Faces of 53rd Street: Tony Winters of Ancien

Hyde Park’s Ancien is becoming known in the neighborhood for its fast and friendly bike repair service; selection of Bianchi, Reid, Ritte, Scott, and Tern bikes; and wide range of cycling accessories, but it’s also a great option for a quick cup of Big Shoulders coffee and delicious all-day dining and catering.

Tucked under the Metra station at 1558 E. 53rd Street, Ancien provides a welcoming, light-filled setting to enjoy its menu of omelettes, waffles, breakfast flat breads, sandwiches, salads, soups, fresh pastas, and turkey, veggie, and salmon burgers. The selections are all prepared by Ancien’s inspirational chef, Chicago native Tony Winters, who just two years ago thought he might never be able to cook again.

After suffering a brain aneurysm and a stroke, the 35-year-old Winters lost all feeling on the right side of his body. His entire family banded together in prayer for Winters, the eldest of 16 children. His aunt’s pastor even came all the way to Chicago from Bolivar, Tennessee, to join them. Eventually, with a lot of hard work and determination, combined with Winters’ unfailingly positive attitude, he was able to get back into the kitchen.

We recently met with Winters to learn more about how he became a professional chef and what brought him to 53rd Street.

How did you first get interested in cooking?

“My earliest cooking experiences were in my grandmother’s kitchen, here on the South Side of Chicago.  I didn’t have a choice – she put me to work cleaning the greens and peeling sweet potatoes – but I grew to like it.  Spending this time with my grandmother making family meals definitely got me interested in cooking, but it wasn’t until I started the culinary arts program at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy(located at 31st Street and King Drive), that I really got serious about cooking as a potential career.

I had wanted to be in the auto mechanics program, but there wasn’t an opening, and the culinary arts lecturer, who was the executive chef at the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel, told me I might as well make the best of it since I was there. I ended up winning a scholarship to Kendall College, then located in Evanston, through C-CAP(Careers through Culinary Arts Program). This was a crazy time for me – I was cooking breakfast in the Dunbar school cafeteria in the mornings, I was on the football team and practicing in the afternoons, and I was also commuting back and forth to Kendall College in Evanston from the South Side – along with taking care of my 15 younger brothers and sisters. I was offered an apprenticeship at the O’Hare Hilton when I was just 15 years old.

I started out washing dishes, and I eventually became the senior sous chef—in two separate stints at the Hilton over a total of 12 years. After the first two years, I resigned and worked on the opening team for the House of Blues and ESPN Zone in Chicago, where I met Scott (Scott McIntosh, co-owner of Ancien). I later went back to Hilton for ten years, until I was recruited to be the executive chef at the Hyatt Regency Lisle.”

How did you start working at Ancien?

“I had worked with Scott on the opening team for the House of Blues years ago, and he happened to run into my brother. He mentioned he was looking for a chef and was trying to get in touch with me. I started working at Ancien in February of 2016, and I’m very happy to be here.”

What’s a typical day at work like for you?

“I work at Ancien five days a week. In the mornings I come in, do my prep work, make soups, make breakfast, place all the food and produce orders, make lunch, and experiment with new menu items when I have a chance. I prepare all the baked goods and handle the catering orders. Our catering menu is great and we are really trying to expand this service in the community.

When the store is busy I also help out with the bikes. I talk to the customers to get a feel for what people in the neighborhood want to see on the menu. That’s how I came up with the black bean burger and the salmon burger.”

What do you like best about being a chef?

“I love bringing people joy with my cooking. Happy food is food that will make you smile just thinking about it. I love cooking all types of food – Italian and Southern are my favorites – but what I really want to do is cook happy food.  Where there’s happy food, there are happy people.”

Who does the cooking in your house?

“My wife and I have six kids between us – three girls and three boys – and I usually do most of the cooking. I make a lot of Southern food for the family, but I’ll also sneak in Italian food, like spaghetti or Eggplant Parmesan, which the kids loved until they figured out it had eggplant in it.”

Where are your favorite local places to go when you’re not working?

“I’m a dad of six and commute to my current home in Hammond, Indiana, so I don’t have a lot of free time, but I do shop at The Silver Room whenever I have a chance.”

What is the best thing about working in Hyde Park?

“I once lived in Hyde Park with my aunt at 53rd Street and Harper Avenue, and there have been a lot of changes in the neighborhood since then. I really enjoy walking in Hyde Park, and feeling the community vibe with all the people that you meet.  It’s great to get to know the people that I’m making happy with my cooking. I wave at a lot of people as they walk past Ancien, and eventually get them to come in, try us out, and become regulars.”

Ancien is open Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Including Winters, it is staffed by seven employees, including three from the South Side.

Ancien Chef Tony Winters – photo by Luis Burgos
Ancien’s Veggie Burger – photo by Luis Burgos