This article was published in the July 2015 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.
What would it take for your “guilty pleasure” food to lose its pleasure? In CJ Callahan’s case, it was making 60 tons of mussels over a five-year period. “I don’t care for mussels anymore, but I still love the broth,” assured Callahan, head chef of Hopleaf Bar.
Unlike Callahan, mussels were not on my radar when I first moved to Chicago. It wasn’t until I sat down for dinner many years ago at Owen and Engine in the Logan Square neighborhood that I decided to try them. Thank goodness I did, because I found out that I love them. All the delicious broth and interesting textures make them a delectable dish.
Oddly in all of my travels to the Ireland, I have never tried Irish mussels, which are common across the isle. Until I plan my next trip, I have to get my mussel fix in Chicago. So when I heard that Hopleaf Bar serves one of the best mussel dishes in the city, I had to investigate.
Callahan, a dark-haired thirty something, quickly approached the bar where I was sitting with my husband. I could tell he was stressed from a long holiday weekend rush of customers. His black shirt with the Hopleaf logo was a bit stained form hours of work in the kitchen.
He smiled though and asked me which mussels I would like to try. I didn’t get a chance to reply before he said he would bring both: their year-round Belgian-style staple as well as the spring version (with peas). Both involve lots of butter, scallions and Belgian beer, why of course Blanche de Chambly.
He disappeared to the kitchen while we examined the long list of beers. I chose Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin, a light and citrusy IPA. By the time the beer was poured and I’d taken a few sips, Callahan presented the two dishes to us with pride.
Originally from Arkansas, Callahan has a wicked sense of humor and is the first to confess that he isn’t a classically trained chef. He gets his inspiration from the many seafood dishes from his home state.
Hopleaf appealed to Callahan, who has been in Chicago since 2006, because of its Belgian influence. After college he traveled Europe with his cousin. “We were running out of money and so we did a coin toss: Germany or Belgium.” Belgium won and they ended up in Bruges at a famous hostel with a kitchen and bar.
“We were having beers and talking to the girl that worked there and she said, ‘Hey you guys seem really nice. Do you want a job?’” They said yes.
He worked in the hostel pub for a few months where he learned to make traditional Belgian dishes like mussels. “That’s where I really started drinking good beer. I was drinking Duvel and Bush. We had the Wittekerke too,” he said.
Callahan describes Hopleaf’s owner, Michael Roper, as a beer dork. “He’s like, ‘I want you to love beer and I want you to cook with it.’ So all of our stews, our mussels … anything we can do to put beer in, we do.”
But Callahan hasn’t forgotten his Southern roots. When Roper decided to change out the tilapia, Callahan proposed catfish.
“They are both bottom feeders,” he argued. “The cat fish sandwich is a big hit.” I must have wrinkled my nose, because he proceeded to explain how the fish go through a filtering and cleaning process before they ever end up on a plate.
Although Callahan talks about himself in a very humble way, he certainly knows how to put together fantastic variations on the traditional Hopleaf mussel recipe and introduce potentially wary Midwestern eaters to Southern style dishes.
“I don’t know if I’m a good cook, a good chef, but I am good at working here. I know how to cook this food and I know how to cook with beer. That’s what’s great about this job is that I get to drink beer and cook with it.”
And I’ll keep drinking beer here too, as long as I can have mussels with my Duvel.
Hopleaf’s Belgian-Style Mussels
Feeds two people.
2 lbs. mussels (Prince Edward Island)
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1 rib of celery, thinly sliced
2 sprigs of thyme, finely chopped
1 fresh or dry bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
16 oz. of beer (Blanche de Chambly)
1 tbsp. butter
Place 1 ½ tablespoons of vegetable oil in sauté pan; heat until almost smoking. Add vegetables to oil and keep moving until they are sweating. Toss in mussels and generously season with salt and pepper. Add herbs and the beer then seal the pan tight with a lid and let everything steam for about four minutes. The key to this recipe is to not overcook the mussels because, if you do, they will become rubbery. Service with your favorite white crusty bread.