The former chef and co-owner of Cafe Marie-Jeanne — the neighborhood treasure in Humboldt Park that closed in 2020 due to the pandemic — returned to Chicago recently with a surprising new project: Uncle Bunny’s, a pop-up shack with ribs, hot dogs and Italian beef.
The cafe once offered an outstanding French-inspired, all-day menu, with one of the best croissants in the city, featuring house-made Parisian ham and caramelized Comté cheese.
The shack debuted as a pop-up at The Long Room in July with meaty and vegan Italian beefs, the long lost CMJ burger, rib frites and more. The 45-minute opening delay was nothing compared to the nearly two-year absence for the long line of patient fans.
Some knew the chef behind Uncle Bunny’s, but not the story of their return.
“I really miss Chicago, so I’ve been wanting to move back,” said Bunny, who uses a mononym and the pronouns they/them. “Where I live in Missouri, I don’t particularly enjoy the cultural climate. I got fired from a job there specifically for being transgender.”
The chef had moved to the neighboring state after Cafe Marie-Jeanne closed.
“I moved there to heal from the trauma of the restaurant closing and my marriage ending and a business deal gone very bad for us,” they said. “When I got there, I was isolated and it was really pretty, but just not the place for me to thrive.”
Uncle Bunny’s evolved from the chef sitting around in rural Missouri, but also goes back to them growing up in Texas.
“I love the culture of homemade Chicago commercials,” they said. “In Amarillo, we had the WGN affiliate TV station. I would see the Eagleman commercial, and the Victory Auto commercial, or occasionally these Chicago-style restaurant commercials.”
The vintage commercials can still be found online, somewhat similar to the low-budget, over-the-top style perfected by the character Saul Goodman in “Better Call Saul.”
The idea for the shack came from an imagined commercial for a fictional Chicago-style restaurant.
“So it’d be like, ‘Come on down to Uncle Bunny’s Spaghetti and Rib Shack! Mondays are for the kids! And for the adults, we got $2 Old Styles!’” said the chef, laughing.
Bunny started posting on TikTok.
“I was making them kind of like commercials for a restaurant, but they ended up having this leftist-like message,” they said. “And it was really fun.”
After a second job and nine months in Missouri, the chef wanted to come back to Chicago, by turning Uncle Bunny’s into a real thing with real food, as a pop-up Italian beef shack with their friends at The Long Room in Ravenswood.
“It’s weirdly like years in the making, and it doesn’t hurt that there’s a very popular TV show that’s based on a very similar concept,” Bunny said. “By the way, if anyone from ‘The Bear’ out there is reading this and wants to cast me on that show, I’m looking for work.”
Trigger warning for chefs: the hit streaming series about a chef taking over his brother’s Italian beef shack feels more about trauma and grief.
“I was really reluctant to watch ‘The Bear’ for those reasons,” Bunny said. “But my partner sent me a clip of this one scene with this really great cross talk between the character played by Ayo Edebiri and the cousin, Richie.”
The chef ended up watching the entire series in one shot.
“I thought it would make me feel bad,” they said. “And it made me feel sort of seen and very good actually.”
Ultimately ‘The Bear’ was a cathartic experience, especially while developing the menu for Uncle Bunny’s with some favorites from Cafe Marie-Jeanne.
“The burger is almost identical to the burger from CMJ,” the chef said. “And then later in the life of that restaurant, we served a vegan Italian beef called the Italian Veef.”
They sandwiched yuba (tofu skin) instead of beef, with a shiitake mushroom and Maggi seasoning dip. Otherwise, it’s identical, with sweet peppers or hot giardiniera.
“It doesn’t taste exactly the same, but it hits the exact same textural and nostalgic notes that eating a beef does and it really works,” Bunny said.
In addition to a Chicago-style hot dog and a classic Italian beef, the chef’s shack menu drew more inspiration from the spirit of the Humboldt Park cafe.
“Rib frites and smoked chicken frites, which we were doing when we went to takeout only,” they said. “It’s easy food, smoked meat and french fries, and they all fit together in this beef shack kind of thing. There’s nothing precious about any of this food.”
Uncle Bunny’s may be easy for the eater, but it is decidedly not for the chef. They don’t use food service fries, and still bake their own distinctive burger buns, much like on “The Bear.” When pressed about the prep for the pop-up, they proved it far more complicated than any shack cook might expect.
“I cut well over 100 pounds of potatoes by myself,” Bunny said. “And then sent them through the whole process of making the fries, which is difficult when you don’t have a professional kitchen to work in. You’re asking friends to give you a corner of a freezer or place in a walk-in or let me use your fry cutter.”
At one point, they had food prepared across the city in Logan Square, North Center and Bridgeport, including pork baby back ribs rubbed with a custom blend by Epic Spices, which were entrusted to another chef.
“My friend, Hipolito, who runs a little barbecue company that’s out of Bridgeport called Slow Motion for Meat, texted me,” Bunny said. “He’s like, ‘I saw you’re in town. I saw you’re doing ribs. Let me smoke your ribs, you know, for science.’ This guy does barbecue like it’s his life. And if I was going to trust anyone to smoke my meats for me, besides myself, it’s him.”
Bunny dropped off all their ribs, chickens and barbecue spice.
“The Long Room staff has been great at helping bring this to life,” the chef said. “They made a couple of really super good cocktails just for the event. One of them was like a cocktail I drink in my home a lot, but the superstar is this like clarified Dreamsicle milk punch that is just outstanding.”
The bar’s kitchen is called the Sidecar, which hosts resident chefs.
“There’s a full-time pizza joint there called Bad Johnny’s right now, and the pizza is very good,” Bunny said. “And Food from the Soul by chef Kristian Madere with New Orleans food, and I had a muffuletta there that blew my mind.”
When asked what it would take for Uncle Bunny’s to launch a perpetuating pop-up or possibly a permanent shack, the chef paused.
“That’s a hard one,” they said. “I’m planning on moving back to Chicago at the end of the summer. What I would need to do this as a permanent thing are the resources to run the business in a way that still affords me to have a life that I can enjoy.”
That means not working what’s been normalized as a chef’s life.
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“I have become really accustomed to not working 15 hours a day, six days a week,” said the chef. “And it turns out I really, really love that kind of life.”
That also means offering what’s not been normalized for restaurant workers.
“I would need to have the kind of support that would allow me to have employees that I can give insurance to, that I can pay a wage that makes sense,” Bunny said. “That I could be able to afford for them to unionize.
“And that is a place that we really haven’t gotten to in the restaurant industry yet. But that being said — when I’m not shooting for my new acting job on ‘The Bear’ — if anyone out there with money wants to throw it at me and be part of a hot dog-centric labor revolution, I’m in .”
Meanwhile, Uncle Bunny’s will return to The Long Room on Aug. 21 and 22 — first come, first served.
1612 W. Irving Park Road, instagram.com/unclebunnys
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