A New Star in Chicago Dining

Zach Engel and Andres Clavero

Zach Engel, left, and Andres Clavero, co-owners of Galit. The modern Middle Eastern restaurant in Chicago earned its first Michelin star in April 2022.


The day started out as a normal Tuesday morning. Zach Engel (BSM ’10), executive chef of Galit, the Middle Eastern restaurant in Chicago he co-owns with Andrés Clavero (BSM/MACCT ’10), was interviewing a potential cook when he got a call. On the line was the Michelin Guide’s head inspector for North America.

“They said, ‘Galit is being awarded a Michelin star,’” recalls Engel. Needless to say, the rest of the phone call — and the day — went by in a blur. “We were all pretty excited. It was a very nice surprise.”

Engel called his business partner to tell him the good news. “No pressure,” Clavero recalls him saying, “but the Chicago Tribune is here to talk to us about the Michelin star…”

After that, it was a whirlwind of press interviews and accolades, and the excitement hasn’t let up.

So how did two Freeman School graduates end up as partners in an award-winning, critically acclaimed restaurant in Chicago? Surprisingly, it wasn’t through Freeman, where Clavero was one year ahead of Engel as he pursued his 4+1 BSM/Master of Accounting degree.

“We have a lot of the same mutual friends but really met through
food and restaurants,” Clavero says.

For Engel, the journey started with a part-time stint cooking at the Hillel on Tulane’s campus. That led to his first restaurant job, working at Domenica with chef Alon Shaya during his senior year at Tulane. After graduation, Engel worked with award-winning chefs at a series of top restaurants, including Zahav in Philadelphia, Catit in Tel Aviv and Madrona Manor in Sonoma County.

“I went and worked for the best people that I could find that were cooking the foods that I want to cook,” Engel says.

He returned to New Orleans in 2014 to work as chef de cuisine at Shaya, the modern Israeli restaurant Alon Shaya opened after Domenica. Engel calls Shaya his mentor, and the relationship proved to be mutually beneficial. In 2016, the restaurant received the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant, and the following year, Engel was named the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year.

For Clavero, the route to becoming a restaurateur started after a post-graduation job in corporate accounting. While working for Deloitte in Chicago, he tried to break into the finance side of the restaurant business but could only find part-time jobs. He took a job working nights and weekends for One Off Hospitality, a Chicago-based restaurant group, and eventually joined the company full-time as a senior accountant. In 2015, Clavero dined at Shaya while visiting New Orleans to attend a Saints game. Engel introduced himself, and the two began to see all the connections they shared. When One Off Hospitality catered the James Beard Awards and hosted Shaya’s takeover event in 2016, Clavero and Engel got to work together for the first time, and their relationship grew stronger.

Not long after winning his Rising Star Chef award in 2017, Engel approached Clavero with his idea that they should open a restaurant together. After checking with his then-girlfriend (now wife), Clavero agreed.

“I always was interested in having a partner, because this is an extremely risky business,” Engel says. “The stakes are pretty high, and I like the idea of mitigating a lot of that risk with a partnership with investors.”

Engel and his wife moved from New Orleans to Chicago, and he and Clavero opened Galit in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in
April 2019.

Business school might not be a typical background for an executive chef, but Engel credits Freeman with giving him the foundational knowledge necessary to build a successful restaurant. He says Mike Hogg’s Legal Studies in Business course taught him about chef-ownership, contract law and partnership agreements, essential concepts for running a restaurant.

“It gave me a really keen eye when we were setting ourselves up here in Chicago,” Engel says.

He adds that Beau Parent’s accounting class also had a big impact on his career, giving him the tools to manage a restaurant with sound financials.

Clavero agrees.

“I still say, ‘Make sense? Make sense?’” he laughs, echoing Parent’s signature catchphrase.

Engel and Clavero split public relations and accounting duties at Galit, with Engel handling vendor relationships and accounts payable and Clavero acting as general manager, doing the front-of-the-house tasks and overseeing sales, investor relations and human resources.

After working with a dozen chefs in his role with One Off Hospitality, Clavero says he enjoys working with a chef who possesses
both culinary artistry and business knowledge.

“He understands the creative element and the hard work thatgoes into running an efficient kitchen, but at the end of the day, he knows you can’t have a creative kitchen if it doesn’t make sense to the bottom line,” Clavero says.

Their partnership is strong in part because of a shared commitment to their employees. They instituted HR policies with clear rules of advancement, including performance evaluations, something of a rarity in the restaurant industry. “We try our best to take really good care of our employees,” Engel says.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting restaurants, Engel and Clavero gave their employees an extra week of sick pay before the shutdowns and kept all of them insured throughout the year and a half the restaurant operated at reduced capacity.

When Chicago shut down in-person dining in the early days of the pandemic, becoming one of the first cities in the country to take that dramatic step, Galit had a week’s worth of fresh food on hand.

“We became a 4,000-square-foot takeout window overnight,” Clavero says.

Engel continually worked on the menu to ensure the food sold in takeout containers met the restaurant’s high standards. Then, when the city allowed it, they opened for outdoor dining, calling the more-casual fare “Galit on the Street.” That allowed them to bring back more staff members and get closer to break even.

As pandemic restrictions eased, they moved back into the restaurant, and Engel established a set-price full tasting menu, which they
still offer.

“It is a neighborhood restaurant in that it’s very approachable, but it’s also fine dining,” Engel says of his vision for Galit. “And we have curated an extensive wine list that relates to our food. We’re using primarily food from local farms, and we’re cooking at a really high level.”

Coming on the heels of the pandemic, the Michelin star provided the restaurant and its staff with some much-needed recognition.

“It’s well deserved for the team who’s been around and dealt with the last three years of ups and downs,” says Engel. “And it just shows that if you work very, very hard, and you try to make food that’s delicious and consistently so as much as possible, and you are creative enough, things like the Michelin Guide will come knocking on your door.”

“Guests ask all the time if we knew the inspectors were coming to dine,” adds Clavero, “But we had no idea.”

The impact on the restaurant was immediate. Though weekends had been full before, Galit is now booked solid every night, which represents a 20% to 25% increase in reservations during the week. On some nights, the waiting list can grow to four times the restaurant’s capacity. Event bookings have also increased, and they’ve had to hire additional people to keep up with the demand.

“We are so appreciative that this food that we both find very personally significant — it’s communal eating, you’re breaking bread and sharing it with family — is being recognized,” says Clavero.

While Michelin stars sometimes lead restaurateurs to new opportunities, Engel and Clavero currently have no plans to expand or open another restaurant. They are committed to continuing Galit at the same high level of quality and enjoying the restaurant’s success as it becomes more of a household name in Chicago.

“This has been quite the roller coaster for three years,” Engel concludes. “Life is pretty good for us right now.”

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