Grant Werner is the executive chef for the Karas Restaurant Group, which includes Alexander’s Café, The Village Squire and Rookies, but he has been focusing on Alexander’s Café in Elgin and the new location in St. Charles.
Love and food have been synonymous his entire life.
“My family is a foodie family, and I grew up spending every single Sunday at my grandmother’s house and everyone would cook and gather,” Werner says. “All the men cooked. All of the women cooked. I was taught at a very young age that food is something that brings people together and makes them happy.”
Going into the restaurant business was a natural step for Werner. Though he began in his grandmother’s kitchen, his professional experience began with the Darden Restaurants group – featuring familiar favorites, such as Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille and others.
Werner started as a server and worked his way up to being a manager. He went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando and worked as a sous chef at Darden’s Bahama Breeze, eventually becoming a divisional corporate chef with Bahama Breeze and Red Lobster, where he traveled all over opening restaurants.
The chef describes himself as hardworking and his career as a whirlwind.
“I had a turning point in my life, and I was about to go to Italy and go to cooking school in Florence … I was not going where I wanted to go with my career, and I wanted to get into my own place,” he says. “I wanted to be challenged and grow more. The Karas’ [group has] a lot of experience. They helped me learn.”
Bob Karas is one of the owners of the Karas Restaurant Group, and he brought in Werner about four years ago when he remodeled and re-conceptualized Alexander’s Café in Elgin. Alexander’s was named after Alexander The Great, who was from Macedonia – or northern Greece – where the Karas family comes from. The Village Squire restaurant was started by brothers, Paul and George Karas, Bob Karas’ Father and uncle. Now the business is a family affair with brothers, sisters, cousins and brother-in-laws working at the family’s various restaurant locations. There are 10 locations – four Village Squires, four Rookies and two Alexander’s Cafe’s – spanning seven suburban towns, including Elgin, West Dundee, Crystal Lake, McHenry, St. Charles, Hoffman Estates and Huntley.
When Paul and George opened Alexander’s in 1987, Bob Karas described it as “A typical Greek diner-type place with etched glass, and brass, and carpet.”
A million-dollar renovation later, Alexander’s is completely transformed.
Bob Karas says that it was crucial to the family that the food matched the ambience.
“It’s not the same old Greek diner food. [Now] it has chef-inspired fare – really modern takes on old comfort foods, like meatloaf and pot roast. It’s really cool for today,” says Bob Karas.
Developing thoughtful menus that people enjoy is a joyful challenge for Werner.
“I’m a big athlete, and I played hockey and I still play; I think of cooking like sports,” Werner says. “It’s the joy of participating in sports. You get to cook and see people’s reactions and it’s different every day. You have to show up prepared – practice. That’s what I love, and it’s my passion.”
Werner challenges himself by developing menus in the kitchen, and he encourages “people to try the specials and features because we change them up,” he says. “I want people to try the new flavors of the seasons.”
When asked which of the Karas restaurants is his favorite, Werner says: “On Saturday, I’d have breakfast at Alexander’s; lunch at Rookies; and dinner at the Village Squire.”
St. Charles location:
650 W. Main St.
1725 N. State St.