Enoch Simpson may have created a monster. Since the days when his homemade doughnuts became a surprise brunch sensation at Nightwood, gourmet twists on the classic breakfast pastry have swept the city, threatening to make the trend go stale.
With the upcoming debut of his first bakery and restaurant, Endgrain in Roscoe Village, Chicago's original mad scientist of high-blood-sugar breakfasts is finally ready to rejoin the game he's been at since the beginning. At Endgrain, Simpson will unveil his latest creations alongside the originals that spawned the biggest pastry craze since gourmet cupcakes -- just don't ask him to take responsibility for the sudden ubiquity of avant-garde glazed treats.
"Someone once gave me credit for the doughnut craze in Chicago," Simpson said. "I don't know if I can take that." Of course, Simpson, 30, never expected to be known for his doughnuts. He never even meant to sell them, really. He just wanted to make breakfast for his friends.
The cult of pastry
As the morning sous chef at Nightwood in Pilsen, Simpson reported to work while drunken revelers from the night before still stumbled home; he sometimes would punch in for the day only a few hours after leaving a concert at the Aragon or an exhausting night out with friends. And on one such morning when the social demands of the previous night left his brain fried and his eyes glazed over, Simpson found himself in the kitchen without one of his staples: his doughnut recipe.
A lifelong doughnut fan, Simpson made them for his co-workers at virtually every restaurant he'd ever worked in. That particular morning, though, he was forced to make something up from scratch--a new kind of doughnut with a cinnamon bun-brioche dough that was part experiment, part accident.
The staff couldn't get enough, and word of the doughnuts quickly spread until the owners tried them.
"Enoch introduced to me, at least, the concept of the gourmet doughnut," Nightwood co-owner Matt Eisler said. "It was the first I'd experienced, and everyone there just loved them. They became a cult thing."
So much so that soon Simpson's creations, including his signature, oft-imitated bacon-butterscotch doughnut, appeared on Nightwood's menu under the name "Enoch's Doughnuts." And over the next few years, as Simpson diversified his kitchen skills alongside former coworker and "Top Chef" winner Stephanie Izard at Girl & the Goat, Chicago was inundated with similarly innovative doughnuts. Simpson realized it was time to get back to baking -- but he wasn't about to do it alone.
The dough bros
Enoch and his brother Caleb, 34, grew up in Missouri, where they learned the value of working with their hands and making things from scratch. Their mother always baked bread instead of buying it and their father taught Caleb the carpentry skills from which his own career back home in Missouri would blossom.
After leaving Girl & the Goat and forming Enoch's Doughnuts, an independent business selling sweets for fundraisers, weddings and events such as Dose Market, Enoch started thinking about opening his own permanent bakery. He recruited Caleb, who in 2011 moved from Missouri to Chicago, in part to help his brother get the business off the ground.
"He really helped me believe in this and branch out," said Enoch of his brother. "We get to do our own thing together, and without him, I really don't think I would have done this."
With the help of designer and Nightwood co-owner Kevin Heisner, the Simpson brothers transformed the former home of Terragusto into a sleek, modern space with rustic accents. They built the bar piece by piece using individually cut blocks of wood, and Enoch made the metal light fixtures out of the same poultry feeders he uses for raising chickens at his Humboldt Park home. They prefer to do as much as they can from scratch, which they demonstrate in the basement prep kitchen where every doughnut starts to take shape.
Inventing a doughnut
With the furious riffs of Mastodon and Black Tusk screaming in the background, two of Chicago's most metal bakers get to the meticulous work of measuring out the dozens of ingredients that go into a single doughnut. (Some have 13 ingredients in the dough alone). Last year, before Endgrain's kitchen was finished, the brothers concocted every recipe in Enoch's home kitchen using only a KitchenAid mixer and a countertop fryer, often racing to check on their doughs during NFL game commercial breaks.
"The days of testing recipes were crazy," Enoch said. "We'd test so many, we'd forget to eat real food, and just eat doughnuts all day long and drink coffee. It'd be 4 o'clock, and you'd realized: We're totally jacked up."
Enoch's repertoire is up to a baker's dozen of different doughnut varieties, including lemon bars injected with homemade lemon curd, bourbon-vanilla made with Buffalo Trace-infused vanilla beans, Nutella milk stout and, of course, the classic bacon and butterscotch. Four different flavors will rotate daily for about $3 apiece. Enoch loves to experiment with new flavors, sometimes taking 10 or more tries to perfect a recipe, though he admits to sometimes getting carried away.
"Caleb is always yelling at me to make them more traditional," Enoch said. "We just like to have as much fun as we can and to draw influences from everything around us. We try to think outside the, I don't know, the circle with the hole in the middle."
Despite graduating from The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, Enoch never dedicated much time to classical pastry chef training, instead developing his baking skills alongside other chefs.
"I think that it's sort of benefited me, in a way," he said. "It allows me to sort of create my own style and think of it in a different way than most people do."
And while unorthodox doughnuts have become increasingly popular since his days at Nightwood, Enoch balks at the notion of competition amongst bakers.
"Doughnuts are a very personal thing, and there's a lot of nostalgia involved," he said. "My goal isn't to be better than anyone else who's making doughnuts. I'm just really excited that I can make these, and that people love them so much. It's such a good feeling, to make something that people like."
Beyond the bakery
Though Enoch could have gotten by selling only doughnuts, Endgrain is a full-blown restaurant featuring all-day appetizers, sandwiches and entrees, along with a rotating menu of dinner specials, all made with locally sourced ingredients. Caleb, who long had pressured Enoch to open a doughnut shop, is relieved to see his brother diversifying.
"I was kind of glad," said Caleb. "Enoch kept coming up with these great ideas [for doughnuts], but I was like, 'He's going crazy. He needs to cook something else.' He was trying to do almost too much with these doughnuts."
Izard, who worked with Enoch at Scylla and Girl & the Goat, agrees that people may be surprised by his non-fried fare.
"He's very well-rounded in all of his skills," she said. "It's great to focus and find your niche, but I think that his career is going to go way above and beyond just the doughnuts."
And while Endgrain's long-awaited grand opening approaches, the Simpson brothers already are looking ahead to what's next: vegetables sourced from a neighborhood rooftop garden, maybe, or a food truck. One thing is for sure, though: Enoch is ready for his moment.
"I'm dying to open," he said. "I really can't wait. I've never felt so almost-cool in my entire life."
Endgrain (1851 W. Addison St. 773- 687-8191) is open for limited service to train staff in preparation for a June 4 grand opening. Doughnuts will be available Tuesday through Sunday starting at 7 a.m. until they sell out.
Tom VanBuren is a RedEye special contributor. email@example.com | @redeyeeatdrink