Any great restaurant concept shouldn’t just stick to the script, according to Chef John Manion. “You have to let it unfold organically.” That’s exactly how La Sirena Clandestina came to fruition.
A 20-year veteran of the restaurant scene, Manion took the plunge opening his own spot in the summer of 2012, after a weekend pop-up serving “beachy Brazilian food” in the former Dodo restaurant space morphed into this new Latin concept.
The name, which means “hidden mermaid,” derives from Manion’s desire to create the dark and slightly mysterious atmosphere of a hidden spot one might stumble upon at a beach somewhere tropical. The chef drew ideas for the menu and concept at La Sirena from growing up in Brazil and his subsequent travels to South America and the Caribbean. “I take inspiration from Brazil and Argentina, but La Sirena is so much more than a Brazilian restaurant,” Manion says. “There are a few things on the menu we stick to script on—like pao de queijo, moqueca, and chicken hearts, which are homages to my childhood in Brazil. But it’s a little, independent joint with a lot of influences.”
Detroit-raised Manion and his family moved to São Paulo, Brazil, when he was just 8 years old. He spent the next five years soaking in the culture and food of a place that was very far from home. “I had a culinary epiphany at a very young age being exposed to so many new things,” he says. “Since then, I’ve always really romanticized food, cooking, and travel.”
Manion always felt most at home in restaurant kitchens, where he’d worked since age 15 with his first job; however, he went on to study English and political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee and took a job at a public relations firm in Washington, DC, after college. After a short time, he felt compelled to pursue his love of cooking full-time, so he moved to Chicago to attend the College of Culinary Arts at Kendall College. While in school, he trained under Chef Dean Zanella at Grappa, and he landed the opening chef position at Lowcountry restaurant Savannah’s after earning his culinary certificate. The chef was lured back to the Nuevo Latino realm, assuming the role at Churrascos and not long after that, as executive chef of legendary Latino restaurant Mas, at which he spent the next nine years of his career. He then worked as executive chef at Branch 27 for a year before focusing on opening La Sirena.
When he’s not in the kitchen or planning his next restaurant, a new concept to open in 2015, Manion admits he’s got a soft spot for a classic caipirinha.