Chef Robert Sikkila believes that good food, like good architecture, begins with a solid foundation.
This makes him the ideal match as the first executive chef for 1844 Table & Mash, the soon-to-be-opened flagship restaurant at The Stella Hotel, 5706 Eighth Ave.
Set to open Monday, the hotel is itself built on very good bones. Constructed in 1914, it once housed the Elks Club and later the Heritage House. After falling into disrepair, it was purchased by Gorman Company Inc., received historic landmark status and has been renovated into a premier boutique hotel with 80 guest rooms.
Sikkila is heading up the hotel’s food service, comprised of a breakfast cafe, banquet room, the 1844 Table & Mash Restaurant and Bar and the Crow’s Nest, an outdoor deck atop the hotel’s annex.
While the hotel and cafe open April 1, the restaurant’s launch date is April 15.
Sikkila’s foundation as a chef began as he grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with exposure to supper club cuisine and fresh lake fish.
Bringing both to the table at The Stella, Sikkila describes his menu as “supper club — simple food with upscale twists. A few items that will hopefully wow some people.”
A preview of some of the dishes revealed just that. For this interview, the chef prepared chicken saltimbocca served lollipop style with cassis, poached colossal shrimp served with olives and fresh cocktail sauce, panzanella salad, marinated pan roasted chicken for two and a beef chuck pot roast with garlic mashed potatoes and root vegetables.
All sauces and dressings will be made in-house, even down to the ranch dressing, Sikkila said.
The menu, which will draw on as much locally available product as possible, will change seasonally, said Sikkila. He also hopes to incorporate fish from the Great Lakes, including whitefish, walleye and lake trout.
He noted there will also be vegetarian options and some trend dishes, such as those catering to keto diets.
As a chef, Sikkila calls himself a traditionalist with a minimalist approach to plating.
“I believe in starting with the traditional basic techniques, then building on them to come up with modern dishes,” he said. “Like this building, the food starts with a good foundation, and you put your heart and soul into it.”
In addition to a full dinner menu, the restaurant will also offer a lunch menu with lighter fare such as a pot roast sandwich, a signature Stella burger and a pretzel crusted chicken schnitzel sandwich. Fridays will feature a fish fry and on Saturdays there will be a prime rib special.
Dinner entrees begin at $20; lunches start at $12.
Coming to work at 1844 Table & Mash at the Stella brings Sikkila full circle as a chef, because much of his of 20-year culinary career has been in hotel food service. After studying at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago in 1999, he began his career at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Chicago and has worked at the Renaissance Schaumberg Convention Center and the Marriott in Oakbrook, Ill.
For a while he worked in corporate cuisine — for all-inclusive clubs at White Sox Park and as executive chef at DePaul University — but found he missed the pace and creativity of hotel kitchens.
When the opportunity to build his own menu at a supper-club themed restaurant at the Stella came up, Sikkila was all in. “If I had my own restaurant, the supper club theme is definitely what I would go with because it is near and dear to my heart; it’s what I grew up with in the north woods,” he said.
He was also excited about starting from scratch. “(The Stella) was a blank slate. I’ve been given the opportunity to write the book as I go along.”
To do so he knew he needed a few things — like a smoker. “After the first interview they sent me the blueprints for the kitchen; I said ‘It looks great, but there’s no smoker.’”
In the smoker, Sikkila plans to smoke fish (salmon, trout) for items for the breakfast cafe. “We’ll also put prime rib in the smoker,” he said.
Sikkila noted that the kitchen at the Stella is smaller but more efficient than most he has worked in. “It’s appropriate for the menu size we’ll be serving,” he said.
Sikkila, 43, calls Park Ridge, Ill., home, where he lives with his wife and three young children.
Off the clock, Sikkila says his favorite things to cook are breakfast foods for his family. “I like cooking with my kids; they really get involved.”
He also likes to make pot roast “because it’s a dish with a lot of steps and you take a lot of care with it.”
Working with Sikkila will be sous chef Jose Burgos and banquet sous chef Jesus Jimenez, both with a wealth of local culinary experience.
Jimenez formerly worked in banquet preparation at the Grand Geneva and most recently was a line cook at Kaiser’s Pizza, Kenosha.
Burgos worked at Chicago’s Spiaggia and as head chef at Mangia in Kenosha for 10 years.
“We’ve got good chemistry between the three of us,” Sikkila said.
Everyone is eagerly anticipating the launch of food service at the Stella. “I’m excited to be here to open up and get rolling,” Jimenez said.
“Let’s go to work!” added Burgos.
“Opening the new restaurant is a really good feeling,” Sikkila said.