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Chef's Corner: Chef Keith Willis, Rox City Grill

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Chef's Corner: Chef Keith Willis, Rox City Grill

Girls. That’s what Keith Willis was after when he signed up for a home economics class at Peoria Manual High School. What he found was his life’s work instead. (Recipe included!)

Born with an artist’s sensibility, Keith had long been looking for a creative outlet.  For most of his young life, he thought it would be music -- piano, vocals or both.  Still not totally focused on a career post graduation, however, he decided to give music the old college try by default.  To help pay his way, Keith took a job as a dishwasher.  Having had his interest piqued in those high school home ec classes, he immediately became intrigued with what the cooks were doing.

“I bugged the chef every day to let me cook.”

Enthusiasm, work ethic and bugging aside, Keith never got that chance until one day when one of the cooks just walked out during a big event.

“Later the chef came to me and said, ‘This is your shot.’ I never looked back.”

By the time he was 18, he had an opportunity to work alongside a “real” chef who had honed his considerable skills cooking for officers in the Army.

“Just seeing what he was able to do, able to create I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

But he wanted to do it the right way so he began applying to all the best culinary schools in the country, finally settling on the then brand new Culinary School of Kendall College in Evanston.  “They seemed to be headed in the same direction I wanted to go,” he explained.

By then, he was 21 and had already learned the basics.  So he used his 21-months at Kendall to find out “what the business could be.”  He also had the good fortune of working at LaBoheme in Wilmette where he benefited from the tutelage of a talented young chef who had trained in France.

Following his graduation from culinary school in 1988, Keith toured Europe.  During that time, he worked for a variety of Michelin-rated restaurants including Boxtree, LaGavaroche and Harvey’s in London; L’orlotan in Oxford England; and Pain Adour et Fantasie in Grenade Sur Adour, France.

Upon returning to the States, he subsequently served as Sous Chef at the Peachtree Country Club (Atlanta, GA, 1991-93), A.M. Sous Chef at Patina (Los Angeles, CA, 1993-95), Chef de Partie at Charlie Trotters (Chicago, IL, 1996-1997), Chef de Partie at The French Laundry (Yountsville, CA, 1998-99) Chef de Cuisine at Country Club of Peoria (Peoria, IL 2000-02) and Executive Chef at LaPiazza Ristorante (Naperville, IL 2004-06). 
Keith also worked for a short time as Chef de Cuisine at the former Waterfront Hotel at Hotel Baker in St. Charles, where he now serves as Executive Chef at the new ROX City Grill.  Here, he couples innovation and expertise to create an ever-evolving Asian-influenced contemporary menu that changes with the seasons.  In the process he has found a growing fan club of repeat diners who come all the way from the city to “experience” his decidedly urban fare.

“For me dining is not about coming to eat because you’re hungry.  It’s about coming for a total experience. The energy that comes with that is unexplainable.”

Although Keith says he respects the past, focuses on the now and always, always looks to the future, his overriding goal is to bring creative joy to the process and to be true to one’s self along the way.

“Above all a restaurant should be a reflection of who you are.  People should be able to walk in and ‘know’ me.”

What do diners know about Chef Keith Willis from walking into ROX City Grill?

That he’s an artist through and through.  And that their dining experience will be as unique as it is pleasurable, memorable and exhilarating.

English Pea Soup with Mint Oil

2 lbs. Sweet English Peas fresh or frozen
¼ small yellow onion diced and rinsed
1-1/2 qt. vegetable stock or chicken stock
2 c. heavy cream (optional)
Pinch of sugar
Kosher salt to taste
Ground white pepper to taste

Sautee onion very lightly in oil to soften until transparent.  Add the peas and cover with stock.  Season lightly with salt and pepper.  Add sugar. Simmer peas until soft.  Once peas are soft, remove from heat and let cool slightly.  Once cold, blend in a high-speed blender until smooth.  Place into a sauce pan.  Add the optional heavy cream.  Adjust seasonings to taste and then strain soup through a sieve.  Reserve in refrigerator until cold.

Mint oil
Place pot with 2-quarts water over high heat.  Add good pinch of salt.  Once water is boiling, add the mint and cook for 20-30 seconds.  Remove mint from water and cool under cold water.  Pat mint dry. Place mint in blender with the oil and blend until smooth and bright green.  Reserve.

To Serve
Place chilled pea soup in a glass or soup cup. Top with optional crème fraiche.  Toss the pea tendrils lightly with olive oil and season gently with salt and pepper. Place a few tendrils around the crème fraiche and dot with mint oil. 

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