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Meet Christine Cikowski, a Chicago Chef With a Passion for Parks

My favorite thing about our national parks is the widespread sense of community they foster, and all the different ways they impart a sense of awe and inspiration in all of us. And speaking of being inspired, a great example of this sentiment is Christine Cikowski, a chef in Chicago who has inspired me for years. I’ve long been a fan of her cooking, and I love that she loves national parks as much as we do (she even has a tattoo of tree from Yosemite on the right side of her torso). I interviewed her to learn more about her relationship with the parks and how they move her. Read on to learn about Christine’s national parks origin story, her work/life balance, and heck, a few restaurant recs along the way.

Christine and Dusty!

Matt: So I’ve had the pleasure of knowing you for several years at this point, but for our readers and listeners at home, can you tell us a little about yourself and what you do?

Christine: Hello readers! I’m Christine Cikowski and I’m a chef who owns restaurants in Chicago. I started off founding the Sunday Dinner Club in 2005 with my co-chef/business partner Josh Kulp. It’s kinda like a community dinner club, with ever-changing seasonal menus, and chef-driven food. In 2013, we opened a lil’ place called Honey Butter Fried Chicken—you may have heard of it. Over the last seven years, we’ve been getting happily crushed by lines of adoring fried chicken enthusiasts. Oh also, what makes HBFC so magical (besides melting honey butter on fried chicken) is our commitment to being a great place to work. To us, this means having a supportive, inclusive, and nurturing workplace culture, but also great pay and benefits, like health insurance, paid time off, and paid parental leave. Other than those two places keepin’ me busy, I do yoga and love spending time with my sweet baby girl rescue dog Dusty (who basically looks like a larger version of Finn)!

Matt: One of my favorite aspects of national parks is how everyone has a different connection to them. A different “origin story” that drew them in, and turned them into a lifelong fan. What was that moment or experience for you that made you fall in love with national parks?

Christine: I’ll never forget that singular moment when I fell in love with national parks. In 2015, I decided to go on a backpacking and yoga retreat in the backcountry of Yosemite. I had never done anything like that and had never been to a national park. Shutting down my communications, I prepared to go off the grid for a week. Magical things started to happen when I disconnected from my world and disappeared into another. After muscling through three flights, I met up in Fresno with the wonderful people I was to travel with to the backcountry. We crammed in a van for a twisty-turny four-hour ride to the Porcupine Creek Trailhead. We then embarked on the four-hour hike downhill to get to our campsite. About two hours into it, and with 50 pounds of gear strapped to my back, I thought my legs were going to break. Our wilderness guide, Jesse, told me with a knowing smile that it would all be worth it when we got to where we were going. Finally, we arrived at a clearing in the woods. The sun was setting against the massive Half Dome with the expanse of the valley below it, blanketed by a sea of pine trees. I approached it in slow motion. My breath slowed. I distinctly remember looking at Alex, our other guide, and quietly speaking “Have you ever seen anything like this?” He said no, just as quietly. Its crushing beauty rendered me silent and still. I dropped my pack, and stood in complete awe. And then… I spent six days in that place, absent of modern amenities, internet, media, and most of humanity, and full of super-sized nature and all the things that dwell in it, and it changed my life.

Matt: As a restaurant-owner in Chicago, I’m sure your time and schedule are… tricky. How important is it for you to incorporate travel into your life, and how do you go about doing this and balancing it with everything else that you’ve got on your plate?

Christine: I know the terms “work/life balance” and “self-care” are trending right now, but those really are the philosophies and tools I use to make sure traveling and staying connected to nature are priorities. It is important for me to retreat from my work and my daily life to relax, reset, and be inspired by the natural world. It makes me a better business owner, and a better human. I consider these things just as important as eating a balanced diet, exercise, mediation, creativity, my work, my relationships. Plus, I think a change of scenery always gives a good perspective.

Matt: What is it about national parks and nature that are such a big draw for you, in particular?

Christine: National parks are just so damn beautiful. Epic scenery! Trees, animals, sky! Going off the grid and getting back to nature! But also, importantly, national parks BELONG to everyone. It’s public land. A beautiful and inspiring common denominator between all citizens of America. National parks are open for EVERYONE. And available and open to everyone one who wants to see the marvels of nature.

Matt: In terms of bucket list national parks you’re most excited to visit, what are the biggies on your list?

Christine: Ooo I really wanna hit all the Utah parks. I’ve only been to Zion and I was obsessed with it. Also, Olympic National Park in Washington, Acadia in Maine, and I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon (I KNOW, CRAZY RIGHT?).

Joshua Tree with a Christine Tree

Matt: Do you have a favorite national park so far?

Christine: Yosemite will always be my first and true national park love, but Joshua Tree holds a special place in my heart, too.

Matt: Here’s a big/vague question for you: whether in the kitchen or on a hiking trail, what inspires you?

Christine: Ooff, yes, big and vague. Besides nature and travel, I’d say inspiring people inspire me. People doing amazing things in the world, be it chefs, performers, activists, artists, my co-workers, you name it. People who can make me laugh. I try to go for a long walk every day with my dog. I don’t listen to music or podcasts, I don’t check my phone. Some of my best ideas and greatest revelations come from just disconnecting and spending time walking with my dog.

National parks: the perfect places to disconnect for a dog walk

Matt: As someone who knows a lot about great food, I’d love to know: what are some of your favorite must-visit restaurants (and/or bars!) across the country?

Christine: If I had to pick a few… Night + Market Song and Bavel in LA. Lula Cafe and Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits in Chicago. Tyson’s Tacos in Austin. Pizza Delicious in New Orleans. Mint Mark in Madison. Ooo and if ya get out to Joshua Tree, go to Pappy and Harriets.

Author’s note: in light of COVID-19, Honey Butter Fried Chicken and the restaurants she mentions are all temporarily closed, either entirely or at least for dine-in service. These wonderful places are the heart and soul of their communities, and they need our help. You can lend support to her amazing restaurant via the Honey Butter Fried Chicken GoFundMe here. If you’re able, you can also support Christine’s faves by contributing to the Night + Market Song GoFundMe, the Lula Cafe GoFundMe, the Bang Bang Pie GoFundMe, and to this restaurant relief fund in Madison, which distributes crucial funds to furloughed hospitality workers at places like Mint Mark.

All photos courtesy of Christine Cikowski

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