It’s two days before the grand opening of his new Gold Coast restaurant, and Chef Derek Rylon is bustling about, seeking customer feedback on the innovative menu — items like waffle flights with shots of sweet flavorings — and ensuring his wait staff and cooks are ready.
Palette, at 1204 N. State Pkwy., is the third city eatery opened in the past five years by the ebullient 50-year-old chef, raised in Auburn-Gresham on the South Side.
The first was Batter & Berries, a brunchy cafe in Lincoln Park, with some of the best pancakes, deconstructed omelettes, and his signature French toast flights. The second, Rylon’s Smokehouse in the South Loop, where he said the “smoke” is de-emphasized, as barbecue spots too often let it overwhelm the meat’s flavor.
“I’m so excited, because what we’re going to do at Palette hasn’t been done before,” he said.
“This menu changes every week. So if you say, ‘When we come back, I’m going to get this.’ That’s not going to happen, because I’m never going to let you get down this menu,” Rylon said.
“Because even my favorite restaurant, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, I love Ruth’s Chris Steak House, but if I don’t go there for six months, it’s going to be the same. I want people to say, ‘Man, we gotta go see what he’s doing next week,’ ” the chef explained. He taught himself to cook as a child by watching his mother and grandmother in the kitchen.
The new three-level, 200-seat eatery offers a sports bar and fine dining on the first level; additional dining on a second level, and a piano bar and outdoor cafe on a third level. Everything is made from scratch — from the breakfast items to bountiful pasta, meat and fish dishes.
“I want you to taste how it used to be when my mother or my grandmother were growing up. Everything was made from scratch, and everything was not marinated, just seasoned to perfection,” the Bronzeville resident said with a huge smile and a hearty laugh.
He always knew he wanted to cook for a living, and over the course of 30 years, he worked his way up through downtown Tier 1 kitchens: Four Seasons, Peninsula Chicago, Whitehall, Embassy Suites and Crowne Plaza hotels; Ruth’s Chris, Gibson’s, Pump Room, Capital Grille, Shaw’s Crab House, etc., before opening Batter & Berries in 2012.
“I wanted to learn all different kinds of food, different ways to cook, how other chefs react,” he said. “I trained myself not to be like those chefs who are rude and mean, with aggressive egos. I wanted to be more humble, more about teaching, no intimidation.”
Rylon was the youngest of four brothers. His father worked two jobs for nearly 40 years — for the U.S. Postal Service and General Foods. His mother was a stay-at-home mom. So Rylon, a father of four himself, insists his wife, Angela, does the same.
After graduating Calumet High School, Rylon had no interest in attending college, so off he went to get a job. At 26, his girlfriend became pregnant, and the only work he found at the time was as a busboy at Red Lobster.
“One day, the cooks didn’t show up, and I had been watching them. I knew I could cook, but I just didn’t know how to go about getting back into it,” he recounted. “I became one of the best cooks there. When the manager left and went to Maggiano’s, he took me with him. I knew this was what I wanted to do from that point on.”
Rylon remembers piling into the car with his brothers in the summer and driving out to the country to pick vegetables his grandmother would cook with. “At 13 years old, I’d be seasoning something in the pot, and my mother would hit my hand, saying, ‘Boy, don’t put nothing else in that pot.’ And I just had a passion for it.”
He views the restaurant landscape with a critical eye. “There’s a lot of places out here where they’re just giving us anything,” he said. “It’s not like it used to be. There’s no flavor. Everything is topped in sauce. I went out to dinner at a top restaurant, paid $300 and didn’t even know what I had. Satisfied is when you walk out the door and you still can taste it on your tongue hours later. That’s what I’m about.”
He eventually attended culinary school but said he didn’t get much from it. “You can’t learn it. It’s gotta be here,” he said, tapping his chest. “What I hate about schools is they don’t tell you half of us are not going to make it.”
To that end, Rylon’s passion is teaching young Latino and African-American chef apprentices the restaurant business from the ground up. “My people in the kitchen, they tell me, ‘Chef, I love it here, because I’m learning so much.’ There’s so much enthusiasm, and that’s what you should bring out in them,” he said. “I told them, ‘You’re going to hate me, because we’re going to be doing so many different things.’ It keeps them excited.”
There’s no such thing as a day off while building a restaurant empire. This day, he’s been at Palette since 5 a.m., and it’s 8:30 p.m. He’s only able to do this because of a supportive wife, and a mother who keeps him grounded, he said.
“I used to go to my mother’s house once a week and cook for her. Now, since I’m so busy, she’ll come to one of my restaurants. I’ll cook her meals to take home, and we’ll spend our Sundays together, three or four hours, talking and catching up. I talk to her about everything, and she tells me what I should do. She makes sure I stay above, and stay humble.”