I have lived in Naperville for just over 11 years, and in that time, tons of new restaurants have come into the town - some have not lasted long, and others have become favorites. However, in my humble opinion one of the absolute, without a doubt, best new foodie additions to our town is Allegory on S. Main Street! The first time I ate there, I had somewhat of an out-of-body experience. The rainbow beet hummus is an art-form. It is so visually appealing that you think there is just no way the taste can match, but IT DOES! It's seriously one of the best things I have ever eaten! That same visit, I also sampled the trout with fresh vegetable succotash (I subsequently had that every time I went to Allegory until they swapped it out for some other fantastic fish dish)! I also tried the short rib (melt in your mouth tender doesn't even adequately describe how amazing this one is). And, lastly, the flank steak with moist, sweet/savory plantain cake. I first experienced this wonderous meal almost a year ago, and somehow, I can remember every single thing we ordered. Yes, it was THAT memorable!
This place is an absolute gem, and when I brought Lisa there on one of our "Reflection Institute research outings," we learned why! We met the chef/owner Chris Mason and had a second memorable night out. Again, the cocktails (unusual selection, always perfectly balanced) were flowing and so too was the wine! We decided to introduce ourselves to Chris and let him know how much we loved the food. That led to a couple of hours of conversation, more wine, and two Irish sisters closing down the restaurant with Chris happily chatting alongside us! This was no problem for Chris, as we learned this passionate guy has a hammock in his office where he spends many a night! Anyway, fast forward about six months (and many more meals at Allegory), Lisa and I decided it was time to sit down more formally (and with coffee instead of wine) with Chris and interview the talent behind the foodie haven that is Allegory.
Chris met us at Noon on a Monday where he came rushing into the restaurant after already dealing with five crises and the day had only begun! He grabbed a glass of water and sat down, but despite his crazy morning he welcomed us with a huge smile and we just knew we were in for a good hour+ ahead of great conversation!
According to Chris, he "has nothing on his brain but growth for the next 10-15 years before I get tired, or actually, I could never imagine retiring really as I just love it too much!" The future is endless for Chris Mason - his energy and passion seem to be limitless; he works around the clock, but for him, it isn't work, it is his true life's calling. Allegory just launched brunch, "I am sooo proud of our Brunch, it’s like….. (insert Chris making a facial expression that just says it all!!!)” Chris is in the process of buying a food truck; he wants to cater amazing food at barn-style weddings; he wants to expand his space to cater private events; he basically wants to take over the world with his amazing food, and we will be there supporting him and eating everything he cooks up all the way!
Lisa and I both come from the field of leadership development and know a little about what motivates people to do what they do in life. What we admire most about Chris is that he so genuinely values the meaning of personal relationships and serendipitous moments. He is a people person and a leader that genuinely cares about his staff. He wants to see them grow and do well in the world and he puts a tremendous amount of effort into creating a culture where everyone knows that if they give their best, they will be taken care of. Chris's long-time partner and Sous Chef, Charlie, is someone Chris speaks very highly of, "I wouldn't feel confident in dreaming what I can dream, even right now, if I [hadn't] had him." Chris is willing and open to talking to anyone, heck, he has welcomed us crazy sisters with open arms on numerous occasions because, as he told us, he knows that, "it only takes one little shift in time and space for things to change completely". Chris told us he loves being the age he is now. We saw this as a wonderful expression of contentment with one's life - oh to that well-aligned!! Chris is tuned in to his journey, what he has learned along the way that has helped shape the values he has today. Those values guide him in how he sees, interacts with, and manages people, "I am mindful every day of how lucky I am, how the road has led me here, and how things had to happen in this exact order."
What Chris seems to get, maybe more than the average restaurant owner, or human for that matter, what he really understands implicitly is that it is people who will make a business (or the world) successful. He shared with us, "I talk to my people just as much about culture as I do about the food!" Chris doesn't want this to be just another "job" for his team, for him it's his true passion, and he wants to pay that passion forward to help his team members find their passions. Don't get us wrong, Chris is not claiming to have all the answers, he told us, "I don't know that I'm a good leader, but I always try to be." But we can say one thing for sure - his passion is authentic, through and through, and that passion translates to the best dang meatloaf you will ever eat! All prepared by a guy who yes, truly wants to give his customers a fantastic experience, but who, more importantly, genuinely wants to see the people alongside him, "his community," thrive.
What's amazing about Allegory is that not only is the food life-changing, but the experience is on another level. We have eaten there so many times, and it's hard to put your finger on why the experience is always so good, but after talking more with Chris, we now see why. All the china in the restaurant is intentionally mixed and matched - cute antique looking plates that Chris sourced himself. The silverware roll-ups are always arranged in the same way on perfect angles, the menu has a personal flair with funny and unusual names (pleasant pheasant pot pie) for the dishes along with some personal comments from Chris himself... Chris wants his customers to come in and feel the Allegory vibe, music playing, a welcoming smile, and a cozy environment where you can unwind and enjoy some delicious food. "It's all in the details," according to Chris!
"I'm not about tomorrow; I'm about the long-game. I'm all about relationships".
When we asked Chris, what profession other than yours would you like to attempt, he answered, "do you remember a few years ago when the Russian gentleman jumped out of the red bull capsule 23 miles in the sky…..sign me up; I'd go do that tomorrow!" Chris is a self-proclaimed adrenaline junky, which, according to him, all chefs who are truly passionate about their crafts must be!
There is no end to Chris's ambitions, and we can't wait to see where he takes his dreams next! In his own words, "the 10-year goal is a rustic, luxury, vertically integrated farm-to-table resort", never mind sky-diving, our bets are on Chris becoming a hydroponic farmer! And yes, sign us up for two rooms at his new resort, please!
We always like to end our interviews with a fun, rapid-fire round of hot seat questions and here is how things went with Chris:
RI: What advice would you give to someone who is looking to find the same kind of passion in their work as you have?
Chris: "Jump in, full speed ahead! If you're looking to change careers, get the most menial job you can, and you will learn a lot fast!"
RI: If you could describe yourself as a food, what would it be and why?
Chris: "A peanut M&M because I have a hard shell, but am a little sweet and nutty on the inside!"
RI: Where do you love to eat?
Chris: "I love to eat anywhere on the water, where there is good food….it doesn't have to be fancy, a well-fried piece of grouper, good pickles, a cold beer….looking out onto the blue ocean and I am happy!"
RI: Which do you like to eat more, the food you have cooked or the food others have cooked for you?
Chris: "The food others have cooked for me; I generally don't cook for myself as my joy is feeding other people. Creating a new meal in the Allegory kitchen is what I live for. [It's] when we create something new and taste it for the first and just know…. Fxxk ya!!! That is the pinnacle of what I live for! But, as far as eating food, I am around awesome food all day, so I might just go get a box of popcorn from my neighbor in the store next door!"
RI: What is your favorite ingredient?
Chris: "Garlic! Although, actually I can't answer that. There are so many! I'd have to come back to that! Even a cold, fresh picked-heirloom tomato can be perfect. But overall, I just go through phases of working with different ingredients."
RI: Are there any funny stories that your family tells about you that comes to mind?
Chris: "Mmm, well, anytime my wife and I are with new people and they find out what I do for a living, they inevitably ask her if I cook her amazing food all the time and her answer is always quick and short….NO!....I’ve been around scratch-made amazing food my whole career, the thing is when I go home, I just want a Jack’s frozen pizza!!”
Thank you, Chris, so much for meeting with us and sharing so much of your passion with us, we left smiling, inspired and looking forward to our next Allegory meal!