John and Karen Urie Shields: It Takes Two To Tango

Food is a literal labour of love for John and Karen Urie Shields of Smyth+Loyalist. They share with Destin Tay on the ins and outs of balancing two stars, two restaurants and two kids.

Settling down with family can often be a bane to chefs pursuing high-flying careers, but for husband-and-wife power couple John and Karen Urie Shields, it’s the backbone of their success. The pair opened the dual concept Smyth+Loyalist, a combination of fine-dining restaurant (Smyth) and casual gastro-bar (The Loyalist) in 2016, fresh off the birth of their second child. Four years and two Michelin stars later, they haven’t looked back since.

The pair first met when they were working together at the legendary Charlie Trotter’s townhouse restaurant, where John was sous chef and Karen was head pastry chef. The two got closer and eventually fell in love when they were tasked by Trotter to helm his new venture in Las Vegas, but they left that deal in order to pursue something they could call their own.

And what exactly is the secret ingredient to their successful restaurant business and growing family? The Shields argue that it’s the cornerstone of all relationships: compromise and mutual respect. The pair have leveraged on their individual strengths (John handles majority of the culinary decisions while Karen handles the business aspects) in order to focus their efforts more efficiently, allowing them time to spend with the kids when out of the kitchen.

It’s pretty ambitious to open a dual concept restaurant as your first business. What led the both of you to this decision? 

Karen: The Loyalist came to be as we wanted to present Smyth’s culinary philosophy in a more relaxed setting. It made sense financially as well. We wouldn’t have to worry too much about having to cram Smyth with over 100 covers a night, as The Loyalist’s more casual approach allowed for higher customer turnover and would act as extra revenue.

John: We were also very concerned with the identity of the spaces, and we figured that The Loyalist would be a great love letter to the city of Chicago. As a very neighbourhood-driven city with a high Mid-West, blue-collar working population, the atmosphere of The Loyalist would be more inviting to the general public. 

How has your time at Charlie Trotter’s influenced your menus at Smyth+Loyalist?

Our work with Trotter pretty much opened our eyes; back in 2007 the sustainable and seasonal movement was fledgling, and Trotter’s approach to food was largely unexplored territory. We kept those lessons to heart when we moved to Smyth County, Virginia, and we had a blast discovering the native produce that was available. We even had wild asparagus growing in our driveway. As such we’ve dedicated most of our menu to local, seasonal produce that we get from The Farm, a 20-acre property in Bourbonnais that supplies us exclusively. Rebecca and Alan Papineau, the retired couple who run the farm, have supplied us with over 200 varieties of herbs, vegetables and fruit; we have an almost symbiotic relationship. They feed our creativity with exciting produce and we feed their love of growing.

How does being a couple help during the menu ideation process?

John: It’s wonderful as we are quite similar in the way we approach food. We bounce ideas off each other and are both very involved with menu creation. For instance the transition of flavours from savoury to sweet in our tasting menus; we discuss the intersection of flavours so that guests can have a more seamless dining experience.

Karen: We gather inspiration from different methods as well. John is very active on social media and keeps up to date on current industry trends and techniques, while I tend to focus more on the natural side of things. 

What’s a dish that was jointly created by the both of you? 

John: Our egg yolk dessert. It was created when we were just starting the restaurant. We were just introduced to the Papineaus, and they gave us some products that they had on hand, which included eggs and fermented black raspberries.

Karen: There’s much more to that story. Back when I was the only pastry chef at Trotter’s, I would always remind the savoury chefs helping me to separate egg yolks and sugar when collecting mise en place for a recipe. John was the only one who forgot. The dish was inspired by this accident; we cure the yolk for 24 hours until it’s cooked about 50 percent through, but still soft and custardy. We serve that on yoghurt meringue ‘whites’ with a molasses-flavoured syrup.

How do the two of you balance being chefs and parents?

We run our home like our kitchen. We have always believed that structure and organisation are the key to success, and we’ve gotten our daughters used to that system. Beds are made every day, dishes are cleaned every night, and the dishwasher is emptied each morning. They’ve got school in the day, and we divide and conquer our tasks at the restaurant during that time, so that we can spend more time with them at night.

Would you ever consider opening your own restaurants, separate from each other?

Never. We really enjoy working with each other, and as cliché as it sounds, we complete each other. The more time we spend together cooking and ideating, the more we get inspired by each other’s creativity. Creativity feeds our marriage and us individually.

Chef Masterclass