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Cooper’s Hawk head chef balances art, science and triathlons to excel in the kitchen

Matt McMillin meets the challenges of restaurant work by constantly pushing his limits.
Matt McMillin
Photo courtesy of Cooper's Hawk

Two childhood pursuits shaped Matt McMillin’s career path: hanging out in his grandmother’s kitchen and working three paper routes. “I loved cooking and loved earning money,” he says, and those two passions are keys to success in his current job as VP of Culinary & Beverage Innovation for Cooper’s Hawk. “One of the biggest challenges is balancing art and science; making great food and making the restaurant money.”

McMillin went on to turn those passions into skills, earning a culinary degree at Kendall College, cooking at fine dining French restaurants, working his way up at several Lettuce Entertain You concepts, and when LEYE sold Big Bowl to Brinker, moving to chain operations. “Lettuce Entertain You gave me my MBA in restaurants,” he says. “I learned about systems, how to work with farmers and move products around the country.” And Brinker taught him the inside operations of a public company, how to develop a menu mix and marketing—the science part of the job.

But it was meeting a personal challenge that might have prepared him best for dealing with the coronavirus shutdown. “I had always struggled with my weight, and when I moved back to Chicago, a friend suggest I try a triathlon,” he says. So McMillin hired a collegiate swim coach, bought a bike and trained for and took part in a Half Ironman. “I pushed my myself beyond what I believed I could do. That’s such a transferable trait,” he says.

Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant, a destination known for its wine-driven dinners and polished service, had to adapt to takeout and delivery during the health crisis. McMillin was tasked with paring down the menu by 75%, feeding 5,000 furloughed employees every day and maintaining a high level of guest engagement. He and sommelier Emily Wines produced Instagram Live videos for home cooks, held virtual tastings and created themed dinner packages to go—all departures from his usual day job. 

Read on to see how McMillin pushes his limits to always get better.

What excites you most about Cooper’s Hawk?

It’s a dynamic job and never the same. The model provides a large slate for showcasing special menus, cooking for our wine club members and working closely with [founder and CEO Tim McEnery] to build something very unique for the long term. Tim is an amazing leader. He told me when I met him, “If you come to work for me, you’ll never take another job.” And it’s true.

How do you create a menu mix that resonates with guests?

I aim for unique and delicious food that isn’t too far out. Most of the menu is made up of core items and food that is recognizable but with a twist. I push the envelope a little with about 20% of the dishes, and menu these as chef recommendations or monthly specials. I like to marry Asian and Latin flavors and focus on seasonal ingredients.

What leadership qualities do you embrace?

Collaboration is huge for me. I try to model vulnerability so my team knows they can bring up any idea and it won’t be looked down upon. Pushing people beyond their fears is also important to me. I’m always pushing myself and others to be a little better—not only in the kitchen. On a personal level, I recently enrolled in a drumming class.

Aside from cooking, what is most rewarding part of being a chef?

I love being a teacher and a mentor. I’m always available by cell and at least once a month, I make myself available for face-to-face meetings with all my team members. Through my position on the board at Kendall College, I mentor a lot of young kids in culinary school and will meet with anyone who asks. It’s so important to give back by guiding and imparting knowledge to the next generation.

What’s your best advice for chefs coming up in the restaurant world?

It’s something I teach my kids: Learn how to plant seeds and listen to the universe. Move on when it’s time to grow. All my career moves have been intentional.

Name one dish at Cooper’s Hawk that you can never take off the menu.

Gnocchi. It’s the first dish I put on when I started and it’s become a signature. A local Italian family makes the ricotta gnocchi and grandpa still prepares the dough. Making gnocchi for Cooper’s Hawk has put this family’s kids through college. We serve it several ways: topped with braised short rib, tossed with roasted butternut squash and carbonara-style.

What do you crave when you dine out?

I love the flavors of Mediterranean and Italian food. I appreciate chefs who understand great ingredients.

What do you cook at home?

I enjoy preparing simple food when people come over. Grilled salmon, roasted vegetables with garlic and olive oil, lamb stew. I’m really a homebody.

Who were your mentors?

Longevity has provided me many great mentors. My grandfather was the first. He used to make me macaroni with butter and cottage cheese and it became my comfort food and one of my daughter’s favorites, too. Kevin Brown from Lettuce Entertain You was an early mentor. And Norman Brinker, who said “People don’t leave jobs, they leave people.” That always stayed with me.

If you could sit down and have a meal with one leader of any kind, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker. He’s so real and authentic. I love what he stands for and the energy he generates when he speaks. I would like to go hang out with him at a farmers market, pick his brain and then sit down to a meal of grilled fish and vegetables with a nice bottle of wine.



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