Meet The Courtright’s
When you meet William and Rebecca Courtright, there is no question that you are in the company of two of the most gracious and welcoming hosts in the country. Armed with a hospitality philosophy grounded in his parents’ teachings, William found the ideal partner in Rebecca to carry on the Courtright legacy of true American hospitality. With the utmost ease, their individual strengths cultivated over 30 years of marriage form the perfect balance in their business relationship, allowing them to bring the highest level of service and enjoyment to their guests. Rebecca says, “Bill has unbelievable food and wine knowledge and an uncanny palate. Bill counters, “Becky has boundless energy, a nurturing nature and an eye for detail all of which contribute to an exceptional dining experience.”
Having grown up in the kitchen at the knee of his mother, Sally Courtright, William Courtright learned the basics of food and hospitality at an early age. He began helping in the family’s growing business by sweeping floors at the age of nine. In 1965 at age 17, he formally put his culinary knowledge to use by becoming the chef at Ken’s on Western Avenue, appropriately named after his father and the second of four family restaurants on the south side of Chicago.
Sally Courtright’s passion for customers made a strong impression on William. “My mother put in long, long days and made a lot of sacrifices, but she was all about ‘love,’ and she nurtured people by feeding them says William. Although the restaurant was open long hours, it wasn’t uncommon for regulars to stop in around midnight after a full night on the town. They would have ‘one’ nightcap in the hopes that my mom hadn’t gone home. They knew she would insist on making them a sandwich before sending them on their way.”
In 1967, after working a few years in the kitchen at Ken’s, William was drafted into the Army and sent to South Carolina as a cook. Desperate to leave Ft. Jackson, he requested a transfer and found himself on his way to Germany where he served first as a cook and then as a driver for various military officers. With exposure to restaurants and vineyards in small German villages and visits to France, Italy and Denmark during leave, William expanded his knowledge of European cuisine and hospitality. Upon returning to the States after his time in the service, William pursued a political science degree at St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa, where he met Rebecca, a fellow political science student. Although his focus was on his studies and romancing his future wife, William’s love of wine was ever present. “When Becky and I first met, we would enjoy cream sherry with our pizza, an easy way to elevate a college meal,” recalls William. The couple wed in 1976.
Although food and wine remained at the top of William’s interests, they became his hobby while he pursued a successful 17-year career as a broker/trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. While trading, William continued to pursue his love of wine, collecting bottles from around the world that represented the best of each region and vintage. “I became a serious collector when we bought our first house in 1978,” says William. “And our priorities were certainly in order when we moved in. The first thing we did was build a temperature-controlled cellar to accommodate about 3,000 bottles. Then came renovating the laundry room.” Although he did not know it, this collection would eventually form the foundation of Courtright’s current 17,000-bottle wine cellar.
While Bill’s original career path may not have led the pair directly back to the restaurant business, a shared passion for food and wine inspired William and Rebecca to further their culinary education. The couple took several extensive tours of Europe’s 3-star Michelin restaurants and attended Robert Mondavi’s The Great Chefs of France cooking school led by world-famous chef Paul Bocuse. After years of throwing elaborate parties in their home, William and Rebecca decided it was time to bring the celebration to a new level and make their restaurant dream a reality. After three years of searching for the perfect location and almost two years of construction, they opened Courtright’s in March of 1995.
William describes Rebecca, his business partner and wife of 36 years, by saying “Rebecca is the restaurant! She is the heart of the restaurant. She is beauty, grace and passion, energy and light, and most of all, love.” Anyone who steps into the restaurant will agree that, without a doubt, Rebecca’s gracious nature and unending care touch the lives of all who pass through the restaurant doors. “Our arms are outstretched to the people we meet,” explains Rebecca.
Rebecca’s initial focus was on nurturing their growing family of three boys and one girl. That, combined with her active, prominent role in community charitable fundraising allowed her natural ability to set people at ease to shine. Little did she know that these talents would be invaluable later when she would welcome everyone from locals to wine makers and celebrities to Courtright’s.
Rebecca’s innate understanding that a person needs to be soothed and stimulated, pampered and indulged, mirrored her mother-in-law’s philosophy. “Sally’s family was her greatest joy, second to her immediate family were her customers, who formed her extended family,” says Rebecca. An Italian, she demonstrated her love for people by feeding them. She used to tell me that the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach,” remembers Rebecca. “It’s funny, now that I’m very much in the role Sally was when I first met her, I look back so often and realize the lessons that I took from her. I’ve come to understand the unbelievable challenges of managing a family and a restaurant, along with the importance of having passion in your life. I have a deep respect for the sacrifices Sally made.”
Before opening the restaurant in 1995, William and Rebecca threw elaborate parties for friends and colleagues at their home. Each party taught Rebecca the fine points of entertaining and hospitality (even if sometimes through trial and error), along with how to delight and pamper her guests. While attending Robert Mondavi’s Great Chefs of France cooking school, Chef Paul Bocuse played an integral role in furthering Rebecca’s hospitality education.
“Chef Bocuse humored us with this thought,” recalls Rebecca. “You could be dining in one of the most beautiful restaurants in the world with dinner being prepared by a famous chef, enjoying a wonderful rare wine. But, if you’re dining with an IRS agent who is auditing your tax returns, you’re not likely to enjoy your meal. His story underscored my belief that the most important element of hospitality is nurturing the human spirit. So I always try to make a personal connection with each guest – to listen to their needs, read their body language – and then create a sense of well-being and pleasure during their visit.”
A talented artist who revels in the Arts and Crafts style, Rebecca often retreats to her personal hideaway in the restaurant to stoke her creativity. This fully stocked craft room next to the wine cellar serves as her inspiration for decorations that come to life at both private parties and in the restaurant throughout the year. Her most ambitious project to date was creating ‘The Wizard of Oz’ theme wedding for author Jodee Blanco (“Please Stop Laughing At Me”), complete with ruby slippers, a rainbow, a yellow brick road, and the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion in attendance.
“Delighting people is always a sensuous experience for me. It encompasses all the senses – the sights, the smells, the sounds, the intellectual and the emotional, each project teaches me a new skill and reinforces my appreciation for handcrafted arts” says Rebecca. “Hence, my love of the Arts and Crafts movement, which embraces the talents of the individual – the artist, the florist, the farmer, the vintner, the musician, the chef.”
As they embark on the sixth decade of the Courtright family legacy, William and Rebecca continue to embrace their distinct brand of Midwestern hospitality, dedication and shared values. They embody a mutual respect and reverence for excellence, a heartfelt desire to nurture and an overwhelming passion for delighting guests. This signature style remains at the forefront of Courtright’s as they welcome guests to experience American Fine Dining and uphold Courtright’s reputation as one of America’s top fine-dining destinations.
A lifelong dedication to charity work inspired Rebecca and William to found the Phoenix Society in 1983. This organization generated more than $500,000 dollars to support the Community Family Service and Mental Health Association, now known as Community Care Option. For the past eight years, Rebecca and William have maintained an active role in community service as co-chairs of Meals on Wheels for Northeastern Illinois Area Agency on Aging.