"He didn't even know the building was for sale," realtor Brett Haake said of the former church — most recently home to Baci restaurant — at 24018 W. Lockport St.
Haake, of Century 21 Affiliated Pro-Team Plainfield, was showing Sams some homes when the veteran chef and restaurateur mentioned he'd considered opening a restaurant in Plainfield.
Sams, who said he's launched more than 40 restaurants, previously tried to work out a deal to purchase the former site of the Route 59 Grill. After negotiations stalled, the chef was simply looking to buy a new home when Haake brought him to look at the former Baci site.
Inspired by the building's character and history, Sams said he decided it would be the perfect location for a New Orleans-themed restaurant.
Sams, who was educated at the Washburne Culinary Institute, said he spent more than a year cooking in The Big Easy. The chef helped launch Chicago's first Creole-themed restaurant, the Dixie Bar and Grill, in 1987. He said he plans to open the new restaurant by Nov. 15, serving steaks and fresh-caught fish, lobster and crab, along with Southern specialties such as alligator, frog and turtle soup.
According to Sams, the menu will be the easy part.
"I've been cooking since I was 13," he said, adding he believes the white-tablecloth dining experience will draw locals as well as out-of-towners looking for a quality meal.
"You'll be able to compete with Naperville," he said. "Naperville will come here."
Restoration work ahead
For Sams, the tough part may be the repairs and renovations needed on the 145-year-old building, which was first a Unitarian, then a Catholic church before becoming a restaurant.
First, there are the more than 20 stained-glass windows, which are sagging and buckling with age. Eric Suevel, a professional stained glass artisan, said it could cost up to $6,000 to repair and restore each one.
Sams said he is also set on restoring the building's chandeliers, and had hoped to keep the original ceiling. But the building's leaky roof, which has since been repaired, contributed to significant water damage to the ceiling.
"The plaster person that was here, he doesn't think we can salvage it," Sams said, but noted he's looking to get a second opinion in hopes of restoring it.
Other projects include relocating the stairs to create additional seating, installing an elevator and adding a catwalk, which will allow for additional dining space. An existing upstairs room — formerly the choir loft — will serve as a private room that can be rented out for events, complete with its own bar and waitstaff.
The lower level will have its own entrance and will house a banquet room.
Downstairs, a bar will be installed where the church altar once sat, plus a 1,500-gallon saltwater fish tank, Sams said.
Sams said he'd like to start interviewing prospective staffers as soon as possible, with an eye toward his planned Nov. 15 opening date.
Sams is accepting applications for management, a chef, banquet staff, bussers and experienced cooks, waitstaff and bartenders. He is also looking for a sommelier to craft the restaurant's wine list.
To submit a resume, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sams said new staff will train off-site before a planned two-day "friends and family" soft opening in November.