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John Manion
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John Manion

La Sirena Clandestina / El Che bar


    

A 20-year veteran of the restaurant scene, Manion brought Latin-local cuisine to Chicago’s West Loop when he opened La Sirena Clandestina in the summer of 2012. 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.”

 

Four years following the opening of La Sirena Clandestina, Manion embarked on a new adventure and opened El Che Bar, a love letter to his time traveling throughout Argentina. Honoring the culinary traditions of Argentina while utilizing local and seasonal ingredients, El Che Bar evokes the contemporary rhythms of Buenos Aires, filtered through a local lens. Manion serves wood-fired cuisine, al asador, on the custom-built grills and chapas in a roaring 12-foot open hearth anchoring the dining room. With a dinner menu where every dish stems from a personal story or experience, mainstays include velvety veal sweetbreads, herbed Parisian gnocchi, and grilled oysters. At El Che Bar, Manion offers an opportunity for special guests to dine at the Chef’s Counter, an intimate experience where he prepares a 5-course tasting menu as guests dine directly across from the glowing hearth and vibrant kitchen. 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 Clandestina and El Che Bar.

 

When he’s not in the kitchen, Manion likes to take a second and relax with his wife, Nicole, and dog, Tina (short for Argentina), and admits he has a soft spot for a classic caipirinha.

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