A Turkish Chef Wants to Ignite an Aegean Fire in River North

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Onur Okan’s journey to executive chef took him from his home of Izmir, Turkey on the Aegean coast to some of Chicago’s finest restaurants. Soon, he’ll share some of his most cherished childhood memories with Downtown Chicago where next month he’ll open Kor, an upcoming River North restaurant run by Manish and Rina Mallick, the owners of Rooh Chicago, Bar Goa, and Monarch & Lion.

Okan says he’s grown a lot since arriving in America; he credits chef Grant Achatz as why he moved to Chicago, moved by Alinea’s three-Michelin-starred success. Though he downplays the experience, he did work at Alinea for four months in 2018 alongside his former idol. He’s also worked with Curtis Duffy at two-starred Ever, at Andros Taverna, as well as at one-starred Claudia, a Bucktown restaurant that closed in 2023.

Pita with a bunch of spreads and pickles.
Meze Sofra, an assortment of spreads and pickles to start a meal.
Kor/Austin Handler

Okan is ready to make a name for himself in what the Mallicks describe as “Aegean woodfire.” “Kor” is Turkish for ember and the restaurant, 127 W. Huron Street — the former Dolce Italian, and part of the Godfrey Hotel Chicago — features both a wood-burning oven and a grill. Okan talks about using apple wood and oak for smoke and burning coconut charcoal from Cuba to give seafood a unique taste. Some of the fish will come from Spain and Japan; Okan says he’ll also use domestic halibut. The chef has visions of whole-roasted turbot and Turkish cold fish made with kampachi loin and served with fermented mango. They’ll dry-age fish collars and other seafood on the premises alongside fluffy pita fired in the oven. Okan talks about having substantial vegetarian options like wood-fired peppers. The meat-free crowd won’t be subjected to a sad salad or a pitiful pasta. Braised artichokes and dolmades are possibilities: “Beyond Meat — what is that?” Okan says, critiquing processed meat substitutes. “It looks like cheap burger meat from Jewel.”

“The problem with the chefs and restaurants is that they just want to cook for themselves,” Okan adds. The bar will have its own bar bites menu and plenty of wines and cocktails. The Mallicks are banking that River North will see a rebirth in 2024, with more happy hour customers and increased traffic as the world heals from the pandemic.

Kor gives Okan a license to cross borders for inspiration. He says he learned to properly make toum, the garlic condiment, while in Lebanon from a Tunisian chef. Fermented mango, for example, is big in Israel. Okan also swears by Palestinian olive oil and says he’s conscious of the war and political conflicts and wants to take care in how he presents his food from the names, the ingredients, and to the proper plates: “Every culture has a way to eat it,” Okan says.

Okan notes how Galit has elevated Middle Eastern cuisine in Chicago and how Shaya did the same in New Orleans, just like Zahav accomplished in Philadelphia. While seafood and veggies are stars, River North is a tourist-heavy part of town. So there will be beef. They won’t dry age the beef as they’ll do with the seafood, the beef will be wet aged.

Rooh Chicago is one of the city’s best Indian restaurants, and this is some crossover between Okan’s Turkish heritage and the Mallicks, who are Indian. For example, the ovens are decorated with nazar, the so-called evil eye, a myth that’s factored in several cultures, including Indian and Turkish.

Manish Mallick unleashes the mother of all dad jokes, saying that hearing Okan speak and work — he cooked in Monarch & Lion’s kitchen — showed that Kor’s chef shares the couple’s “core values.” The Mallicks intended to open a pan-Asian restaurant in the space, but plans with personnel didn’t work out and they turned to Okan. Beyond ensuring the dishes taste delicious, the chef says he’s mindful of operations and finances. He wants to give the restaurant and its staff the best chance to survive. Seeing restaurants close and withholding paychecks from workers irks Okan; he doesn’t want to put his colleagues in that position.

Last year, the Mallicks visited Okan’s hometown, Turkey’s third-largest city. Rina Mallick brought home ideas for decor, to create a breezy escape from Downtown Chicago. But what impressed her was Okan’s skill and genuineness. His childhood memories are behind the restaurant. She says this isn’t a manufactured concept: “This comes from the heart,” Rina Mallick says.

Kor, 127 W. Huron Street, planned for a March opening.

The Godfrey Hotel Chicago

127 West Huron Street, , IL 60654 (312) 649-2000 Visit Website

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