He puts the let us in Lettuce Entertain You.
Mychael Bonner – yes Mychael with a ‘y’ – sounds rather exotic. Actually, he was born in Muncie, Indiana, but has called Chicago home for the past 25 years. Being of African-American and American Indian descent, he has an impressive lineage. His grandfather, Benjamin Hooks, was executive director of the NAACP, and his mother and grandmother were both cooks.
A partner and executive chef at Petterino’s and Lettuce Entertain You’s suburban spots (Di Pescara, Saranello’s, Reel Club), Chef Bonner, met me inside Petterino’s. He described it as “a throwback, post-World War II American restaurant serving American classics in a formal setting.” He was thoughtful and had a positive energy about him. As we touched on some pretty personal topics, he joked, “You’re going to make me cry!”
We discussed his childhood and going through his parent’s divorce at age four. Shortly after, his mom decided to change his name from Andrew Bonner III to Mychael Bonner. Why the ‘y?’ “I asked my mom about that once and she said she spelled it phonetically,” he said, laughing.
When he was 15 years old, Chef Bonner met his wife Marcey. And unlike his parents, they’ve been together for 21 years. They have a son and daughter together, and he credits her for “keeping me grounded.”
When Chef Bonner told his mom and grandmother that he wanted to be a professional cook, “they were disappointed. They said, ‘You’re wasting your life.’” Of course, they’re now extremely proud of his accomplishments.
Chef Bonner loves Chicago and believes it’s on the verge of becoming a food mecca in the country. Despite his successful career thus far – he was vice president of culinary operations for Maggiano’s Little Italy for 13 years and opened 36 locations across the country before rejoining Lettuce in 2005 – he truly believes that he has only reached a small percentage of his potential and the best is yet to come.
His favorite moments of the day are visiting the dining room and “watching diners do the ‘happy food dance.’” Conversely, the most challenging part of his job is dealing with difficult customers. “I hate to lose, and losing to me is not being able to meet expectations.” One particular customer, who may or may not have been under the influence, came into the kitchen in the middle of service and screamed, “Where’s my food? I’ll cook it myself!” Chef Bonner calmly explained, “We escorted him out.”
The best advice Chef Bonner ever received was, “Go after your strengths; do what comes naturally. I could never change the brakes in my car, so I focus on what comes naturally to me.” That said, he also continuously gives back to the community. His work with Purple Asparagus, which helps change the way children eat by implementing programs in over 30 Chicago area schools serving 5,000 children, has made an impact on many. I look forward to seeing Chef Bonner fulfill the rest of his potential. Thus far, he is nothing short of impressive.
Ashley Fischer Photograph