I first met David Bryson’s smiling, friendly face beneath his trademark fedora, gently bobbing his head to skater punk and doling out boxes from The Southern Mac & Cheese Truck. Back then he was going by the name “Noodles” – on account of his pasta bake repertoire – and he became the first food truck operator to recognize me as a regular, a fact which both delighted me and prompted the thought that maybe I should be packing my lunch more often.
When I next meet Bryson, it’s in his new space on Damen Avenue in the North Center neighborhood. The front door to the shop is locked to the public and he’s fedora-less, but Bryson is possibly even more cheery with me as his audience of one. The reason is no mystery: I’m here to chat not to “Noodles,” but to “Johnny C.” and we aren’t talking up The Southern, but his recently resurrected, pseudo-eponymous café and delivery service, Johnny Casserole.
The core concept is simple. Bryson and partners Tim O’Neill and Marc ‘Sparki’ Dufour prepare fresh, never frozen one dish dinners big enough for a family and deliver them across the city ready to bake. Sides, salads, and even breakfast bakes round out the menu.
But Johnny Casserole also serves as a sit-down restaurant. Those interested in a bite for lunch can buy single serving sizes to eat on the back patio, and the dining room – a former café – is equipped to sell a full espresso menu. “I always thought of Johnny Casserole as small,” Bryson tells me. “It’d be a little joint… maybe have coffee, a couple tables, but mostly it would be pick-up and delivery.”
The seed of Johnny Casserole grew out of Bryson’s interest in street food. He was disappointed in Chicago’s dearth of options and was one of the first to pursue a food truck in the city. However, as the recession set in, securing the start-up loans proved too much trouble.
He next jokingly suggested a supper club. “Talk about slow food,” Bryson laughs. “We’ll take it to the next level. Pick something out and wait 45 minutes.” But those around him thought the idea was less crazy. One friend suggested the twist that would stick. “What if you deliver casseroles?”
In 2010, Bryson started Johnny Casserole version 1.0. Working out of shared space in Kitchen Chicago alongside the likes of 5411 Empanadas and Tamale Spaceship, the business lived up to the tagline “First casserole delivery in the Midwest!” by debuting frequent, fresh and hot meals. Good press followed – JC was featured on Steve Dolinsky’s Hungry Hound – but ultimately the work load got to be too much. “I can’t do this myself,” Bryson thought, and the idea “got tabled there.” The project went quiet and, answering a job ad, Mr. Johnny C. traded slinging his own hot dishes for those of The Southern.
In 2012, Bryson got a tip on a new kitchen space. Johnny Casserole had never left his mind, but the cost of a new restaurant build – or even a remodel – had discouraged him from looking and he approached this location with the same pessimism. Surprisingly, though, instead of a potential money pit, Bryson found a fully functional kitchen, abandoned and ready to run on day one. “Is that a pizza oven?” he mused on the first tour. “I can fit a lot of casseroles in there!”
The opportunity was perfect and Bryson jumped back into self-employment for Johnny Casserole 2.0. David locked in longtime friend Sparki as a full-time partner and found Tim, a recent meet through a mutual friend, to round out the team.
The day I stop by to chat is the first day the paper has come off the front windows. Curious neighbors passing by peer in and, if they linger, David excuses himself to pop out and introduce the concept. Sparki and Tim provide a bit of a show slicing cucumbers and making basil chiffonade, while stuffing foil baking pans with cheese. Though the dining space hadn’t opened yet, the team is testing recipes and preparing deliveries.
All three partners are veterans of the service industry and, as some casseroles warm up in the oven, the first thing I notice is their abundance of hospitality. Tim O’Neill meets me at the door and offers coffee. As I settle in, we chat about his days as a fish monger at Dirk’s Seafood, modern cuisine, and his dream of working with fresh deep trench Mediterranean prawns. Sparki Dufour, grabbing plates and silverware, likewise speaks of former gigs. He was a bartender for much of his career – easily belied by his inviting and friendly conversational banter – and his resume includes Trio, Carlucci’s and Ditka’s here in Chicago and Le Cirque in New York City. He later reveals that he turned down a post with Toby Maloney (of The Violet Hour) at new NYC hotspot Pouring Ribbons to partner with Bryson.
Bryson pulls a few casseroles for me to try as he goes over his own resume. Trained in theater, he worked in off-loop productions before settling into voice-over work. (“If you’ve listened to the radio in Chicago, you’ve probably heard me.”) He returned to school at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago and used that to land a string jobs from the now defunct Speakeasy Supper Club in Rogers Park to Atwood Café and South Water Kitchen downtown.
He explains his philosophy as a continuation of Americana. “About every culture has a casserole tradition… which is awesome.” But, he continues, “we tend to think about American casseroles… lasagna, chicken pot pie, Shepard’s pie. You can even think of Jambalaya as a casserole; it’s a one-pot dish, isn’t it?”
And with that, we launch into a tuna noodle casserole, staple of many an American childhood. Large chunks of tuna and flavorful cremini mushrooms match with traditional peas and not-so-traditional artichoke hearts for a dish worthy of its name, the Ain’t Your Momma’s. Topped with French-fried onions, it has the heartiness of home, but it’s a good step up from canned fish and Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom.
Next, we sample the house mac and cheese, the For Your Thighs Only. On this day, the group is testing out new ideas and, as he plates it, Bryson decides to garnish with a handful of the thin basil slices Sparki and Tim prepared earlier. Simple but satisfying, this version is creamy and dripping with a thick cheddar cheese sauce. O’Neill passes (“I’ve had mac and cheese for three nights in a row now,” he groans) but the rest of us spoon up servings, thighs be damned.
Bryson invites me to try a final creation, and introduces it with a Mike Ditka quote. “In life,” he says, channeling Da Coach, “there are teams called Smith, and teams called Grabowski. We’re Grabowskis.” Ditka was celebrating the tough working class – and especially Polish – heritage of the city with his quote about the 1985 Super Bowl-winning Bears, and Bryson carries that same sentiment through to a dish he calls The Big Grabowski. It’s a mash-up of egg noodles, kielbasa and sauerkraut, topped with scallions, Swiss cheese and rye breadcrumbs. Quite aptly, Bryson subtitles it “an ode to Milwaukee Avenue,” and – maybe due to my own Polish ancestry or maybe due to just plain deliciousness – I scarf this one down with abandon. Seek this one out.
This past Monday was opening day for Johnny Casserole’s dining room and the North Center neighborhood is embracing the hot-dish diehards. “This neighborhood,” Bryson says, “is new families with little babies. That’s my bread and butter.” Quality, locally-sourced and homemade meals that are no hassle to prepare strike a chord with busy parents. “There are a whole lotta strollers… and I think [pointing] ‘customer, customer, customer.’” At the same time, though, the heartiness of a casserole makes it appealing to the decidedly less paternal. “Guys getting together to watch the Blackhawks… Those are my customers, too,” Bryson adds.
Regardless of which camp you fall into (or neither), Johnny Casserole has a dish for you. The next time you’re mighty hungry, give them a call and have a little hot dish love delivered.
All photos courtesy of the Johnny Casserole Facebook Page.