Chef Art Smith finds the opening of his new Reunion, at Navy Pier this fall, to be particularly meaningful for two reasons.
One, it's a callback to his culinary beginnings in the Windy City. And two, after a year that has been so challenging for so many people — and kept them from sharing meals together — it's a symbol of hope and recovery.
Smith, a critically acclaimed celebrity chef who launched his career in Hyde Park, is known for cooking for some of the most influential figures in the world, including Oprah Winfrey, Lady Gaga and the Obama family. In 2016, he opened his restaurant Blue Door Kitchen & Garden in the Gold Coast, and he also owns a Southern-style restaurant called Homecomin' Kitchen in Disney Springs, Fla.
The concept for Reunion, which will be located at the former site of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant at Navy Pier, is rooted in the role that Chicago has played as Smith's second home.
"I made my career in Chicago — it all started with Oprah, and I have my restaurants there," Smith said. "So, what better place to create Reunion in celebration of a Southern country boy going to the big city and making it big?"
While an opening date for the new restaurant has not yet been announced, Smith and executive chef Hector Guerrero have big plans for the menu, which Smith said will include a unique brand of fried chicken, restaurant favorites such as steaks and barbecue and "lots of wonderful deviled eggs," all with a focus on fresh, local ingredients.
Reunion wouldn't have been possible without the help of his longtime friend and business partner, Manolis Alpogianis, Smith added.
"Behind every great chef, there is a financier extraordinaire who does help to produce and make the chef so that he can be his very best," Smith said. "... It's a great relationship and friendship between two men who've been friends now for over 20 years. And a testament of that is survival through all of this."
Alpogianis, who has operated various businesses at Navy Pier for more than two decades, said he thought the partnership with Smith was a positive move for the pier.
"I knew that the pier wanted to take a fresh look at all of the food and beverage programs, and I just couldn't think of anyone who represented Chicago better, who knew how to feed both visitors and Chicagoans," he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges for the restaurant industry, and Smith said he hopes the launch of Reunion will show that with "love, hard work and having smart people around you" anything is possible.
Right now, there's no better time to open a restaurant, he said.
"Navy Pier is the premier entertainment destination in the Midwest," Smith said. "It's our Disneyland. And with all the major wonderful things that are coming to the pier it'll prove to be more of a great destination. I've worked extremely hard on it. And Chicago being one of the greatest, most beautiful cities in the world, we deserve it, and I love calling it home."