Chris Hoffmann of Clyde’s Fine Diner speaks with his hands. His movements are anchored to the diner counter top. His palms face each other as they purposefully slide about. Otherwise, his fingertips rest on the surface accentuating a point- drawing an imaginary thread between his stories. Not an unfamiliar position for a former sound engineer. Certainly not unfamiliar for a chef who honed his skills at Paul Virant’s acclaimed restaurant, Vistro, in suburban Chicago. Our conversation is easy, and Chef Chris is thoughtful and open with his story. He smiles easily and often when he speaks of his grandfather Clyde (the restaurant’s name sake), and the smiles only deepen and brighten when he speaks of his mother and wife.
EC: So, Chef. I was under the impression you were from Chicago, but you’re not. You are from Ames [Iowa].
CH: I grew up in Ames. I don’t have family in Iowa now on my side. Um, but uh, you know my folks moved to Iowa from the east coast for my dad’s job [my dad was a professor, and then later an administrator], so – I love Iowa and I loved growing up here.
EC: But your grandfather [Clyde] is from Georgia?
CH: Yep, Valdosta, Georgia. He lived in the D.C. area by the time I was born. He got a government job. Honestly, I don’t remember what he did for the government at that point. He was an early riser, so I think he’d wake up when the paper got there and fall asleep back in his chair again because he was always asleep in his chair at like 4 in the morning. By five he was up and every morning it was grits, sausage, eggs and biscuits every morning. He was a breakfast guy. I know that when they moved to Virginia he had his favorite grits spot. His favorite grits mill was in Georgia, and I don’t know what it was. Before there was mail order anything, he was sending them cash in the mail.
EC: Writing little notes?
CH: Handwritten notes, like ‘please send me this much money’s worth of grits’, and they were coming. He was already sourcing ingredients. He was awesome like that. His biscuits were
always incredible. They’re the ones that I grew up with. I don’t think anyone would be giving him biscuit awards. But to me it’s what a biscuit is.
EC: That’s your food memory.
CH: I’ve always been in love with food. My family – that’s where that came from – Clyde – [gestures of his shoulder towards the portrait of his grandfather smoking a cigar] my grandfather. My mom was an amazing cook and always was really interested in food. She really enjoyed cooking and she was really good at it. [My parents] were members of a gourmet group in Ames where they would all get together once a month and bring dishes from a certain menu.
EC: When did you go to Chicago?
CH: I moved from Ames when I was 18. I went to USC in L.A.. I transferred to University of Iowa. After University of Iowa -where I got my degree- I went to sound school in Florida, and after sound school in Florida I moved to Chicago, so it would have been 1999/2000.
EC: And then you stayed in Chicago until you came back to Iowa?
CH: Correct. 18 years [in Chicago].I lived in Roscoe Village initially. Then East Humboldt Park…on Iowa Street coincidentally.
EC: I read that you were a sound engineer.
I started as a studio guy and I worked in studios straight out of sound school. I moved to Chicago and I started interning at a studio called Chicago Tracks which is no longer there anymore. It was directly across the street from what is not the Google building, but now it’s just a parking garage. R. Kelly and Ministry co-owned that studio.
EC: Ok [chuckles]
CH: So I started working for R. Kelly shortly after that. Um – that was an experience I won’t get into, but it didn’t last a really long time, and I got out of the studio world after that. And then started working for a live sound company….which happened to be the second – or third- biggest sound company in the world at the time for live concert production. Pretty quickly moved my way into the engineering seat within a couple years. Some of it was ‘right place; right time’, and I got a little lucky, but I started turning knobs and moving faders pretty quickly. So, sound engineer to me um I was what was called a monitor engineer. I was right next to the stage and I was mixing what the guys were hearing in their ears or through speakers that were pointed at them on the stage.
EC: So when you see in movies when they’re like practicing and they say, “can you turn me up?”
CH: Yup. That’s the monitor engineer.
EC: I understand you traveled with that [line of work] and you’re eating as you’re traveling…
CH: I got to travel the world it was great because when you’re traveling with a big tour you’re landing in the major cities for the most part- major cities in the countries you’re going to. Which is the home of some of the most amazing restaurants. On the road – that was certainly where I fell in love with food in Spain. That’s where I fell in love with Mexican food. It was cool too because I would be traveling with some very high profile acts which made it really easy to get great reservations.
EC: Do you see the divey spot that has taxi cab drivers lined up [outside the door] and you’re like, “I’m eating there” or are you researching and finding “the place”?
CH: When I was younger I was trying to find the hot spot – the higher end place. I was going to Europe [at least once a year], so once I’d gone through Europe a couple times and hit all the major cities and I’d gone to the cool restaurants, I started looking for things that were a little more underground – underground is not the right word. Not fancy. Not fancy food. So I started really enjoying the smaller tapas bar in Spain. Eating outside in Italy – anywhere. I got a little tired of some of the super fancy stuff- the fancy spots and I didn’t want to eat that way every day on my day off.
EC: At some point it sounds like you settled [down].
CH: Yea, I come back to Chicago. I met my wife and that was a big part of it. I met Shannon and I found a way to be home a little more. Once I met her I took a position at Ravinia [an outdoor concert venue north of Chicago]. I could set up my whole year…and have some time off until March.
EC: You got your lady.
CH: I got my lady. At this point and a little bit before then when I was on the road I use to spend a lot of time reading – I’ve always been very interested in whatever it is that I’m doing; very passionate about whatever it is I’m doing. I’m all in, and I would spend my off time in my bunk on the tour bus or in the hotel room reading industry trade magazines.
EC: Restaurant [magazines]?
CH: At this point, music. Gradually I became less interested in that and I found myself reading way more food blogs, researching the next city, figuring out how I was going to make that when I got home. I was spending all my free time then reading about food and restaurants and that sort of thing. When I would come home from the road when I did have time off at home [and] I wasn’t at Ravinia… I spent all my time cooking and I would spend my day- I was lucky I had a little bit of an expendable income; road life was profitable- I would come home and I would spend my days like, Alright. I’m going to go find the best every ingredient I can in Chicago to make this dish. It started as here’s a recipe that I wanna make. I’m going to go figure this out, and I’m going to source the best thing I can find as a consumer. Then I couldn’t stop-I loved that. I stopped enjoying the music as much. I stopped enjoying the road life as much. My hearing started getting a lot worse which meant I knew there was an end to that career coming no matter what. I’m backtracking a little bit, but I was born with hearing loss. I picked the worst career I possibly could have. Then it got pushed over the edge listening to really loud concerts for however long it was – many years. I did notice I was starting to miss things here and there. Things I shouldn’t miss auditory wise. I knew in the back of my head I had to have a way out. I got home from a tour and it was that Christmas tour, and I had gotten a call to go to Jay Z/ Justin Timberlake and I was going to have to leave the next day and it was going to put me out on the road again.
EC: Is that really typical? That short notice?
CH: Yes…it certainly could be. I was on the short list of people that would go out and save the day quote-unquote. That was going to be the biggest tour of the year that year, and I got home and I just didn’t want to do it. I just didn’t want to go, so I said no. At that point, when I said I didn’t want to do that, I had been doing all this cooking and all this stuff and I said I just don’t want to go. If I’m going to turn down the biggest thing in my career that I could be doing I need to do something else. At that point my wife had just been promoted. She was like, “Hey, look. It’s your turn. I got it”. Two days later I enrolled at culinary school at AI [Art Institute of Chicago] and I was attending classes two weeks after that.
At the time of this post Clyde’s Fine Diner temporarily suspended indoor dining in response to the rise of Covid cases in the area. Visit their website to place your orders for carry out or delivery. Support your local restaurant.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.