Chef Brian Jupiter says the matriarchs in his family are his biggest inspiration and influence.
His Wicker Park restaurant, Ina Mae Tavern & Packaged Goods, is named after his great grandmother, a strong and caring woman whose leadership paved the way for her family.
Rosetta Nelson — Ina Mae’s daughter and Jupiter’s grandmother — helped him develop his love of cooking after his parents divorced and he and his mother moved in with Nelson in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans.
“She did take me to a cooking school when I was about 12 and we made bread pudding, red beans and roux for gumbo,” Jupiter recalled fondly of his florist grandmother. “The bread pudding we made in class is actually on the menu at Ina Mae.”
Jupiter’s Noble Square restaurant, Frontier, is known for game meats, fresh oysters, and offerings of whole pig, wild boar and more exotic choices like alligator.
But Ina Mae Tavern is the restaurant Jupiter always dreamed of since he took a job as a fry cook at 15: cooking the Cajun and Creole food of his childhood.
“My core has always been Southern and New Orleans food, so I always wanted to get back to that,” said Jupiter, who went to culinary school in Miami before a job brought him to Chicago in 2004.
”You have to be from down there to know how to really cook it. You can’t really go there and visit and say you know how to make gumbo. It doesn’t work like that.”
Favorites at Ina Mae Tavern— which received the Bib Gourmand distinction by Michelin’s 2020 guide — include Jupiter’s grandma’s “Gumbo Ya-Ya” recipe with shrimp, andouille, crab, crawfish, chicken, okra and rice.
Seafood is plentiful with boiled and fried towers that are priced roughly between $40 and $50. A la carte options, sold by the half pound, include shrimp, crab, oysters, catfish, crawfish, clams and mussels.
Fried chicken marinated in buttermilk coated with a seasoned dredge that includes cornstarch to help with the “crunch factor” was the last item added to the menu, Jupiter said.
The Po’Boys at Ina Mae Tavern are inspired by Jupiter’s favorite New Orleans spot Parasol. There are the traditional options of fried shrimp, oyster and catfish and more off-the-beaten-road options, including Nashville fried chicken, Gator sausage and “the Peacemaker”— fried shrimp and roast beef.
The Po’Boys are dressed with lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayonnaise and hot sauce, and prepared with bread from D’Amato’s Bakery in Chicago.
Ina Mae Tavern, which is located in a corner building, has the architectural bones of grocery stores with back cafes that were once prevalent in New Orleans.
“We understand we’re in Chicago but there’s things in New Orleans — certain vibes and culture — that we wanted to try and bring some of that here. ... I hope it creates a memory that [takes] you out of Chicago just for an hour.” said Jupiter, who was a 2019 James Beard Awards semifinalist in “Best Chef: Great Lakes” category.
The restaurant, recently aglow in Halloween decor, featured a Halloween cocktail menu. Jupiter says he plans to mark all holidays year round with similar promotions. And an extensive cocktail program ensures that the Mardi Gras phrase “Laissez le bon temps roule” [“Let the good times roll”] is alive year round. Live music, board game nights and trivia nights are also fun staples at Ina Mae Tavern.
Jupiter, who is African American, hopes his success motivates other aspiring chefs of color.
“It puts me in position to help people out who look like myself,” Jupiter said. “As I continue to grow, I want to continue to be an example to younger people, that you can open and do whatever you want to do anywhere you want to do it. It’s just going to take hard work.”