by Whet Moser
All that [sophisticated culinary El Bulli] jazz might seem worlds away from the huge a la carte menus of simple, familiar dishes you'll find at a midlevel Lettuce joint, but Melman's empire includes longtime chef-driven destinations (Everest, Ambria) and even experimental menus (Tru). And the rosters at places like Alinea, Avenues, and Moto owe as much to Melman as they do to Trotter: Lettuce has provided a means of keeping culinary talent in town—with the company's general professional opportunities, certainly, but also with corporate jobs that provide income during the inevitable transition periods in chefs' careers. Melman has been able to offer midlevel employment solutions in the all-or-nothing restaurant world to talented chefs who need a break from its harsh demands or aren't quite ready to dive into launching their own place. Mary Ellen Diaz, for instance, worked as a corporate Lettuce chef after burning out at North Pond Cafe; Gabriel Viti served two years as a Lettuce chef before stepping into the head chef position at Carlos' and eventually opening his own restaurant.
It hit home because the first Chicago restaurant that really bowled me over - and keep in mind I was still a college student and living in Hyde Park at the time, where my favorite restaurant was and remains Rajun Cajun - was the Grand Lux Cafe, an LYE-esque Cheesecake Factory joint on Michigan Avenue that's like a giant, luxe Applebee's. Which, if you grew up going to and liking Applebee's like I did, is damned impressive.
You have to start somewhere, whether you're a person or a culinary scene, and Tamny's argument for the sometimes-mocked LYE empire as a vital transitional step for patrons and pros, is convincing - underscoring the importance of the middlebrow as an aesthetic and economic hub. (And before I get too far into "Lettuce Entertain You as Sociocultural Metaphor" I'll stop.)
[On the other hand, they did name a restaurant "Jonathan Livingston Seafood," which beggars the imagination.]