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Monday, June 30, 2014

How chef Michael Lachowicz created a stripped-down steak house in a tricked-out strip club

Posted By on 06.30.14 at 10:39 AM

Michael Lachowicz

If there's anything more ridiculous than a group of food nerds in a strip club ignoring everything else around them while taking pictures of their steaks, I can't think of it. But not long ago I journeyed out to the suburban Stone Park "gentleman's club" Club Allure. That's the one next to the convent, whose nuns have raised their proverbial pitchforks against it. But I wasn't there for the entertainment, inside or outside. Honest. I was there to eat from the steak-house-style menu developed by veteran North Shore chef Michael Lachowicz, whom you might know from his work at the late Le Francais, Le Deux Gros, or the current Restaurant Michael—or perhaps even from this week's Key Ingredient, in which he cooks up some calves' brains.

What you might not know about Lachowicz is that he's a recovering alcoholic, addict, and overeater. Near the height of his problems, current Club Allure attorney (and former owner) Bob Itzkow, who was a fan of the chef's food, tapped him to open a kitchen in his first strip club, the Pink Monkey. A year and a half ago Lachowicz was stone-cold sober when the sprawling, glitzy, Moulin Rouge-style Club Allure opened. When I sat down to talk with him about what it's like to open a restaurant inside a strip joint—which turns out to have the Best Food at a Gentleman's Club—he was looking lean, mean, and fairly ripped in a sleeveless Harley Davidson T-shirt. Here's an edited version of our conversation.

You've been in recovery for three and a half years now. What prompted you to get help?

Fuck, I was a mess, dude. I was petrified. Part of it was death. I was afraid of dying. I was taking 40 pills a day, a couple bottles of scotch, and I was 430 pounds. The writing was on the wall. I was not even 41 years old. I could feel my heart popping out of my chest, my liver was huge, it was a fucking mess. So I just got scared. I decided I gotta do something. My body was just laying on the carpet in this disgusting condo that I had, looking for pills under the couch because my guy didn’t show up. Surrounded by wrappers and shit, and a fucking mess, man.

I go to Overeaters Anonymous as well as Narcotics Anonymous. And trainers and—I go to a lot of meetings now. It's good. It's better.

You were sober by the time you started working for Club Allure. How did that environment reconcile with your recovery?

That's kind of counterrecovery. I wasn't secretive about it. It's kind of a speakeasy type of business. And it's not for everybody. I’m like, fuck, I can see what everybody's going through. The business is saturated with people who could probably use some of the rooms that I go to. It's a good reminder of where I don't wanna be. You know there's a lot of stuff that goes on in those places.

They contracted me to come in and help them open up the food operation. That's the part that I concentrate on; the rest of it I don’t know a thing about. Nor do I want to. That's how I had to put it in my head. It's kind of in direct contrast with my program. The whole idea is not to be a self-centered, narcissistic jack-off, which is exactly what I was. I try not to be that anymore. So you know, going in there and looking at these women as objects and going in there for all the wrong reasons—I can't do that. I don't want to be a part of that. Plus, I was engaged. I'm now married, and I don't want my wife to think that that's why I'm going there. And that's not why I was going there. So I made it a point not to be there when there were dancers there. I didn't go there for auditions. I didn't go there to watch what was going on, I didn't give a shit about that stuff. What I cared about was, I opened it as a restaurant, it was a venue within a venue, and that's how I was able to justify it in my own mind. And I didn't have to justify it. I actually rationalized that that’s what I’m doing. That's what I did, and when my job was done—I left.

What kind of research did you do before you got started?

They have steak houses that are gentleman's clubs all over the south, but Atlanta's the hot center for that. They flew me out to Atlanta to look at the one they had in mind. They didn't copy it but that's how we got a lot of ideas. That's how we learned, wow there are places out here that are really—they're not for everyone—but they're definitely not sawdust joints. They're not peanut shells on all the floors of these different places. They're well kept, and they smell nice and the bathrooms are immaculate. And they're really pretty cool.

I signed on for six months. We installed the kitchen, we installed the menu, we installed the staff. I trained everybody for a couple weeks, I monitored everything for the remainder of the time I was there, and now it's kind of running on its own volition. It's going very well.

It's sort of a dissected version of a steak-house menu, with really nice sauce work. The first couple times I showed [Itzkow] the menu, he was like, "Ahh, this is not gonna work. This is not Winnetka. Let's not do Le Francais." OK, I get it, so I scaled it back, I scaled it back, I scaled it back. And we ended up with this really stripped-down version of my style of cooking—it's not remedial, it's just more mainstream. It's not quite as foodie driven. It's more, just, "I like to eat, I like good food, wow, this is here, let's eat."

Bob comes to me and says, "Give me chicken wings with ranch dressing." I’ll give you the best fucking ranch dressing ever manufactured. I'll make it myself and I'll give you the recipe. And that's what I did. All the plans that I put together for them, all of the recipes, all of the details, they all go into a book for them. It's a manual. I hire the kitchen staff and I train them, but that all goes with the program. One of the guys, he came from Smith & Wollensky and the other guy came from McCormick and Schmick's. And they work day jobs, and they're there until six in the evening. And you don't get hopping in a club like that until after ten at night. It's very European in the way it presents itself in the kitchen. They don't even start the kitchen until after 7:30, eight o'clock at night. So these guys go home, have dinner with their families, take a nap for an hour and a half, go back to work for ten hours. You know, I mean, they could work all night long.

You mentioned you had to consider certain aspects of human nature when you were developing the restaurant.

There's a whole bunch of science that goes into it. And there's a lot of what people's expectations are before they come in the door there. And one thing they're not expecting is great food. You know, it's not a traditional titty bar, that's not what they do. It's more of an entertainment venue. They have live dancers. That's where they make their money. And you know they have a full liquor license.

At the end of the day [the food] ends up giving it credibility because it's not just gonna be, you know, live nude dancers. It's gonna be a venue where you can actually come and sit down and have a nice meal and a cocktail. The whole idea was trying to bring in couples, and have, you know, people come in as a group, and enjoy dinner and not have to bring in things from the outside. You know, or just have bags of chips and buffalo wings because who gives a shit about that? Everybody's got that.

We had to engage [customers] in something other than what's on the stage. So we had to entice them another way. And the whole idea behind the psychology of this is that they're staying longer because of the food. The longer you stay, it's just like gambling. The more you stay, the more money you spend. There's a philosophy there. And it works. It works because the average person who goes into a gentleman's club, their duration is an hour to, maybe, an hour and fifteen minutes. At this place and at the Pink Monkey, it was creeping up on three hours. Take a break in between, you know, watching shows or lap dances or whatever else you're doing there to have dinner. It works. They stay longer.

Some of these guys will go in there, and there's chess boards and there's backgammon boards set up in their VIP lounge upstairs, and they'll just go upstairs and play chess with some girl for three hours. And pay $2,000 for the privilege to do so. It's like a date that you're paying for. To me, it's nutty. You know, I don’t get it. But when you have so much money that it's almost like Monopoly money, I guess you don't give a fuck.

Or, you know, it's an interesting cross-addiction I'm sure. You know, a lot of people share about that in the rooms that I'm in. You know: "I used to do nothing but drink and drug. And now it's morphed into, I never had a problem with food, and now I overeat constantly, or I am on Web searches for porn, or I shop incessantly."

Listen man, the whole thing is Sodom and Gomorrah for me, I gotta stay the fuck out of there. It's not a good place for me to be. The cheese will slide right off my cracker if I'm there too long.

But will you help Itzkow out with the next one he opens?

Absolutely. Listen, man—the guy pays.

Club Allure
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