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Chef Lee Wolen on Classic Cooking and Never Getting Upset at Guests

Photo: The Peninsula Chicago

It seemed like Chicago's Peninsula Hotel wasn't interested in filling the culinary void left by Curtis Duffy's departure from the property and the subsequent shuttering of Avenues Restaurant. But over the summer, quietly and unexpectedly, chef Lee Wolen, who had worked as sous chef for three years at New York's Eleven Madison Park, came back to the Midwest, took over the dining component of the hotel's elegant lobby space, and turned it into an excellent restaurant. Last October, critic David Tamarkin gave The Lobby at the Peninsula a rare five-star review, calling Wollen's cooking "deeply flavorful and palpably soulful." In the following interview, Wollen talks about what he's trying to do at the Peninsula, his emphasis on classic flavors, and his desire to not be associated with places like Moto and elBulli, where he once worked.

How did you end up in Chicago again?
I was ready to move back to the Midwest. I'm from Cleveland originally.

Did you set the Peninsula position up before leaving New York?
Yes. I did a tasting and interview to see about filling Curtis Duffy's position at Avenues, and then they came back and basically said that that space was going to be turned into a banquet and party facility. Four months later, they came back to me and asked if I was interested in taking the other restaurant, The Lobby, in another direction.

Are there any limitations to the fact that it's not in a traditional restaurant space?
No, honestly. We do breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which actually has opened my eyes a lot and taught me how to run all aspects of a restaurant. The upper management and corporate are also very supportive. I haven't come across any restrictions.

Explain what you're trying to do at The Lobby?
The first two meals are pretty much the same, just very well made. For dinner, it's a lot higher end than it used to be, but I wouldn't consider it super fine dining. It's still in the lobby of a hotel — there aren't people coming through with luggage, but it's still not in a traditional restaurant. The food is simple, and we don't try to fool anyone or trick them with conceptual food.

Why wouldn't you consider it "super fine dining"?
Well, I think the food would fit perfectly in any high-end restaurant. There aren't five managers, a ton of food runners, and all that here. It's not the French Laundry in terms of structure.

And you don't necessarily want it to be?
Correct. We want people to come in frequently as opposed to one time a year.

Talk more about the food.
The most important and the toughest thing is seasonality, because you always need to be thinking about what comes next. English peas come into season at the end of March, but by May 1, they could be gone. You need to be on your toes and constantly changing dishes or coming up with new ones. We can't just order stuff from Costa Rica.

As far as flavor, we stick to classic flavors. I don't like to add things just because they're different. The food here is well-seasoned. We have salt, acid, and fat — everyone wants that balance.

Explain a dish that you think reflects what your cooking is about.
There's a roasted octopus with radishes and ham hocks. It's basically something that isn't fatty paired with something that is. We cook the ham hocks with sugar and vinegar, so it's almost a gastrique that makes it acidic. That cuts into the octopus and brightens it. Then there are pickled radishes, roasted radishes, raw shaved radishes, and then a kimchi made out of radish leaves. There's lots of balance there. It's by far my favorite dish on the menu there.

I've been reading about a chicken for two that you are doing.
Yeah, we do that. We stuff it with butter and brioche.

So that's a nod to Daniel Humm and his famous chicken?
Yes. I worked [at Eleven Madison Park] for three years and cooked it for over three years. It's not a rip-off, it's just what I did. I respect the guy so much.

What did you learn at EMP?
Beyond the food and technique, which is insane, I learned a lot about culture.

In what sense?
They create a culture where everyone is respected equally. The busboy and the chefs are treated the same. The chef treats the busboys the same way he does his cooks. He says hello to everyone, shakes their hands. It's a tough place to work in terms of expectations and execution, but it's a very respectful and decent environment.

What would you say to someone going to your restaurant expecting EMP?
There are definitely tones of EMP, but it's not EMP. But anyone who works at one of the best restaurants in the world — you leave these places and you take with you traces of everything that you did there. I'm not going to work there, leave, and then start cooking Momofuku food.

I've talked about this with other young chefs: how you honor the places where you've worked while also finding your own voice.
If you work at the French Laundry and learn the best ways to roast a meat, you take that with you. But you don't go and make the salmon coronet or oysters and pearls, because that's straight plagiarism.

How does serving a hotel change what you do, if at all?
You have to please a lot of people at the hotel, so if someone wants a hamburger, it is is what it is.

And you'd give it to them?
Yeah, it's fine. They're paying for it.

A lot of chefs would tell those people to buzz off.
No, no. I've made french fries at Eleven Madison Park. That was a huge thing there: you never get upset at the guest. But that request happens at the Peninsula maybe once a month. People are seeing how we've changed the space, the mood, and it's not necessarily where you would want to go at night for a sandwich. There are somms, tablecloths, and candles.

Anything else you'd like to get off your chest?
Well, I worked at Moto and elBulli, and I don't want people to think that that's what I'm into. That's not the cooking I do. I don't want to be associated with that. I want to be known as progressive in terms of flavor, but not molecular in terms of technique. And I really mean no offense.

Elaborate on that.
I like what most every American likes to eat. 95% percent of us like potatoes, meat, chicken, vegetables, fish, capers, and lemons. I like to preserve that and just try to elevate it.

· All Lee Wolen Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]

The Peninsula Chicago

108 E Superior St Chicago, IL 60611