Interview and portrait by Kyle Bice
Cleetus Friedman is the incredibly creative and always smiling Executive Chef at Fountainhead and Bar on Buena in Chicago. He has a long and interesting history in the food and craft beer business, as well as being a writer and improviser. He is a consummate culinary artist.
Friedman is also well known throughout Chicago for creating interesting and flavorful craft beer collaborations with a variety of breweries from all across the US. If you visit Fountainhead, you’re sure to find a few of these on tap at any given time. He is also helping start up a new cider bar called The Northman less than a mile away from Fountainhead in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.
As a regular at Fountainhead as well as their sister bar, Bar on Buena, I often get to bend Cleetus’s ear or he gets to bend mine. We often talk about beer, food, art and community. Being an artist, I’m always fascinated to know what makes other people creative, what drives them to sacrifice their time and energy for their craft.
Cleetus was kind enough to answer some questions for me and sit for a portrait session.
KB: Where do you draw your inspiration from when it comes to the food you create for each of your restaurants?
CF: First and foremost I am inspired by the season. What is fresh, what is available? I try to create unique dishes as well as create different takes on classic dishes. Trying to constantly push myself and reinvent myself on a daily basis keeps my job exciting. I am also inspired by music, and my colleagues.
KB: Let’s talk beer collaborations. You have a long history of working with a variety of craft breweries all around the country to create collaboration beers. What is the impetus for these collaborations? Do you seek out breweries with a beer recipe in mind? What’s the process like?
CF: After 5 years of brewing and over 40 beers in my portfolio, I have had a good sense of what certain brewers like to brew. When I come up with an idea, I typically have a good idea of who I want to brew it with. It’s sort of like writing a screenplay when you have an actor in mind, versus having auditions to fill the roll. Both scenarios still exist, but lately I have an idea of what I want to do and with whom.
KB: Last year I got a chance to attend a beer dinner that you and Fred Bueltmann, from New Holland Brewing, hosted at Fountainhead. I was impressed, not only with the food itself but also with the pairings at every course. There seems to be a delicate balance to the artistry of plating a fantastic looking meal, getting all of the flavors just right, serving everything at the perfect temperature and on top of all that, you have to find the right beers to compliment the flavors. When you construct a beer dinner like this what does your process look like? Do you start with the beer first or the food?
CF: Doing beverage pairing dinners is one of my most favorite parts of my job. Most times I approach the dinner by tasting the beverages and deciding on what flavor profile I’d like to accent/compliment with the dish. At that point, I turn to what is available and go from there.
KB: Fountainhead is expanding very soon to include the Fountainhead Market as well as a cider bar called Northman. What can you tell us about those?
CF: Fountainhead market is slated to open in April. It is designed to feature all the unique things to Fountainhead, but to go. Our private label single barrels, beer collaborations, limited release beers, and great wines. Also, there will be packaged goods to pair with and accent these items. In the front of the market will be a quick grab and go with prepared foods of mine, sandwiches, chips, and non-alcoholic beverages.
The Northman is a cider pub. With over 100 ciders from around the world on draft, bottle, and can, the menu will be focused on French/English bistro pub fare.
KB: What’s next for Cleetus Friedman? Are there any other projects in the works?
CF: All of these things, in addition to the Bar on Buena, keep me busy. Very busy. I am working on “Crafted by Cleetus,” a line of retail products, that will be available at Fountainhead Market.
KB: Final question, what does art mean to you?
CF: Art comes in so many forms. Ultimately, to me, it’s the expression of yourself through a chosen medium. Music, painting, acting, cooking, to name a few. Chicago is so full of all of these forms of expression. It’s the greatest city in the country
You can find Cleetus at: