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By Madeline Woods

To celebrate the launch of our new blog, the month of March will have two Featured Conquerors! The first was award-winning games journalist Sam Greszes.

Now, we’re proud to introduce this month’s second Featured Conqueror, John Ortega! He’s a Wicker Park chef and restaurant owner who’s channeled the power of great food and great music into one amazing career. Let’s get to know him and get inspired. 

To hear the story of Ortega’s journey as a chef in his own words, we used a few fill-in-blank questions and let our conversation grow out of his responses. 

CL: I first felt like cooking was a part of my identity when:

John Ortega: I used to make food for my brother and sister when we were growing up. Our parents seldom cooked for us, so when I got to be old enough, cooking felt like a whole new world of science.

Ortega is originally from Colorado, but during his childhood, the family lived all over the world, following his father’s military career. In the constantly shifting world of a military family, taking care of his younger siblings was a constant for Ortega, as was food. 

He had identified cooking as an outlet for his creativity, but not yet as a potential career path. The stage was set for that idea to blossom once he moved to Chicago to attend DePaul University. 

He was on his own in an expensive city, so he chose his first job in the restaurant industry out of financial necessity, working the line at the now-defunct Northdown Cafe and Taproom in Lakeview.

JO: I started at Northdown in 2013… I needed a job quick, and they gave me all the hours to figure things out.

At Northdown, Ortega figured out the basics of cooking and running a kitchen, but the spiritual alchemy that turns a talent into a passion didn’t begin until his next job.

In March of 2014, DePaul classmate Sarah Valker introduced Ortega to Pizzeria Serio, the small artisanal Italian restaurant where she worked as head server. 

After he started working in the kitchen at Serio, Ortega realized that cooking, especially making pizza, held meaning for him far beyond the mundane:

JO: This was a magical transition where I learned to hone my pure love of the pizzeria format.

Soon, he would have the opportunity to scale up his creative involvement to match his growing love of pizza as an art form. 

In 2015, Serio’s founder, Scott Toth, drafted Ortega to help him with the pizzeria’s sister restaurant, Craft Pizza, which Toth had recently opened in Wicker Park. The fledgling counter-service spot needed support in every aspect of the business. Exhilarated by the restaurant’s potential, Ortega went to work.

JO: They were extremely short staffed, and they desperately needed help with lots of smaller odds and ends – I filled in for all of those.

Ortega took to his multifaceted role as if it was tailor-made for him, and less than a year later, he was promoted to general manager.

JO: I became manager of Craft out of necessity. We desperately needed guidance as a restaurant, and I was ready for it.

As he perfected Craft’s signature recipes for pizza dough and Italian bread and built a small, tight-knit team of multi-talented employees, Ortega truly put his own mark on Craft. The community he created there was built around pizza in name, but in spirit, Craft was built around Ortega himself.  

From mixing each batch of dough, to selecting seasonal ingredients for each monthly Farm to Table special, to scouting local artists for the restaurant’s in-house murals, he has curated every aspect of the experience. 

He’s known for turning each dinner rush into a theatrical performance, infusing the rapid pace of a slammed restaurant with the energy of a rowdy karaoke night. 

CL: Picture this: It’s a busy Friday night at Craft. We need music to maximize our energy or set a mood, so I choose:

JO: I have a playlist for every mood I am feeling or want to be feeling – Do I need a pick me up? I have all of the 80’s pop to give me life. Am I feeling teenage angst? I definitely pull out old Fall Out Boy. Disco is also welcome at all times.

Sometimes it’s Ortega reaching the crescendo of a solo while tending an oven full of pizzas, but if the mood is right, the whole kitchen starts singing.

For him, passion for food and music naturally go hand in hand:

JO: I am pretty sure that those are intertwined perfectly. I will always love how perfect and transitory a good show is, much like a good meal.

He treats music as an extra coworker at Craft, but he also lends his enthusiasm and work ethic to Chicago’s local music scene. 

CL: Chicago’s live music scene is special because:

JO: This city is that perfect mix of hearty sophistication where you get a different vibe based off of what you could want. Variety is a Chicago spice that I am so thankful for (and it’ll be great to enjoy it more when it is safe to [go to live shows] again).

During non-pandemic times, Ortega is a fixture at several small venues: he’s helped tend bar or taken tickets at Schuba’s and Lincoln Hall to support his friends on staff during busy shows, and he always hand-delivered donated food to Wicker Park neighbor Innertown Pub whenever the musicians who teach at Old Town School of Folk Music would gather to perform together.

Food and community are just as tightly linked in his mind as food and music.

JO: [Food] truly is a baseline that has the power to bind everyone.

Whether the venue is music, pizza, or both, he’s created his own kind of community among industry folk. There’s a special camaraderie in working together to run a restaurant, and that bond is by far the most rewarding part of his career.

JO: I get to hang out with my friends, and we get to make great pizza for wonderful, weird people. It truly is the people that make all the difference in any service industry.

CL: I feel most at home when:

JO: I have so many homes in my mind. That first touch of flour at the beginning of slice service is so comfortable. That wonderful steam off my bread coming out of the oven gives me warmth. Curling up in bed after a long shift is still my favorite move.

CL: The biggest challenge of running a restaurant is: 

JO: Balance. Every restaurant becomes its own entity at some point, and a lot of what I do is muscle memory. Attempting to put more time and energy into my spare time as I do my business is a constant tangle.

Taking care of my turtles [he has two pet turtles, Shelly and Spaz] and partner consumes me just as much as my love for pizza. I get a shift in of each every single day.

Despite the breakneck pace of a successful restaurant and the demands of our often-impatient society, Ortega knows that anything worth creating takes time. 

CL: Something that people misunderstand about running a restaurant is:

JO: Good food takes time. I have to continuously remind people that fast food is just one of many options for dining that are out there.

In the spirit of balance, Ortega also weighs this artisanal pacing with a drive for improvement and efficiency.

JO: I am so intrigued by effective behaviors lately – optimizing personal habits to make life and tasks easier.

One of the behaviors Ortega values most is collaboration.

CL: I feel most supported by others when:

JO: When I can be honest and receive honest feedback from everyone, that is where I feel the most real support. That is where trust begins, and that is what it is all about.

CL: If I could talk to the version of myself who just started cooking professionally, the single most important piece of advice I could give him would be:

JO: Buckle up, and stay focused. It is a labor of love, but the gifts are abundant.

Take care of the things that you love, and make time for those that make time for you. Being considerate and showing up is all you need as a base for a solid community.

And the love and time that Ortega has poured into his restaurant have paid off, even in the current climate of uncertainty. 

After 5 years of managing Craft, Ortega became a co-owner on March 1, 2020, just weeks before Illinois’s first shelter-in-place order was announced.

Becoming a restaurant owner is a challenging transition at any time, but when it happens immediately before a pandemic hits, rolling with the changes takes extra creativity. 

Naturally, he’s kept his inspiration up with music, using playlists at Craft to pay homage to the local bands and venues he’s most excited to return to:

JO: I created a playlist called Void. It has a few dozen tracks that were all released during the pandemic, and all of the songs are from artists that I wish I could’ve seen live in 2020. It is a beautiful mix that keeps me optimistic.

Covid-19 has come with an unprecedented set of challenges for restaurant owners, but Ortega has proven himself to be up to the task. Craft has seen record numbers of takeout and delivery orders during quarantine, and Ortega has risen to the occasion, with a killer soundtrack and his team behind him.

On March 11th, the restaurant even got the attention of famously tough pizza critic Dave Portnoy. Most of Portnoy’s Chicago favorites are deep dish pies, but he took special note of Craft’s thin crust: “This may be my favorite I’ve had, outside of the deep dish.”

But Ortega hasn’t let his success dull his drive to create. He will continue to shape Craft according to his vision, but there’s no room in his heart for vanity. 

He’s happiest when he can throw himself into his daily routines of work and connection, and he doesn’t place much stock in the concept of legacy.

JO: Being remembered is overrated. I want to make food for people I like and go for a run when it is nice out.

With this ability to stay grounded in the here-and-now, Ortega will continue to persevere through the shifts and snags of the post-pandemic landscape.

He’ll meet each new challenge with a soundtrack curated to feed his soul, and a fresh batch of artisanal pizza to feed his community. 

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At Conquer Life, our goal is to build a world where talking about Mental Health is the norm and sharing our stories is encouraged. Within our community we celebrate those who work hard and follow their passion, and we remind each of us that we have the power to do the same. We aim to inspire, motivate, and empower. 

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