A few weeks ago, Sixteen, the high-end restaurant in the Trump Tower Chicago with sweeping views of the city, got a rave, four-star review from Tribune critic Phil Vettel. In that piece, Vettel described how the achievement was especially surprising, given the fact that luxury restaurants across town had either closed or scaled back in recent tough times. But hearing chef Thomas Lents, who took over the restaurant back in January, discuss his approach to fine dining provides some clues as to why it may have worked out for him. Yes, he's giving people the bells and whistles and the magnificent dining room, but he's adapting it to changing times and a dining public that, especially in Chicago, wants something that isn't boring. In the following interview, Lents talks about his experiences leading up to Sixteen, Chicago's restaurant scene, and why he's gunning for Michelin stars and the World's 50 Best List.
Talk a bit about where you were before landing at Sixteen.
I grew up in the Midwest and lived and worked in Chicago many years. I was the chef de cuisine at Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas when I was contacted by the Trump Hotel about the opportunity at Sixteen. I couldn't resist to come back to one of my favorite towns, one that supports progressive movements in fine dining.
Were you at Robuchon when they got the three Michelin stars?
I had two different stints at Robuchon. I was the executive sous chef for close to three years when they got the three Michelin. Then I left to help Michael Tusk open the new Quince in San Francisco as chef de cuisine. Then I got called back to Robuchon to be executive chef. I was the first American to ever be offered that position.I couldn't really say no to that, so I came back for two years before going back to Chicago. Before all of that I worked at Everest for a good five years, then I went to Dublin, and then at the Waterside in England.
What did you want to bring to Sixteen? You started in January, yes?
I started about January 15th. I saw a really iconic Chicago dining room. It's amazing. The Wrigley Building is right in your face. I felt like it could launch some of the progressive ideas in fine dining that I had.
What were they?
Fine dining is kind of at a crux at a moment. I think the older fine dining restaurants are starting to fade in relevance and give way to newer ideas. What is that new fine dining? You have to offer something more than just great technique and great ingredients and great service. It can be something like what Grant [Achatz] is doing, which is about technique and the experience — I don't want to say "molecular gastronomy" — for example.
What was your vision, though?
In my case, I really wanted to incorporate sourcing. I have had great relationships with the people that I source from all around the world. I wanted to bring that to Chicago. Along those same lines, I wanted to start a dialogue with the diner — a story — that develops throughout the course of the meal. It can't be just a collection of ingredients and tasty things.
I'd like you to delve deeper into that. Your menu, for instance, which just lists the item with an evocative quote beneath it (pdf), probably plays into that process, right?
Yeah, exactly. The format of the menu is an important part of that. You need to speak with the guest, and the server needs to immediately have that level of conversation to let them know what they're about to get involved in. With the sixteen-course menu, you really have no idea where it's going to take you. You just have the experience unfold with dishes that highlight the main moments of the season: the grape harvest, the truffle hunt, the game hunt. These are iconic episodes. We try to show how preservation and the bounty alters at different points of the season, and we use modern and traditional techniques to make that happen.
From reading the Vettel review and looking at your pedigree and dining room, I'd guess that you tipped more to the side of classic luxury. But you insist on progressivism.
We do do luxury, but I wouldn't exactly say that it's luxury in the classic sense. The techniques are modern, and so is the presentation. The way we involve the diners in the experience is also something that I think breaks away from the more classic mold.
For instance, for our apple dessert, we bring out fourteen varieties to the guest and let them choose which one they want us to highlight in the dish. We have the guests hand-press the grape juice for that other dish.
I think the beauty of the restaurant is that it is my vision. I want guests to see how my vision changes as the seasons change. We want to constantly change throughout the year. We really want the menu format to change. In the Fall, it's about the major moments of the season, and in the winter, it's going to be about one day highlighted through sixteen different courses. It's me and my idea of where fine dining should go. It's a Midwestern sensibility, but I obviously owe a lot to chefs like Robuchon whom I've learned a lot from. More than anything, though, it's about being with the guest and not just giving to them.
Chicago chefs seem to benefit from a dining scene where customers really like to seek out the new and the potentially risky. You guys seem to have a lot of freedom. How do you see it?
I don't want to say that it's the best or the worst scene, since I've worked in a lot of wonderful places. But one of the things that I really like about Chicago is that there's this group of really talented young chefs that want to do fine dining in their way. And diners, as you said, really seem to want to go be part of it and see what's going on. They want to see something new, and they really support that. Most chefs are coming here because they want to be a part of that and develop a new generation.
Why do you think that's the case, though?
The first thing is the ability to let yourself go. These diners don't have as many preconceptions, I don't think. They can accept restaurants on their own terms and just want to see something with open eyes. I think a lot of food cities have preconceived ideas of what they're supposed to get, which builds a kind of wall and doesn't allow for a conversation. They don't expect x, y, and z at a certain price level. They will, of course, let you know if they don't like what you've given them!
Any last words?
My focus is on getting it on the international stage. I want it to be part of the international discussion.
So you want Michelin stars, the World's 50 Best List?
Exactly. Oh yeah. As many I can have! If we don't have Michelin stars, then what I'm doing is not working. That is a process, obviously, but I think we've made a pretty good dent in nine months.
[Photo: William Huber Photography]