During a recent conversation with Windy City Times, LondonHouse Executive Chef Liz Sweeney revealed several aspects of herselfall coming together to show a complex and open individual.
For example, she was quick to flash a smile and can be quite gregariousespecially when reminiscing about some facets of the journeys (physical and emotional) that she and her wife have taken over the past few years.
As for that physical trek, it has taken Sweeney to various places throughout the country.
Originally from North Dakota, Sweeney began her culinary career by studying at Portland's Western Culinary Institute. She then studied the culinary arts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She later continued her education at Chicago's Roosevelt University, obtaining a master's degree in hospitality and tourism management.
Professionally, Sweeney worked as a sous chef at Chicago spots Cafe Ba Ba Reeba and Mon Ami Gabi before becoming executive chef at The Burger Point and culinary director at The Art Institutes. In 2018, she and her wife, June, decided to go to Hawaii after Sweeney was offered the chef de cuisine position at Merriman's Hawaii. "We wanted to do something in a different locale," Sweeney told Windy City Times. "My wife is a social worker and, at the time, she worked as a medical social worker. She saw a lot, observing all the secondary trauma. She's got a great heart, but we thought it was time for a change. It's such a nice, chill atmosphere therealmost healing."
However, that stay only lasted a year, as LondonHouse Chicago offered Sweeney a spot as executive chef. "June's mom, who's in Houston, was diagnosed with Parkinson's, and we were just too far in Hawaii in case something happened," Sweeney said. "I didn't know anyone in Houston. The past two and a half years, we were going back and forth between Houston and Chicago. (June moved back to Chicago last October, so the couple is finally back together.)
Like with practically every other business that caters to the public, the COVID pandemic resulted in a shutdown for LondonHousejust months after Sweeney became executive chef. "We reopened in June of 2020 and there were, obviously, limited restrictions," she said. "Everything happens for a reason, and this is a fantastic opportunity. Plus, Chicago is a beautiful city, even though it's go, go, go."
Regarding her wife, Sweeney revealed how they met: "It was Dollar Drink Night at [onetime Chicago nightclub] Spin, in 2008. My friend Tim likes to take me out the day before my birthday. When he told me where he was taking me, I said, 'Oh, God. I can already feel the hangover.' Then toward last call, she and I met and hit it off. She had this twinkle in her eye. I know it sounds cheesy, but it was like time slowed down. We both say we're both very lucky.
"We also like to do the same things. We go biking together and she runs my [butt] around on the tennis court. I don't think I would have picked it up if we hadn't moved to Hawaii; they're really competitive here in Chicago."
Sweeney also revealed other traits during the conversation. For example, she is a woman of caution: She still wears masks inside elevators because, as she put it, "you don't know where other people have been, and I don't want to endanger my employees." (In all honesty, this writer agrees with her.) She hasn't even seen her favorite movies at the theater because the COVID pandemic has her being cautious.
Besides, if Sweeney gets sick and can't come in to work, she can't oversee the production of the dishes so many have come to love.
She also revealed frustration and strength during a discussion about the male-dominated chef industry. "I've never understood why the vast majority of chefs are men," Sweeney said. "There's even a PBS documentary that mentions that 51% of culinary-school graduates are women but only 7% of us go on to become executive chefs or entrepreneurs. Even in my career, I've never had a woman executive chef I've worked for. I was usually the only woman and, even when I started here, I was the only woman in the kitchens.
"I really don't get it because who's responsible for a lot of our first food memories? It was usually mothers and aunties. I've never understood itbut it also goes back to the question of why there hasn't been a woman president in this country when there have been woman leaders in other countries.
"It's frustrating because there are double standards. They feel women are too high-strung and emotionalbut if you take those same characteristics, a man is strong and passionate. It's not fair. It's important that women have a seat at this table."
Regarding how that thought-provoking percentage can change in favor of women, Sweeney said she constantly talks about the issue and has been a chef mentor at Benito Juarez High School. "Seeing people in that role is so important," she added. "As my wife says, representation matters and you want to see someone in that role. My executive sous chef is a womanand we hired another sous chef in January, and she happened to be a woman. I would hope that people just look at our resumes as qualified applicants, but [sometimes] that doesn't happen. And it's so important to pay it forward."
Sweeney also said she feels the same way about sexuality. "My wife said, 'You're so open about being gay.' I said, 'I want to be open about it because if we keep talking about it, it becomes normal for everyone else.' We love just like everyone else."
And what has Sweeney learned about herself during the past couple years, when everyone has had time to self-reflect? "I think I've learned a lot about self-reliance and being pushed in a lot of different directions," she said. "I've also learned how strong love can be [when my wife and I were physically apart]. I've also learned the challenges of being a strong leader."
Sweeney did exhibit one last trait during the talk: hope, regarding Chicago. "I was excited for the food when we moved backbut then the pandemic and nothing was open late anymore," she said with a smile. "I hope the late-night dining scene will eventually come back."