are my own. Proceeds from the cooking class went toward the Greater Chicago Food Depository.}

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