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Meet Annie Beebe-Tron, The Bartender Behind Chicago’s Freakiest Drinks

It’s an overheated and sweaty morning in Chicago, and Annie Beebe-Tron is admiring a particularly soft, floppy plant at the Garfield Park Conservatory. We have a few hours before Annie takes their spot behind the bar at the beloved Macanese restaurant Fat Rice, and the city’s brilliant cocktail sorcerer is visibly enamored.

Freaky plant energy is part of the whole cocktail ethos at Fat Rice and its adjacent bar The Ladies’ Room, where Annie—who is gender fluid and uses the plural pronouns they/them—runs both the beverage program and front of house. The first drink of theirs that I ever tried tasted like acid rainwater and came garnished with a wayward ramp stem leaning out of a double rocks glass. Sort of like a well-tailored suit in a wild color, Annie’s cocktails are surprising and unexpected. They use ingredients like avocado leaf tincture and salted coconut foam; umeboshi vinegar and jerk spices. They play with texture, salt, and umami. They’re silky, creamy, salty, and foamy. They are some of the most boundary-defying drinks in a city celebrated for its bars.

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Photo by David Kasnic

Annie Beebe-Tron at the bar at Fat Rice.

Fat Rice is the first and only restaurant that Annie has ever worked in—if we don’t count their undergrad cafeteria (“you shouldn’t,” they joke). They taught themself how to bartend on the job and revisited basic chemistry to develop their own liqueurs, infusions, and Chartreuses, which coat the tongue in a savory oil slick and blow wide open what was even available for mixing cocktails. Annie is accustomed to learning like this; they were homeschooled as a child (under a Christian evangelical doctrine) and grew up an “indoor kid” with a bent for plants, and later for art.

“I figured out midway through my art career that I wasn’t a visual person, but a kinesthetic person—a texture person,” Annie says of their stint making art with food themes. The art of the cocktail, we’ll say, let them meet in the middle.

Governed by a tactile approach, Annie’s menu prioritizes the active experience of swirling a garnish or adjusting the flavor yourself. The Saigon Street Breakfast, made with ingredients including Thai basil, lime, and a housemade pho vermouth, is an ideal show of their ethos: “I wanted that experience you get when you’re drinking pho—the temperature changes and the dilution changes. It’s all fluctuating as you’re drinking it.”

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Photo by David Kasnic

Some of Annie’s projects.

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Photo by David Kasnic

A close up.

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Photo by David Kasnic

Straining… something.

Their drinks are also a testament to their role as devoted collaborator and steadfast leader at Fat Rice—a job Annie has excelled at as a queer feminist boss seeking to upend the traditional hierarchy. Co-owner Adrienne Lo’s mother is growing ingredients for a house absinthe. A Romanian janitor’s plum liqueur recipe features in the Onu You Didn’t cocktail. The backbar hosts bottles of cardoon amaro, a creation Annie was able to salvage from one of chef Abe Conlon’s infusion experiments gone wrong. It’s just one of many projects Annie tends to with a gardener’s patience—there are currently an estimated 150 bottles (and “lots more to go”) brewing and infusing in their personal “vault.”

As we walk through the conservatory, we pick out which of the freaky plants would make the best garnishes. There’s a furry velvet-looking one and the iridescent rainbow spiky one and the medium-leafed, glossy, proud, type A looking one. I watch Annie’s excitement builds as their attention darts from species to species. Each and every detail noticed; everything eyed for its potential.

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Photo by David Kasnic

A view inside The Ladies’ Room bar.

https://www.bonappetit.com/story/annie-beebe-tron-freaky-cocktails

Chicago’s Best Farm-to-Table Restaurants

Vegetable-driven dishes are the priority at this hip, West Loop restaurant, and they have a long roster of more than 20 local farms to prove it. A half dozen of them make it into the lobster mushroom agnolotti alone, a dish that features tomatoes from Iron Creek, lobster mushrooms from local forager Mushroom Mike, marigold flowers from Genesis Growers, and peppers from Frillman Farms, The Roof Crop, and Seedling Fruit. Try it with the bar team’s Mermaid Water, a low-ABV answer to afternoon imbibing with Dolin blanc vermouth, Plymouth gin, and rhubarb.

Don’t Call Passerotto in Chicago Fusion

Inside the kitchen of Passerotto in Chicago, you’ll find a curious combination of doenjang and bagna cauda, kimchi and Calabrian chile. These building blocks of Korean and Italian cuisines aren’t often found on the same plate, but for chef Jennifer Kim, it all makes perfect sense.

“That’s a question I get asked a lot: ‘Why Italian?’” Kim, a first-gen Korean-American, tells me over the phone. “I’m not randomly taking two things and trying to make it work. It’s something that’s been in the making my whole life.”

Kim, 35, grew up in the quiet Chicago suburb of Schaumburg in the 1980s, a place and time when international food aisles and Korean restaurants were few and far between. While her parents worked odd jobs late into the night, she’d fix herself dinner at home, heating up spaghetti and meatballs courtesy of Chef Boyardee with a serving of her mom’s makeshift kimchi on the side. “It’s in no way traditional kimchi, but for us, it was kimchi when there was no kimchi,” she explains.

In many ways, her dishes at Passerotto are simply more sophisticated versions of these early mashups: Cavatelli is tossed in nori butter; lamb ragu is served with chewy rice cakes; gochujang and tofu come together with Manila clams, mussels, and head-on shrimp for a clever marriage of soondubu and cacciucco, a Tuscan fish stew.

“There are a million different renditions of cacciucco—every family has their own,” says Kim, who spent time eating her way up and down Italy and in the kitchen at Nico Osteria and other Italian hotspots in Chicago. “The first one I had was made by my friend’s parents from Liguria. I remember I felt like I had this before: It really reminded me of soondubu.”

This coming of age story translated into food is exactly what makes the buzzy new restaurant, open since May, so radical. In blurring the borders between seemingly far-flung traditions, Kim’s cooking epitomizes how the children of immigrants often eat, blending the cuisine of their heritage with that of their hometown for an entirely new kind of comfort food.

“The whole menu is a progression, showing people what it’s like to be an immigrant and how other cultures play a part,” she says. “Why does Italian food make me feel the same way [as] when I eat Korean food? What are the bridges between the two cultures?”

These questions have resonated with diners who often bring their own experiences to the table. Recently, a couple told Kim that her popular cacciucco-soondubu hybrid reminded them of their grandmother’s étouffée, a roux-enriched, tomato stew with shellfish and rice from the Creole and Cajun cooking canons. “It was such an interesting response,” she recalls. “The fact that this dish isn’t just emotional and personal for me but for someone else [too] is so meaningful.”

And while connecting the threads between the foods of her youth has become her mission at Passerotto, she’s just as determined to show how no cuisine truly stands alone.

“When I think of Korean food,” she says, “there are such large Japanese and Chinese influences. What if we never had those influences? How different would Korean food be? When does traditional food start?”

She pauses. “Inevitably, food morphs—and it should.”

Not That You Needed One More Reason To Visit Chicago, But…

Chicago is a symphony of perfect marriages. It’s got big-city charm with a warm, Midwestern sensibility. It’s resplendent in the summer, yet it is transformed into a snow-globe wonderland that winter lovers pine for. It’s got outstanding art museums and access to outdoor activities. And best of all, it touts some of the best chefs and restaurants in the world, a roster that includes fine dining; chic, James Beard awarded hotspots; and good ‘ole hot dogs.

Consider Elske for gorgeously-plated dishes in a cozy locale. Opt for the burger, always, at Au Cheval. Elevate your palate with Mexican flavors at Mi Tocaya Antojeria and take it easy when you order laid-back American favorites at Giant. Beyond the local mainstays we can’t get enough of, however, Chicago offers a stellar lineup of festivals each year, including our very own Chicago Gourmet, September 26–30.

Setting up shop each year in Millennium Park, this epic food festival puts a sonic spin on the five-day experience through this year’s theme–Rock the Fork–pairing great food with music. Think of it as a concert of culinary delights. Featuring cooking demos, wine and mixology seminars, and so many tasty bites you may never leave, Chicago Gourmet is slated to rule the city this month.

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Experience several of the aforementioned restaurants, and take advantage of special musically inspired events, such as Italian Feast on the Symphony Center Stage, where you’ll dine within the walls of where the city’s most prestigious classical musicians pluck and play. Enjoy a menu prepared by Chicago native, Season 15 Top Chef Winner Joe Flamm, and others. Or, jive with musically inclined chefs John Hogan, Jeff Mauro, Bruce Kalman, and Duff Goldman, who do double duty at Blues, Booze & Bites. During the main event weekend in Millennium Park, Rick Bayless and Diana Dávila are teaming up for a duo demo during Chorizo Cha-Cha Challenge. Things heat up with Emily Fiffer & Heather Sperling of Botanica during Spice Party, and our very own Julia Kramer will emcee There’s More Than One Way to Make a Gin & Tonic cocktail seminar.

There’s no shortage of dishes to try or beverages to imbibe, and with the Windy City as your backdrop, we think you’ll be a lifer at Chicago Gourmet.