Fresh Digs

Chef Thad Morrow serves up fresh food from local farmers

Thad Morrow, the 39-year-old, tattooed chef and owner of Bacaro Wine Lounge in downtown Champaign, sits in the front of his restaurant talking about how fresh, local produce inspires his cooking and drives his restaurant’s menu.

Thad Morrow

Thad Morrownu.

He walks around the restaurant, stopping at the large produce fridge to look inside. The shelves brim with fresh veggies still coated in dirt from nearby farmers and a bucket of oyster mushrooms from Clay Bank Farm in Olney, 109 miles south of the kitchen.

Bacaro, Morrow’s fine dining, local produce-inspired restaurant, opened nearly 10 years ago in November 2001. The restaurant and menu have changed significantly from a small wine bar offering crostini and paninis to a restaurant that expresses its Italian influences with full entrées and pastas.

“Thad has been one of those long-term restaurateurs downtown that really started the business downtown early on in its revitalized history,” said TJ Blakeman, the executive director of the Champaign Center Partnership. “He brings some really good fine dining and really elevates the dining experience in downtown.”

Morrow recently took over Carmon’s, a French restaurant that served crepes, and transformed it into a French bistro-style restaurant. The chef? A protégé of Morrow’s.

“I really liked the space,” he said. “I didn’t want to see it be vacant for a long time.”

Born in Jacksonville, near Illinois’ state capital, Morrow learned to cook with his mom. While other kids were playing soccer or baseball, Morrow was paging through his mother’s Bon Appétit magazines and contemplating his next Jell-O concoction, he said.

“I liked putting things together. Ingredients seemed like I was putting a puzzle together, and the end product was a cake,” Morrow said. “I was fascinated by recipes, magazines and building things.”

Morrow’s interest in cooking continued through college at Indiana University where he studied public policy and environmental science from 1990 to 1995 and washed dishes at a local French restaurant. He had worked there for three years, slowly moving his way up, when he decided to go to culinary school after college.

“I looked at Cordon Bleu in Paris, but the Culinary Institute of America seemed like the place to go,” Morrow said. “My parents were really into it; they put up very little resistance. Now they’re even happier because my dad gets to eat for free for life.”

Morrow’s career began with an internship at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago in 1997, but he flunked out. He had to finish his internship for the Culinary Institute of America and ended up working with Mario Batali in New York at Pó.

While working with the celebrity chef, Morrow got the idea of opening a restaurant.

“He [Mario] really wanted me to work with him in New York, but I went back and finished cooking school,” he said.

Fresh out of school, Morrow took a job with a friend in Champaign. Morrow’s childhood hobby, which started with making Jell-O, ended up as a career.

“He was opening up a wine shop and offered me some money to come and help set the shop up. I was broke … so I moved here and never left,” he said.

The menu at Bacaro changes daily, depending on what is available, seasonally and locally.

“We get so much local stuff in that it’s easy to cook because we get a great option of beautiful [ingredients], like fresh squashes, and when it comes in, the cooks are like, ‘Oh, that’s easy to cook with,’ because it’s inspiring to see that,” Morrow said. “It’s not coming from a Cryovac box. When the guy drops it off, you can see him.”

Morrow’s commitment to using fresh, local ingredients reflects his belief that the flavor in local goods is better and that it’s more fun to work with local farmers than ordering from a big company.

“I went to Carmon’s for a preview, and half the guys and girls eating were farmers — He grew the chicken, she raised the eggs, he did the greens,” he said, pointing to where they were sitting at the table. “It’s very interesting to cook that community way. That’s what we like, and that’s what gets us going and inspired.”

Mel Farrell, a board member of the Flatlander Food Foundry and alumna of the University of Illinois, has been going to Bacaro since it opened nearly 10 years ago.

“When I first went, it was to get a glass of wine,” she said. “Then he started ramping up his menu as he morphed into a sit-down, entrée-type restaurant. We kept coming because we liked his food.”

The local quality of the food at Bacaro was another aspect of the restaurant that kept Farrell coming back.

“What I really like is called ‘Market Monday,’” she said. “It’s a perfect way to incorporate really good cooking with what’s available locally, which is what I’m all for. “

She said the food scene has changed dramatically and that Morrow was one of the first chefs in town to cook consistently with local ingredients.

Bacaro’s enormous wine selection, roughly 300 wines, is a testament to Morrow’s love for wine, which started in a wine class at Indiana University.

“The guy [who taught the course] was a throwback from the South, would say, ‘liter-a-toor, temper-a-toor.’ He would teach private lessons at his house, and we would explore Bordeaux and Burgundy,” Morrow said. “I just loved it.” But “it wasn’t really popular to be a sommelier [wine steward].”

The name of the restaurant was also inspired by his love of wine and a trip to Venice with a friend.

“Bacaro or bacari are wine bars in and around Venice … we found ourselves going to a lot of them,” he said. “She thought it would be a great name for a restaurant.”

Morrow also designed and built the interior of the restaurant.

“I built the wine racks, bar top, table tops, everything you see,” he said, looking at his restaurant. “Hand-built by me and a buddy.”

The kitchen staff used to be only Morrow, his chef Mike Miller and a dishwasher for three years. Now, they’ve added two people to help with cooking and preparation.

“You’re cooking for 180 people, and there’s only four of you back there,” Morrow said. “Mike used to have hair,” he joked as we walked through the kitchen. “Now you know why he’s bald.”

The future of Bacaro, says Morrow, involves less and less of him working in the kitchen.

“For me, the future is taking younger cooks and putting them in charge in the back and letting them do their thing,” he explained. “I want to move people forward that are cooking here … kind of let young cooks have a place downstate where we can foster an area and community of really cool restaurants.”

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