Edited by Jose Morales
Chef Victor Martínez incorporates hyperlocal-sourcing with his classically-trained French techniques of cooking.
Chicago-native chef Victor Martínez, who worked in his father’s bistro as a teenager, and at some of the most respected kitchens in the country after that, is now looking to redefine hotel dining at the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center in suburban Chicago following a $25 million renovation. Chicago is buzzing with the new concept being brought forth by Chef Martínez in partnership with the resort, and which highlights farm-to-fork culture as its culinary foundation. The resort aims to create a new eating experience to shape the culture of food in Chicago; from how food is cultivated to how locals see food and enjoy it. The transformation of the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center includes the Chef’s Gardens and the Hive Gardens (for in-house farmed honey), located on their 150 acres of Audubon-certified grounds.
Chef Martínez incorporates hyperlocal-sourcing with his classically-trained French techniques of cooking. After culinary school in Chicago, Martínez began to build his food niche within the world of hotels. His tenure at the Four Seasons Chicago enabled him to develop an appreciation for food as an art form. Now, settled at the “Hidden Gem of the Suburbs” – the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort – the busy Chef was gracious enough to set aside his carving knives for an exclusive interview with us.
– Thinking about your younger years when you were working in your father’s bistro and went from being a dishwasher to assisting with food preparation, what was the “aha” moment that made you realize being a chef was going to be your life’s career?
I was very fortunate to have my father as a role model, working as a chef during my childhood. I was always intrigued by food at home, but my decisive moment came one day when my father was cooking for my whole family. He made his famous mushroom soup. I loved hearing all the praise everyone gave him for his amazing food. I wanted to be able to excite and satisfy my family like that one day.
– When did you realize you wanted to concentrate your culinary career within the hotel and hospitality industry?
In hotels, the diversity of the guests and the diversity of my fellow team members creates an inspirational work environment full of opportunities and challenges. There are always new people checking in every day, hosting many different types of events, with multiple restaurants on the same property. We can be cooking multiple cuisines in my kitchen on the same day, as we do a lot of custom menus for our events business. We can be busy in all of our outlets at once when the resort is at capacity. I am never bored in the hotel industry. It is the unique challenges that I find here that keep me motivated.
– Who were the heroes that guided you into the path where you are on now?
Chef Darnell Reed hired me at the Conrad Chicago. He is the one who introduced me to Southern Cuisine, which I truly love. After his time at the Conrad, Chef Darnell Reed has gone on to open two restaurants: Luella’s Southern Kitchen, which has received a Bib Gourmand, and Luella’s Gospel Bird. At Conrad, he developed many relationships with different farms and local vendors. He helped me realize the importance of sourcing local foods and supporting local businesses.
Chef Mario Garcia, at the Hilton Chicago, has also guided me on my path. We worked together over the years during my time at Hilton on many events. The rooftop garden he has built right in the middle of the city, on Michigan Avenue, is incredible. The produce and herbs grown are used in their restaurants.
Chef Garcia’s garden led me to work with the Chicago Botanic Gardens and the Windy City Harvest to build a similar garden at my last property. While the project was never finished, I learned so much about Urban Gardening and developed a passion and respect for farming and growing my own ingredients.
– If you were to look back ten years from now, what piece of advice would you give yourself?
Sometimes, as a young chef, you think you can do everything on your own. I would definitely tell myself to network more and surround myself with a support system. The culinary world is a community of many talented individuals, all with a passion for food. I wish I had learned earlier on in my career that there was no need to be so independent. Successful kitchens are made by many individuals who share their time, passion and creativity.
– Your cooking philosophy is to “tell the ingredients’ story and bring a sense of mindfulness to the table.” Why did you choose these words to describe your philosophy?
I see ingredients from beginning to end, where they came from, and what they’re intended to be. As such, I’m doing things differently at the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort, to give guests authentic opportunities to have in-the-moment experiences. I encourage people to get to know what goes into a recipe. Guests can have a unique, interactive experience at our resort by picking their own produce from our Chef’s Gardens for use in their dishes, observing our resident beekeepers farming for honey, enjoying a private tasting with me, or shopping for fresh ingredients at one of the resort farmer’s markets.
– Where do you see the culinary industry going within the next ten years?
I think sustainability is going to be key going into the future. Too much food waste happens, and I think the industry needs to help educate the public on using imperfect items as well as uses of food towards the end of their life. Overripe vegetables can be used in stocks and sauces, fruits in smoothies and compotes. The culinary industry needs to lead the way and help educate the public. – GM
Photography courtesy of the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center by Eric Kleinberg
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