Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Say Hello to Johnny Casserole

Posted By on 05.05.10 at 12:24 PM

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Last Thursday evening I had mouths to feed, but I was floundering way beyond a deadline, and just in front of a flight out of town early the next morning. It also happened to be the very week that Michael Ruhlman called bullshit on the claim that we—as a society—don't have time to cook, so I was feeling a bit guilty about what was about to happen. But it had to happen. There was just no other way we were going to eat well that night.

Around 6 PM, as promised, the doorbell rang and I was greeted by David Bryson, aka Johnny Casserole, bearing a tightly wrapped, oven-ready Pyrex dish containing enough chicken potpie to feed us three times over, plus a Red Hen baguette.

Bryson is a voice-over actor and graduate of CHIC (now Le Cordon Bleu-Chicago) who bounced around for some time cooking and waiting tables at places such as Speakeasy Supper Club, South Water Kitchen, Atwood Cafe, the Gage, and Sweets & Savories. Like so many other cooks in this town he had an idea for a food truck (sustainable fish tacos) but couldn't figure out a way to make it work under the city's municipal code.

Bryson also had a love for the all-American casserole, but a restaurant devoted exclusively to hot dish just seemed too improbable. So he started thinking, "How can I stay small, doing what I want to do, which is getting people to eat some damn casseroles?" he says. "And eating them well again, getting back to what it used to be—not canned soup and bad leftovers thrown in."

About four months ago he started a delivery service. Give him 24 hours notice and he'll drop off a fully prepared casserole, made from scratch with as many local and organic ingredients as possible. With 45 minutes in the oven, 15 minutes rest time out, it's enough to feed six to eight people—crawfish or shrimp and andouille and smoked ham jambalaya, shepherd's pie with grass-fed beef and cremini mushrooms, four-cheese cavatappi mac 'n' cheese with optional meat and veggie add-ins, and more. He also offers a selection of breakfast and dessert casseroles—seasonal fruit cobbler, an eggy pizza strata, French toast.

Bryson wasn't too busy at first. While he navigated the city's licensing labyrinth he delivered mostly to friends and customers who heard by word of mouth. Getting square with the city's health department was a hassle—they couldn't get a grip on how to classify his license (he's now considered a caterer). But two weeks ago Friday he went legit, securing his business license and headquartering at Kitchen Chicago.

Last Thursday's chicken potpie, aka the "Beth Ann," was terrific, loaded with crunchy vegetables and roasted chicken swimming in creamy gravy and topped with biscuits that crisped up perfectly according to the labeled instructions. (Bryson even provided a small recyclable container of milk to brush on top to burnish the biscuits and prevent burning.) There were only four of us, and there was plenty for leftovers.

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While they're substantial, and $5 of the price is a refundable deposit on the dish, this isn't cheap Hamburger Helper. If you're not willing to take a gamble on a casserole delivery just yet, Bryson will be bringing a bunch to the Map Room's weekly International Night next Tuesday, May 11, at 7 PM. For a two-drink minimum, the first 100 customers will get to sample his shepherd's pie, tuna noodle casserole, mac 'n' cheese, and a couple of fruit cobblers.

Otherwise, Johnny Casserole is waiting to take your order. Call 773-398-2407 or email johnny@johnnycasserole.com.

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