Sixteen's New Chef Thomas Lents Recommits Trump to Fine Dining

February 23 2012 - 8:18 AM

© Huber Thomas 4 close up When your restaurant is located in Trump Tower, it seems a given that it would ooze fine dining. Or would it? A recent spate of "re-concepting" to more casual ventures from The Peninsula's Avenues, The Four Seasons' Allium (née Seasons), and The Park Hyatt's NoMI Kitchen (née NoMI), makes one wonder whether Sixteen's new chef, Thomas Lents, wasn't also headed in that direction. The answer, it turns out, it a resounding "no." Here, Lents explains why not.

Chicago Foodies: Why stay fine dining?
Lents: I think fine dining is always going to be relevant. Like any trend, the farm-to-table trend has reached its apex. Some people want space between tables, don't want to have to shout over people, and want to enjoy the companionship of fine dining. That market is here, and the talent level of other chefs in Chicago is certainly here. You have a fine setting in Sixteen, and a beautiful room, and it demands fine dining. I think there's room for not just maintaining the status quo in fine dining, but coming up with a new level for it.

CF: What does that mean to you?
Lents: You need to give choice to people and make it approachable and comfortable, and you can take some of the techniques and ingredient-driven ideas that have come through, and put them in a fine dining setting. If you look at my menu, you'll see ox tail and bone marrow, and I am a big belivever in nose-to-tail cooking. I've been doing farm-to-table for 20 years, but my tables and my farms are just a bit more spread out.

CF: You were sous chef of wild game and seafood departments at the two Michelin star Thornton Restaurant in Ireland, and you have fallow deer on the menu at Sixteen now. Are we going to see lots of game from you?
Lents: I think you need to represent game in at least one place on every menu, if not two. This summer, I hope to have pigeon. I know a pigeon farmer in California and I can't wait to use his product. I like to think Chicago, being a Midwestern city, should appreciate game.

CF: You've traveled globally quite a bit, but Sixteen is still serves American cuisine. Will we see international touches to the menu?
Lents: Obviously, I have a lot of French training and I love French food and ingredients, but I'm not a French chef, I'm an American. There'll be some influences from Ireland and England, too. Down the road, I hope to do a play on a "boil dinner" and take it fine dining, because I love the flavors of that. But the question is how do you make that fine dining? That's my challenge. It's not a global menu; it's about finding the best ingredients, and I'm not going to limit myself.

CF: If people had dined at Sixteen when Frank Brunacci was executive chef, what will they see has changed now?
Lents: We've changed the formatting of service, picked out new china. We really reconcepted the entire restaurant to be more aggressively luxury dining. We want to be the best fine dining restaurant in Chicago.

CF: Are you gunning for more Michelin stars?
Lents: Oh of course. I've worked in two three-stars, and a two-star, and a couple of one-stars. If I stop at one star, I won't be happy.

–Kate Bernot

This interview does not appear in full due to space constraints.