Chris Solare, 33, is the executive chef at Spice, the restaurant and lounge inside the newly remodeled Holiday Inn Convention Center in Gurnee.
Solare lives in McHenry and has been cooking professionally for 17 years.
His passion for the culinary arts has taken him to the White House, where he cooked for former Vice President Dick Cheney in 2004-05. Before managing Spice, he managed Lafitte’s in the Embassy Suites in Schaumburg.
Solare designed the menu at Spice to represent American Eastern fusion cuisine. He also played the role of interior designer by creating the look of the restaurant and lounge, from the salt shakers on the tables to the china on which his food is served. He was awarded the 2010 and 2011 Presidential Award by the American Culinary Federation.
Solare recently spoke with Shaw Media reporter Yadi Sanchez Olson about cooking, the restaurant and working for the Cheneys.
Sanchez: What type of food do you serve at Spice?
Solare: The original Spice is in India, but mine is more flavorful. It’s a fusion of two different styles.
Sanchez: Where did your love for the culinary arts come from?
Solare: My dad. He used to be a chef. Every year he would cook Christmas dinner. When I was growing up, I used to watch the cooking shows with him. I always enjoyed watching when those chefs would cut really, really fast. I wanted to do that.
Sanchez: What age would you say you knew you wanted to be a chef?
Solare: I was 9 or 10. But it wasn’t until I got into high school and took control of foods that I really started taking notice of it.
Sanchez: Do you still enjoy watching cooking shows?
Solare: Well, it wasn’t until about four years ago when I started watching again and paying attention and saying, ‘OK, if I was in this cooking show, what would I need to do [to win]?’
Sanchez: So, you must have a favorite then.
Solare: Yeah, I like “Chopped” and “The Next Food Network Star.”
Sanchez: Do you make elaborate meals for yourself when you’re at home?
Solare: No. It’s funny, when I’m at home, I make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The only time I really cook when I’m at home is when I need to make a big dinner; otherwise, it’s PBJs, and I’m happy with that.
Sanchez: Cooking for the White House and being Dick Cheney’s personal cook must have been an amazing experience for you. Can you describe it?
Solare: It was crazy to be inside the White House. At the time, I had just left a country club job, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do – if I wanted to pursue more country club or if I wanted to be on my own and be a personal chef. At the time, my ex-brother-in-law worked for the Navy, and I went to visit him. One of the master chefs from the White House said to me, ‘Hey, when do you want to come and work for us?’ … It was one of those things, like I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m just a boy from McHenry. To this day, I keep my White House coins with me everywhere I go. They’re my good luck charm.
Sanchez: What was your relationship like with the former vice president?
Solare: When I was at the vice president’s house … he was the nicest, coolest person. He was so down-to-earth; it was like he was more happy for me to be there cooking for him than I was to be there.
Sanchez: Is there something you learned from that experience that you carry with you?
Solare: Always be creative. If you can wow someone, the expression on their face is priceless. Everybody can cook, but not everybody can put their own passion in it, and when that shows, you can see it in their face.
Sanchez: At the end of the day, is that what you want your guests at Spice to go away with? An expression that lets you know you’ve impressed them?
Solare: Yeah, I really want to be different than anything around here. I want people to walk away thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I had that at this restaurant.’
Sanchez: Is there one particular dish you love to make?
Solare: Everyone always asks me that, but I like to make everything … except for sloppy joes and chicken kiev. I don’t like making them, and I don’t like eating them. Sloppy joes is just too messy and I don’t like it.
When I was a kid and my mom would make it, I wouldn’t eat dinner.
Sanchez: What do people like you to make for them?
Solare: I have some friends who like me to make them a rib-eye and lobster macaroni and cheese.
The Solare lowdown
Who is he? Thirty-three-year-old executive chef at Spice, the restaurant and lounge inside the newly remodeled Holiday Inn Convention Center in Gurnee
Favorite food: Italian. “I’m 100 percent Italian so I love it.”
Favorite cooking show to watch? “Chopped” and “The Next Food Network Star”