South Halsted near 81st Street is an unlikely spot for a breakfast nook.
A liquor store stands on the corner. A cell phone store is down the block. Mack trucks park in the block’s empty lots for hours. And then there’s Three Chefs Restaurant.
There aren’t really three chefs, though. There’s only one: Wallace Effort.
“When I first started this business there were supposed to be three of us,” 38-year-old Effort says with a big smile. “I ended up funding everything, so it’s just me, my wife, daughter and the rest of my family. A lot of folks feel you can’t do an a la carte, made-to-order restaurant in the community. But you can.”
Effort is one of those guys with a rugged American-ness about him. Bootstraps. Common sense. Pickup trucks. The Englewood community native was a knucklehead as a teen and, after seeing too much violence, got scared straight. He entered Dawson Technical Academy after leaving Harlan High School, and sort of fell into food.
“I was wilding in the streets when I was 17,” he says. “By 19 I had to do something. I saw that Dawson had culinary arts. ‘Culinary arts, I thought? Sure, I can draw.’ But my friend told me culinary meant cooking, and I never looked back since. The kitchen kept me so long, my friends thought I was in jail.”
He wasn’t. Instead, he was working for food service giant Sodexo, where he started out doing side gigs as a line cook for Spiaggia and eventually rose to the level of executive sous chef, overseeing the opening of the Pritzker Club at IIT. Nearly four years ago in March, he opened Three Chefs, basing it solidly on a breakfast and lunch menu featuring cooked-to-order food as opposed to an expected-yet-boring buffet-style soul food menu.
He serves everything from fried green tomatoes and grits to pan-seared salmon and sweet potato pancakes to stuffed tenderloins, but all for a non-downtown price point between $5 and $20. Plus, parking is free. His location stands out amid a sea of historic Chicago bungalows intermixed with sketchy-looking fried food storefronts in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. He’s also a bright spot in an area that once was family-friendly and now seems to make the news only when someone is shot.
“The location didn’t surprise me because there are a couple of gems in ‘awkward’ locations on the South Side,” says Quincy Roseborough, 36, a human services professional who happened upon Three Chefs when a friend heated up a plate of leftovers. “It smelled so good I asked what was it. My friend said ‘this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant but it’s so good.’ I tasted the stuffed catfish and fell in love.”
Effort makes an effort to serve an affordable variety of food. He also attracts a steady stream of regulars, those older gentlemen who come — even in subzero temperatures — for a cup of coffee and breakfast. They can loiter as long as they like, he says.
“I’m an epicurean,” says the chef who has cooked for the Urban League and Concordia University and was on a catering team that served then-Sen. Barack Obama. “When I was growing up, there were more kitchens. Now, [most are] just giving the people grease. Real chefs don’t need the limelight. The thrill is the line. Empty plates come back to the kitchen. That’s where I get my gratification.”