Spiaggia's Dynamic Duo is Ready to Rule Chicago's Dining Scene
Joe Flamm likes to joke he’s a VIP by association in Chicago’s big-league restaurant world. “She’ll ask me, ‘How’d you get in there?’ I told them I know you,” Flamm says.
He’s referring to Rachael Lowe, the 38-year-old beverage director of Windy City institution Spiaggia, and the other half of one of Chicago’s most exciting culinary duos.
In addition to being the executive chef of Spiaggia, a four-star Italian eatery run by Tony Mantuano, the winner of 2005’s James Beard Best Chef: Midwest, you might recognize Flamm from Bravo’s latest season of “Top Chef.” But outside of the TV spotlight, the 31-year-old chef has spent the past three and half years working with Lowe.
“When we create the new tasting menu, beside Tony and my sous chefs, the first person who looks at it is Rachael Lowe. She’ll get the first rough draft of the menu. We’ll start talking about wines. She’s just taught me so much it’s not even funny,” Flamm says.
Both Flamm and Lowe credit Mantuano for fostering a collaborative environment you just don’t see in today’s restaurant culture. Perhaps their accolades and ability have something to do with that as well.
Flamm reverently refers to Lowe’s resume as “obscene.” Her flair for flavor and revelry began on her family’s 17-acre farm in Michigan, where Lowe recently tied the knot.
“It was always kind of ingrained in me that that you make time for good food and good company,” she says.
Once she started down the path of sommelier, the honors have flooded in. Lowe was named a 2016 Food & Wine Sommelier of the Year. She earned a Rudd Scholarship for top scores on the advanced exam from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Lowe picked up the top prize at the Ruinart Chardonnay competition hosted by Ruinart and the Guild of Sommeliers in 2010, garnered the 2010 Jean Banchet award for Top Sommelier for Chicago, and served as sommelier at Michelin-rated Bouchon. She also clocked time at several New York City standouts, including Café Gray, the Mandarin Oriental and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay inside The London NYC hotel. It’s easy to see where Flamm’s coming from.
Like Flamm, Lowe says the relationship has made her a better culinary professional.
“As Joe and I have worked together more closely throughout the last few years, we’ve really learned from each other about what works and what doesn’t. He’s really great in terms of not having this ego that some chefs could have, where they say, ‘This is the only way it can be.’ We’ll sit there and talk it through,” Lowe says. “We learn from each other. And I think that kind of passion—that amount of time we put toward it—it translates to the guest experience really, really well.”
Joe Flamm’s palate also stems from his upbringing, when he cooked Italian meals with his grandmother. But he was working his way through Chicago kitchens cooking pretty much everything, and all profiles, before he heeded some well-timed advice. A co-worker at BellyQ suggested he dive into Italian food professionally.
“And if you’re going to cook Italian food in Chicago, for me, the obvious choice was Spiaggia,” says Flamm, who also held jobs at Table 52 and Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat. In 2014, Flamm jumped at a sous chef opportunity and has worked his way up.
Beside being a time-honored and celebrated spot, Spiaggia has seen its share of mega-watt chefs come through the door, including James Beard Award-winning Sarah Grueneberg, also a “Top Chef” alum and the current head of Monteverde, and Chef Missy Robbins, who leads Brooklyn, New York, restaurant Lilia and was a contestant on season four of “Top Chef Masters.”
Flamm is fully aware of the restaurant’s reputation for chef prestige, as well as its firm spot in Chicago’s fine-dining hierarchy, but it wasn’t until a 2017 trip through Italy that everything clicked. He spent two days at Del Pescatore, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Canento Sul'Oligo where Mantuano worked in 1984 before founding Spiaggia.
“I’ve always felt like Spiaggia was a super special restaurant. I felt like it was a really hard restaurant to draw parallels to, and draw inspiration of how do we create this food. Del Pescatore was the first place I went where it was like a light went off. I was like, OK, I get it. I get what inspired Tony and Cathy 35 years ago to make this restaurant. It’s such simple elegance, but it’s perfect and the hospitality is beyond warm. That’s what this restaurant is, and that’s what we’re tasked with everyday trying to continue and build on.”