RIP, Charlie Orr, a Chicago treasure. This is a piece I wrote for the Sun-Times Group's Elite Magazine in April 2009.
Convivial Cajun from a Culinary Artist: Charlie Orr’s Maple Tree Inn
In Japan, if a citizen makes an especially important contribution to society or culture, that citizen is often designated a national living treasure. It’s a pity that America—and Chicago, in particular—doesn’t designate our own cultural and culinary gems as civic treasures because we’ve been blessed with so many.
In our neck of the woods, an easy inductee would be Charlie Orr whose Maple Tree Inn has been serving up sublime, full-flavored Cajun food for over 30 years. The effusive, jovial Orr is like a pied piper of good eating and good living, leading his family, friends and fans of the restaurant along a bucolic path of savory delights. A bon vivant, Orr appears to derive as much pleasure from cooking, eating and living as he does sharing his joy and inspiring others.
So how did a Chicago native begin cooking Cajun food so many miles from its origins in Louisiana’s bayous and the quaint rues of New Orleans—and this years before Paul Prudhomme and other Big Easy chefs made the cuisine as seemingly familiar to Americans as hot dogs?
The story is as meandering and full of happenstance as the Louisiana bayous themselves.
In 1975, Orr decided to take over a restaurant at 107th and Western. For five years, the self-trained chef and restaurateur played hopscotch across an imaginary culinary map of the world, with stops in southern and northern Italy, France and different spots in our own country. While experimenting with different cuisines and learning how to cook via videotaped shows of Julia Childs and trial and error, Orr finally stumbled on the cuisine for which he had an affinity.
Suffering the morning after a New Year’s Eve celebration, Orr wanted to find some menudo, Mexico’s unofficial hangover cure. Instead, he heard local TV reporter Warner Saunders mention red eye gravy which intrigued him. Venturing to the local library, he was pointed to a cookbook of classic Louisiana recipes by a helpful librarian who looked at him with a sly grin, he explains.
“What’s a big white guy like you want with a recipe for red eye gravy?” the librarian, who happened to be a Mississippi native, asked.
Little did she realize the instrumental role she would play in helping Orr find his raison d'être. Orr claims he read the cookbook in about four hours, turning to his wife when he’d finished.
“I think I found it,” he told her. “What I’ve been looking for.”
And within two weeks, Maple Tree Inn was serving Cajun food.
From gumbo to blackened chicken, the restaurant’s menu grew, ebbing and flowing as Orr explored and experimented. A Renaissance man, the novice Cajun chef endlessly digested experiences (oftentimes literally) and information which were ultimately used in the restaurant. Travels to southern France a few decades ago resulted in the creation of fixed price menus, while years worth of restaurant reviews by William Grimes of the New York Times emphasized the importance of customer service.
Currently, Orr keeps abreast of dining trends, incorporating many of his discoveries onto the menu, but giving them a decidedly Cajun spin. Pork belly, a recently popular “rediscovered” food which appears on many a Chicago restaurant’s menu, is spice-rubbed, while the Italian classic arancini, basically petite rice balls stuffed with cheese or meat, are created with etoufee risotto and crawfish. Shanks from small pigs are brined, smoked, and served plain or with a barbeque sauce glaze.
The tireless chef continues to create new dishes. Though he’s been improvising, creating and perfecting food for thirty-four years, the now full-blown, seasoned Cajun chef hungers to create the next perfect dish. Recently Orr has been working on a stuffed pork belly filled with sausage meat and creole spices. Having tried numerous versions of the dish, the perfectionist still hasn’t nailed it. But he’s in no hurry.
“It’s getting closer,” he explains. “But I’m not frantic. What we’re doing now is good.”
Maple Tree Inn has its so-called critics. The menu is ever evolving, so a sublime dish a diner experiences on one visit may not be prepared again for a year—or ever. And the restaurant is unforgiving when it comes to diners discovering that Cajun food can be flavored with unfamiliar spices or be just too hot: refunds or re-orders for either of these reasons are generally a no-go. Ever reasonable, Orr offers a compromise.
“I encourage diners to try a dish if they’re not sure. We always offer a taste.” But once a diner orders a dish, it’s theirs (unless, of course, the dish was not properly prepared—a rarity at the institution).
Orr’s passion for food is duplicated or at least mirrored when it comes to eating’s perfect and essential complement, drinking. Beer is probably as essential to Cajun food as spice, and spicy food very nearly demands a refreshing beer to cleanse, sooth and invigorate the palate. And so it is that the Inn offers an impressive 26 beers on tap, and nary a one from the big name brewers which the outspoken chef refers to as, well, something to do with a horse…
While the Maple Tree Inn emphasizes beer over wine, it does offer some special cocktails, such as a not-so traditional New Orleans hurricane made with real juices (and not a mix), a Creole Voodoo Zombie concocted with juices and three rums, and a madras mixed with mango rum, and orange and cranberry juices. A decent selection of well-priced wines is also available.
Orr also carries a social conscience into his restaurant, serving fair trade coffee and using many pure or all-natural products.
“It’s been a labor of love,” he says of his 34 years of cooking and hosting satisfied diners at the Maple Tree Inn.
Responding to an article he’d read that revealed that eighty percent of Americans don’t like their jobs, Orr marvels. Waxing philosophical with shades of the political, Orr theorizes that “if more people did the jobs they love to do, the country wouldn’t be in the shape it’s in.”
To him, making money isn’t the point. “I’m happy and content…it was never about the money.”
Does the current recession worry Orr, who is watching as other restaurants struggle with their bottom lines? Not really. The upbeat, restaurateur has created a number of recession-busting meals.
The first? An old fashioned Blue Plate special. Served on Wednesday and Thursday nights, the $14.95 special includes a choice of soup (Cajun or seafood gumbo or shrimp bisque), one of two entrées (which vary), peanut slaw, smothered okra and bread pudding with whiskey sauce. On the same nights, the restaurant offers BBQ ribs and fries for a mere $12.95 (dine in, only). And then there’s the French-inspired, nightly $22 fixed price meal of an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert.
“I want to make it easy for people to save a couple bucks and eat out,” he says.
Visitors to the restaurant are likely to see the jovial chef who likes to check in with his customers—albeit for brief moments and only when the kitchen experiences a lull.
“I’ve always believed you have to get out and see people,” he insists. “You can’t stay holed up in kitchen.”
Orr can’t stress enough what to him is the most important aspect of his life’s passion and pastime.
“The big goal is to make sure when someone walks through the door that they know we’re happy they decided to dine here.”
And whether you talk to Orr over the phone or over a table full of Cajun food, or you never even meet him but simply channel him through his well-executed Louisiana cuisine, you’ll undoubtedly feel wanted—and want to return. And you won’t be alone. After all, the Maple Tree Inn hasn’t opened its doors to Chicago metro area residents for 34 years without serving top-notch food and making diners feel welcome.
“It’s a passion,” Orr reminds me.
But I’d already figured that out.