Jimmy Bannos Jr. looks like one of those scrappy, little high school wrestlers who could move up three weight divisions and still kick your ass. And he does just that at The Purple Pig, where he pummels you with huge Mediterranean flavors that hurt so good. During a recent lunch at his Chicago hot spot on Michigan Avenue, three heavyweight chefs strolled in and, by their very presence, dared the kid to make 'em happy. If Junior was intimidated, he didn't show it as he sent out a barrage of antipasti, smears, cheeses and small plates that had the chefs all but surrender with pleasure.
Jimmy Jr. is the son of legendary tough-guy restaurateur Jimmy Bannos Sr., a member of the Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame and the chef/owner of the much-beloved Cajun restaurant Heaven on Seven. Jimmy Sr. and his longtime pal Scott Harris, the mastermind of the 20-unit Francesca restaurant empire, cooked up the idea of The Purple Pig, but it's Bannos Jr. who's the muscle in the kitchen. It's a combination that led to the Pig being named one of Bon Appetit's 10 Best New Restaurants last year.
Jimmy Jr. grew up in his old man's restaurant, where he fell in love with the business. He went on to get a culinary degree at Johnson & Wales, and followed that with some serious kitchen time in Rome and Florence. His desire to cook with Mediterranean flavors was cemented in New York City, where he worked for Mario Batali at Del Posto, Lupa and Esca.
Now at The Purple Pig he's challenging customers to grapple with aggressively flavored, no-nonsense dishes such as fried pig's ear with crispy kale, pork neckbone rillette, grilled octopus, chicken thigh kebabs and house-made Greek sausage. Based on the constant lines of customers stretching out the door, it's clear the kid is a champ.