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Thursday, Oct. 2, 2003 02:20 pm

Soiree’s chef

Cody Brooks started as a dishwasher

Luke "Cody" Brooks

Luke "Cody" Brooks is like a lot of chefs. He is passionate about food and talks about his latest creations with the enthusiasm of a new parent.

But Brooks never attended a culinary class. In fact, he dropped out of high school to work full-time and only later earned his diploma. He learned his trade under the watchful eye of experienced veterans, climbing the ladder from dishwasher to chef. Most surprisingly of all, at age 21 he's well on his way to becoming a seasoned professional in the restaurant business.

Brooks started at 14, washing dishes and bussing tables at the Old Luxenburg. He held various jobs at several area restaurants, including Indigo, Sebastian's, Dempsey's, and Bizou in Decatur. He even cooked ravioli for James Gandolfini, star of The Sopranos, during a short stint in Nashville.

"The first night I was on a grill, I put out 248 plates," he says. "I was 16 years old. I got the feel for it."

He was already a sous chef, training under chef Sean Keeley at Indigo, when he was 17 years old. He calls Keeley his mentor.

His hands-on training, coupled with his natural talent and work ethic are what landed him the job at Soiree, where he's been since it opened more than a year ago. And his skills in the kitchen are a big reason why Soiree was recently voted "Best New Restaurant" by the readers of Illinois Times in its annual survey.

Brooks is not only responsible for the food--he even helped owner Curtis Hudson with some of the construction getting the restaurant ready for its opening.

"I identify with him--he's passionate about food," says Hudson. "I've been in the business for 25 years, and he's probably the most naturally talented person I've seen. He's got all the right points of the equation. He's a really good kid to work with."

"I've always had a good work ethic," says Brooks. While most of his contemporaries are just entering the work force, his seven years in the business have only further enhanced his dream of one day opening his own restaurant.

"My favorite thing about cooking is that it's the only job where you use every one of your senses," he says. He also thrives on the pressures of the job--he says that putting out 120 plates of good food in a single night is deeply gratifying.

Most of the dinner items on Soiree's menu are his creation: rotisserie chicken; pan roasted pork chops; artichoke heart ravioli; salmon with potato puree and eggplant caviar; and sesame encrusted halibut. He likes to take traditional dishes and turn them on their ear--literally. Take, for example, his twice-baked potato: Instead of slicing it open and placing it on a plate, he stuffs it with goat cheese, caramelized onions, and garlic, and then stands it up on one end to make a greater impression.

This fascination with what he calls "the deconstruction of a dish" says a lot about Brooks. He looks at food through the eyes of an artist or engineer. In his hands, the classic Italian salad, Caprese Nuevo--usually a layered display of tomatoes and cheese--becomes something new by inserting the basil, balsamic vinegar, and buffalo mozzarella inside a peeled tomato.

When he's not at the restaurant, Brooks spends time with his girlfriend and his dog. He likes to skateboard--and to cook. He mentions the dish he made his girlfriend for lunch (a seared pork tenderloin seasoned with red Hawaiian salt, finished with a wine and vinegar glaze, and served with pasta, tomatoes, and roasted garlic) as if it's as simple as fixing a grilled cheese sandwich.

"I went from dishwasher to cook," he says. "Now I think of myself as a doctor and psychologist," with duties that include bandaging a colleague's sliced finger or uplifting the spirits of someone who showed up for work in a bad mood. He says the restaurant's staff is like a family and maintaining a positive environment is an important part of keeping the kitchen running smoothly.

"I just like it," Brooks says. "Some nights it's tough, and I think, 'I could be selling women's shoes and have no pressure.' " He laughs. "But I don't think I could do anything else. I consider myself a lifer in the food business."

The party's owner
Curtis Hudson is two for two

Curtis Hudson must be doing something right. The owner of Soiree and Cafe Brio has won the "Best New Restaurant" award in the Illinois Times reader survey twice--once for each of his restaurants. Cafe Brio, which won the award when it opened in 1997, is still a popular downtown eatery, this year taking home the awards for "Best Brunch" and "Best Salsa and Chips." His latest venture, Soiree, which means "a gathering of friends," won this year's award.

Hudson not only owns the establishment--he conceptualized every detail of the unique space, from its expansive wall of windows to its weathered pine floor. He even did the construction himself. The rich gold walls, sapphire blue ceiling, elegant black-and-white photographs, and glossy black furniture all reflect the former artist's flair. Panels of red and purple velvet add punches of textured color. "It's like a large art project," he says. "It evolves."

Hudson calls Soiree's first year "typical": "We've been very well received. Business has been doing very well."

Plans are underway to add outside dining this fall. And opening a third restaurant is in the back of his mind. The bottom of the restaurant's receipt makes a promise: "Cafe Brio . . . Soiree Bistro . . . more to come." If only he could find the time.

When he asked his wife where they should celebrate their anniversary, he suggested going to dinner in St. Louis. "She looked at me like I was crazy. 'Soiree, of course,' she said. That really meant a lot to me--she wanted to come here." Despite his 16-hour work days, Hudson explains why he readily agreed: "We never get to enjoy it like you do, as a customer."

They're in for a treat.

Soiree Bistro is open for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch. It's located in the Gables at 2824 Plaza Drive (217-546-4660).

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