At the tender age of one, the Michigan-born and Florida-raised chef Mitch Lienhard was scalded by a pot of hot water, baptizing him into the kitchen world. Now he's a sous chef and Curtis Duffy's right-hand man at white-hot Chicago restaurant Grace, doing everything from baking, butchering, saucing, sashimi, and administrative work. According to photographer and Eater contributor Bonjwing Lee, who spent some time in the kitchen at Grace, Lienhard is "quiet, inquisitive, thoughtful, and projects a confidence that is much less showy than it is reassuring." Charleston chef Sean Brock, who oversaw Lienhard in his kitchens, notes, "You could immediately see something in his eyes. His eagerness is very very rare. He didn't have a lot of experience, but to me what matters is your attitude. You could tell right off the bat. He's going to be a very well-known chef probably very soon."
He was a shoe-in for the list of 50 Eater Young Guns semi-finalists, and ahead he chats about how he got into the business, why working with Curtis Duffy is such a dream for him, and what he's planning next.
How did you get your first restaurant job?
I always knew that I wanted to be a chef. At the age of thirteen, I really wanted a cellphone. My parents told me if I wanted to get one I had to pay for it myself. I started washing dishes at a little Italian restaurant and just kind of fell in love with watching kitchen service and watching the cook. He started to let me prep food a little bit and from there I just kind of worked my way up through the kitchen. I didn't go to culinary school, and I'm kind of happy about that because I learned the hard way—coming up through the kitchen, the old school way.
Besides Curtis (Duffy), are there other chefs you look up to?
Before Curtis, the last six years was with Kevin Ives at the Breakers Resort in Florida. It was a restaurant called L'Escalier. It was a huge wake up call for me, going from a more casual environment in a restaurant kitchen to going to fine dining. It was such a different animal that I was not prepared for at the time. Kevin really mentored me through that whole process. To me, if I have to mentors, Curtis is number one but Kevin is certainly number two.
You were into biology in high school. Are you into molecular gastronomy?
Not really too much. It's definitely exciting to see, but then I had too many negative experiences with it. I came to realize that all this manipulating an ingredient could stifle what makes it so great. Manipulating it to make it different—it's not as interesting to me as a wonderful piece of fruit that's natural. It's a naturally occurring element rather than taking this piece of fruit and pureeing it then dehydrating it, and rehydrating it. We certainly use some of it here at the restaurant, but we definitely keep it in check.
How did you get hooked up with Curtis?
In 2009 I was out in Maui, Hawaii. I wasn't really happy with the style of food that I was doing at the time. I was really getting into more modern food and I started looking at food blogs, eventually came across Curtis' and my mind was blown. His plating style is the most beautiful thing on the planet. When we are plating right next to each other, I'll plate my dish and it's beautiful and I'll look over and he just showed me who daddy was. He has definitely been the biggest mentor to me as far as seeing into the future, seeing my path and what I want to do.
What would you say is your personal style?
I love to create dishes that have really bright and bold flavors. I definitely could use some work in the area of subtlety. I love acid. On the menu, most of the dishes have pretty high acid levels. I like a little more classical technique as well, old school stuff. I could definitely see myself in the future with a style is definitely modern with a lot of classical influence to it.
What are your long-term goals in the business? If you could do anything in the restaurant business, what would it be?
There are two people I really look up to right now as far as what they're doing. One of them is Grant Achatz. I worked with him at Alinea for just over a year. And Paul Kahan runs this small little empire of restaurants that are just unbelievable. I would love to do something like that as well. My main goal is to take care of my brothers and sisters and my parents. I would love to have a family business with them. I just want to do really good food and have people be happy and be interested in what we're doing. That's number one for me.
What are you hoping to do in the near future? In the next year, two years?
I'm happy here. I think working with (Curtis) on developing new dishes is really special to me. It's something completely different. It's been eye opening. In the next several years, I want to be running my own kitchen. That's number one. Whether it's my own restaurant or taking over and trying to develop a style of my own. That's the main goal.
Is there a specific style you hope to be?
Just very natural, respecting ingredients is the biggest thing for me. It's kind of funny, but when I butcher fish or meat I think, "This thing gave its life for me to use it." So, you need to treat it in the most respectful way. It died for us to utilize it and work with it. It's the same thing with plants. Nature is a beautiful thing and if it's not more beautiful and better than when you started with it, you're kind of a failure in my eyes. You have to respect the ingredient.
— Interview by Daniel Gerzina