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Conversation With Chef Erik Freeberg

When Chicago’s Chef Tony Mantuano asked his Spiaggia sous chef Erik Freeberg to be the executive chef of his new venture, Italian pizzeria and wine bar Bar Toma, Freeberg jumped on board fast.

Bar Toma kitchen photo from Bar Toma website.

Almost one year since Bar Toma opened its doors, Freeberg sat down with a reporter in the bustling Gold Coast restaurant that has become much more than a workplace to him.

“When somebody gives something like this to you, it becomes like your child,” Freeberg said Wednesday. “You never really know until something like that gets thrown into your lap what you can actually do. It’s crazy to look back on that.”

Mantuano made waves in the Gold Coast neighborhood when he opened Bar Toma in a space formerly occupied by a beloved French restaurant called Bistro 110. The concept, a menu centered around 20 authentic Italian pizzas, with small shared plates on the side, alongside a classic Italian espresso and gelato bar, germinated from his favorite espresso and pizza bars in Italy.

“Erik was one of the first people on Tony’s radar to bring to Bar Toma,” said Steve Paluck, assistant general manager of Bar Toma. “Erik as a person is a very intense person. Erik as a chef is a very intense chef. He takes his cooking extremely personally.”

Freeberg began to work on the menu with Mantuano about three months before the restaurant opened in November.

“He knew the dishes that he wanted and conceptually what he wanted to fit into this place,” Freeberg explained, adding it was up to him to create the recipes and tweak them until they became what Mantuano wanted.

They spent all three months creating what Paluck called a “detail-oriented” menu.

“He loves food, and he enjoys the singular ingredients that go into the menu,” Paluck explained about Freeberg. “I think that’s one of the reasons our menu is so detail-oriented.”

Bar Toma is not Freeberg’s first experience with working under Mantuano. After attending college in Indiana and culinary school in New York, Freeberg moved to Chicago. Though he didn’t have a job lined up at the time, he was almost immediately hired at Spiaggia.

“I showed up at Spiaggia one day…I worked for one shift, and at the end of the night they offered me a job,” he said.

Freeberg explained that after he quickly rose through the ranks, Mantuano began to mentor him, and they continued to work together for five years before Freeberg’s transition to Bar Toma.

“The knowledge that I gained from Spiaggia, managing people as well as managing a menu, all contributed to that menu being put together,” he said.

Apparently his management style is appreciated by his employees.

“Erik’s a really good chef,” said Ana Arana, a hostess of Bar Toma. “He cares about us in the front too, not just what’s happening in the kitchen.”

As for what’s next for Freeberg, he said he’s not ready to think about his next step until he can feel comfortable leaving Bar Toma for days at a time – and he hasn’t reached that point yet.

“I want to stay here until I feel that the restaurant is running at a point where I could leave for two to three weeks at a time and not have to worry about it,” Freeberg explained. “Eventually, yes, I would like to open my own place. I don’t know if it’s going to be my next step.”

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