It’s not often that a major U.S. city dedicates a day to honor a local chef. On September 22, 2009, The City of Chicago did just that. “Carrie Nahabedian Day” recognized this acclaimed chef’s induction into the Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame. At that time, she was running her Michelin-Star restaurant, NAHA, which earned Nahabedian a James Beard Foundation (Chef) Award.
NAHA closed in 2018 after an 18-year run; plans to reopen in a new location were stalled due to the pandemic. However, Carrie Nahabedian is busier than ever. These days, loyal customers flock to Brindille, a 50-seat restaurant featuring exquisite seasonal French food opened in 2015. A second restaurant Kostali by Naha at the Gwen Hotel serves signature dishes from the Mediterranean coast.
Chicago has been home to Nahabedian most of her life. She was raised in a close Armenian-Italian family; her parents were married 70 years. Nahabedian caught the cooking bug early. She studied the Time-Life cookbook, “Cooking from Provençal France,” and watched Julia Child cook on television.
At age 17 she asked her father to help her land a job interview at The Ritz -Carlton Chicago. At the time, her dad worked in the carpet business and was involved in a project with the hotel. A Word War II veteran who spoke French after being stationed in that country, Nahabedian’s father convinced the hotel’s French chef, to meet with his young daughter. Nahabedian acknowledged that her father’s war service as a French ally held considerable appeal to The Ritz-Carlton’s chef.
Being underage, she was assigned to room service but not for long. “My first kitchen assignment was garde manger working alongside another woman. I knew this station was not for me. I was brazen and fought my way into working the line,” said Nahabedian.
The strict French training stuck with her. “The years working at The Ritz-Carlton and later The Four Seasons were some of my most formative. Back then, the chefs were all French and male. They questioned why I, as a woman, would want a job working in the kitchen,” said Nahabedian. “I believe I succeeded because I worked very hard and had people who believed in me. I never put my sex before who I was. I worked with all men, and you got used to it.”
Many of these same French male chefs became her mentors, including The Ritz-Carlton Chef Fernand Gutierrez and Chef Jean Banchet. She became the first woman chef to run Banchet’s kitchen at his acclaimed restaurant, Le Francais. She remembers both chefs, now deceased, with reverence for helping to elevate French cooking in Chicago, as well as for their guidance in her career.
Nahabedian opened Brindille in 2013. The inspiration for what she calls her “jewel box” restaurant were the small, refined Parisian restaurants she frequented during trips to France. Brindelle (pronounced braun-DEE) is French for young twig (a new growth). In many ways, this restaurant represents another branch of Nahabedian’s estimable career. This restaurant feels serene and doting when you walk in. It’s about attention to detail. Nahabedian works the kitchen side by side with her staff to turn out a seasonal menu.
A few examples include Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Roasted Pineapple and Preserved Fruit Confitures; Poached Pine Island (Florida) Prawns with Trompettes de la Mort Mushrooms, Joël Robuchon pommes purée, Savoy cabbage Choggia Beets and Miner’s Lettuce; Lacquered Aged Moulard Duck Breast L’Apicius with Glazed Root Vegetables, Delicata Squash, Gala Apple and Chestnuts; and Whole Roasted Dover Sole Meunière.
Desserts are not to be missed. Pastry Chef, Craig Harzweski’s repertoire includes a Warm Baked Clafoutis of Preserved Cherry and Almond, Crème Chantilly and Baba au Rhum Golden Pineapple, White Chocolate Cream and Coconut Sorbet. The homemade ice cream is so popular, Brindille sells it by the pint, including a “design your own” flavor. Another popular program is Brindille’s high French tea, offered seasonally on weekends.
Various family members are involved with the business. Her cousin and longtime business partner, Michael Nahabedian, oversees the front-of-house and beverage list, including Brindille’s thoughtful France-focused wine list (as well as the wine list at Kostali by Naha). Older sister, Cathy handles finances; another sister, Chris helps fill in where needed. Brindille’s sleek design featuring subtle elements of twigs was conceived by her architect-cousin, Tom Nahabedian. The restaurant is the recipient of the 2015 James Beard Foundation Design Award. “Over the years just about every niece, nephew, or cousin has worked in one of the restaurants in some capacity,” Nahabedian shared.
Reflecting back on her 40-year career starting at 17, Nahabedian acknowledges how important nurturing relationships, bother professional and personal are to enduring in this back-breaking business. “It is important that you always maintain friendships and mentor others to help people move forward.”
Brindille is located at 534 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60655 (312) 595.1616.
Photos by Paul Strabbing