Upon entering Stowaway Kitchen, chef and owner Amy Cohen's influence is evident. Inside the breakfast and lunch hot spot tucked away in the River North neighborhood, the space is as beautiful as the food.
Naturally, we wanted to dive deeper with Stowaway and Cohen to understand more about how her travels, her heritage, and her daily existence influences her creations in the kitchen.
We're curious to learn more about the Japanese influence on your brunch menu.
Amy Cohen: My mother is Japanese. She grew up in Tokyo and loved umeboshi, a salty pickled plum. My father is American Jewish and grew up on the south side of Chicago, eating half-sour pickles. Consequently, my taste buds have always craved anything pickled, salty and filled with guilt!
Both food cultures have influenced what I eat and who I am. In my small, not-so-diverse suburb of Chicago, my friends were often weirded out by the foods that I ate — umeboshi, salted grilled fish, rice cakes, seaweed, sweet adzuki beans, chopped liver, pickled herring, the list goes on. I always wanted to find that missing link of myself that would plug into a place where I wasn’t an outsider.
So, I went to live in Japan and found the other half unplugged. Turns out, I’ll always be an outsider. That experience allowed me to embrace difference as a positive thing and be proud of my food and heritage. You are what you eat, after all.
That is pretty amazing. How do you play and experiment to create your recipes?
It usually starts with a vegetable or a fruit that I’m excited about, then everything builds around it. Last autumn, I found myself making kabocha squash for dinner in every which way. I was obsessed by its natural sweetness. I landed on dressing the roasted squash with an herb and pepper-based salsa, zhoug, an exciting contrast to the starchy sweetness of the kabocha. A salad seemed like the best format for this dish so we dressed arugula, chickpeas (not canned!!) and Bulgarian feta, tossed in the herby squash and added pomegranates and pepitas for texture and brightness.
Do you have a signature dish?
I don’t really have any signatures. I just make food that I like to eat. Sometimes when the restaurant is full, I look up in amazement and think to myself, ”they’re eating my food!” It fills my cup to the brim!
That is what food is all about, huh? What does eating other people's food mean to you?
A dish is a glimpse into a chef’s life. It is a reflection of what they like, what they’ve learned, where they’re from or have traveled to. It could be their childhood memories reborn into something new. I like to go to places where these qualities come to the surface, which are usually chef-owned like Annette and To the Wind Bistro.
The artistry and craft of a chef give an intimate look into their lives. After all, in Cohen’s words, you are what you eat.