Team Spotlight: Jessi Lesh
POLITAN ROW CHICAGO, CHICAGO, IL — A few days after her 30th birthday, Jessi and I chatted on the phone about all the things that have gone on in the past three months since open. Talking with Jessi is like catching up with an old friend, even though I’ve only known her for a grand total of four months: with her characteristic humor and congeniality, Jessi talked me through her professional journey, her growth at Politan Row, and beyond.
From hotels to fine dining restaurants to high-profile cocktail bars like the Aviary, Jessi came to us brimming with curiosity about food halls and the role of bar manager, the first managerial title she’s held. We reminisced on those early days, back before there were any bottles to pour or kegs to hook up, and warmed up with some rapid-fire questions before getting to the meat and potatoes.
Hometown: Joliet, Illinois
Current residence: Boystown, baby!
Childhood nickname: My mom still to this day calls me honey bunches of oats
Favorite drink: Aperol spritz. In the winter, hot chocolate with amaro
Favorite childhood meal: Something my grandma made, I call it brown gravy: egg noodles with gravy made with beef tips, mushrooms, a couple cans of soup, and her love, of course
Favorite sandwich: A turkey sub with everything: turkey, sharp cheddah, LTO, pickles, banana peppers, giardiniera, mayo, mustard (yellow! Always yellow), salt and pepper
How do you take your coffee?: Vanilla oat milk Americano from Passion House
Preferred mode of transport?: Cars and trains. I hate buses. Trains can go faster, they’re on their own tracks, and if someone’s being obnoxious on the train, you can just get off at the next stop and get on another car. You’re trapped on a bus. Same thing with airplanes.
It’s been, what, three months since the open? How are you feeling?
It’s been jam-packed! It doesn’t feel like it’s dragged on or flown by, just a lot has happened. The first month was hiring and getting ready for the open, the second month was the actual open and how to manage and getting to know the business. Now, it’s like, “Okay, I’m in the groove of it now, and the every-day tasks are easier now.”
Do you remember what initially drew you to Politan Row?
I’d never been exposed to food halls before. I was attracted to the idea that two people walking into the food hall could have two completely different experiences. The whole concept is so different and accommodating to basically everyone. As a bartender with a more traditional, fine-dining restaurant background, I was working so close with the kitchen, and conceptually, everything is intertwined. At Politan, the beverage program is a little more independent and you can focus on the craft, but the room for collaboration is still there.
That’s a great way to put it. You get to explore on your own terms, and you still have the opportunity to collaborate.
Exactly. It’s the best of both worlds.
What do you think makes Politan Row Chicago stand out from other food halls or restaurants around the world?
Chicago is such a culinarily-focused city and a food-centric town, and it has always had this small business, non-corporate feel. I remember going to a conference a few years back, and the presenter said there were only something like 8 national chain restaurants in Chicago -- excluding fast food, that is. Politan Row Chicago is so appealing because you have eleven different mini restaurants by eleven different chefs doing their own thing and making a name for themselves. It’s all-encompassing of what Chicago is. We have so much diversity in Chicago, and it’s great to see a Cuban place right next to a Cajun-Indonesian place next to Japanese comfort food.
Given that you’ve been a part of the team since before we were open, how has the market changed since you came on?
At first, no one really knew each other. Everyone was pretty polite and mainly focused on setting up their own station. Now, you’re seeing so much more collaboration and business ideas blossoming between the vendors. You see how everyone’s trying to figure out how to first open their business and now, we’re open, we have most of our things down, how can we work together? How can we be a community? How can we team up and bring more people in the door? In general, there’s a much more present sense of camaraderie.
And in the past three or four months, what are you most proud of accomplishing in the time since you’ve been at Politan?
Honestly, figuring out my job! This is my first managerial role, and at first, everything’s new. I’m still learning, but the first part was handling the basic job functions like scheduling, inventory, ordering, taking meetings, all that. Now, I have that all down and I’m able to think about activations and events and team-building activities for my team. I feel like I’m able to focus time on those things to round out the job and make it more of a little bar family.
As a part of the team cultivating an experience, what do you hope people take away after their first visit to Politan Row?
That a food hall isn’t just a cafeteria. Food halls are such a new concept, so when you tell people about it, their first thought process is a mall food court or something like that. Then, when they first walk in, they’re like, “Oh, woah. This is not what I was expecting.” You can eat anything. People are topping off your water and clearing your plates. Your only job is to sit there and relax, buddy. Maybe their expectations are low, and I love seeing their minds being blown.
Also, that it’s for everyone. It’s a beautiful setting with the simplicity of good-tasting food and drinks and options that don’t break the bank. I’ve been there with friends in heels and also in leggings and Nikes. The concept is so outside the box that nobody will feel awkward about being there. Nobody is out of place.
Let’s dive into the bar side of things. What’s one thing on your menu that’s deceivingly difficult to pull off?
The Bad Behavior cocktail has a strawberry syrup, which is fairly labor intensive because we start from fresh strawberries. We rinse, hull, clean, and weigh the berries, then add equal parts white sugar and sous vide it for two hours, then fine strain it. It’s a three hour thing for one ingredient, but it’s so worth it. The sous vide syrup means you can control the temperature, so the heat doesn’t take away the flavor but actually brings it out. It’s in the Bad Behavior, and we also offer it in housemade sodas and mimosas, and we play around with it when people trust us to make up a cocktail for them on the spot.
Do you have a moonshot dream? What’s your ultimate professional goal?
I don’t know how tangible or realistic this goal is, but it’s my goal: when I’m ready for my final moving spot, I want to own a tiny little beach bar in Costa Rica and just be shut off from the world. Maybe off a resort so I can snag the resort crowd. But I want to be that little old lady with a six-seater beach bar and run it however I want to. I want to be able to just cut a papaya down from the tree next to me and mash it up into a cocktail.
Final few questions: What’s your favorite thing to eat at the market?
The mac and cheese from Loud Mouth. It’s just a solid mac and cheese. No notes.
What about your favorite thing to drink?
Alcoholic drink-wise, I love our Bad Behavior, but in general, my go-to drink is an Aperol Spritz. They’re basically cousins anyway because you have Campari in the Bad Behavior and soda water for bubbles, so it’s not too far off.
Non-alcoholically, I drink a vanilla oat milk Americano from Passion House every single day. Sometimes twice a day. I’m so glad to work at Politan, solely for introducing me to Passion House Coffee.