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Once restaurants had floor shows full of dancers and strolling Gypsy violinists and waitstaff dressed like they were in the Habsburg army. Then suddenly such things were gauche, and dining was straight faced and serious for a couple of generations. In the last couple of decades this began to change again; the conceptual games of Alinea and the magic tricks of Moto and, more recently, the whole-meal concept dinners of Next were efforts to bring entertainment back into dinner, to make the table itself a show, art exhibition and personal vision and mind bender.
And if you want to know if that’s here to stay, look at Sixteen, the two-Michelin-star restaurant in the Trump Tower with a view of Michigan Avenue that goes beyond spectacular into some new realm (imperial? Jehovahesque?). Once, that view plus the impeccable skills of chef Thomas Lents—a veteran of Joël Robuchon's Vegas restaurant and other top international kitchens—would have been blue chip enough to draw the international traveler and the special occasion diner.
But now we want to know what our chef is thinking, too. Lents started doing concept dinners on a smaller scale last year, pushing seasonal menus in specific directions (so that an autumn menu found ways to evoke harvest festivals, for instance). That stepped up dramatically this year with a menu built around Chicago history, featuring dishes that evoked the 1893 World’s Fair and the architecture of Louis Sullivan. The new spring menu, which offers a choice of two complete tastings devoted to either night or day, plays a similar game of spot-the-cultural-allusion to everything from peasant mythology to Goodnight Moon, while time-lapse photography projected overhead shows the restaurant’s own changing views from day to night.
Next has always been conscious of not pushing a concept like “Thai” or “Sicily” too far into a Disneyish realm, and Lents similarly talks about not turning food into such obviously structural elements that you feel like you're "eating Legos." The challenge is to hint at things while still, in the end, delivering food that works as food. Today I speak with Lents about creating a conceptual menu like this; tomorrow I’ll talk with him and sommelier Dan Pilkey about how a particular cultural touchstone from the world of wine helped shape the concept.
Michael Gebert: So you're doing conceptual themes with your menu now. How did that come about?
Thomas Lents: We started a little bit more than a year ago, we've been through five whole cycles now. We really wanted to address a way to keep a dynamic motion in the restaurant. You can get to a point where you're just cooking, and producing tasty plates and things that are enjoyable, but there's no real idea behind it.
I wanted to build a form in the restaurant itself that forced us to make dynamic changes at least a couple of times a year. Something that tied together not only the menus themselves, but also the style of service and the length and description and organization of the menu. That would create a constant sense of change and a constant sense of growth in the restaurant.
Is part of it marketing to people with something that says, we're not the same place you ate at a few months ago? You won't have the same experience you just had?
I think there is definitely an idea behind it that we wanted to distinguish ourselves from the prototypical fine-dining restaurant. I think that's something that needs to be done in fine dining—there needs to be a much more progressive idea behind it. This was our take on that, our way of doing something that was ever evolving and changing.
And yeah, there's benefits to that in that people come in four times a year now, as opposed to just coming in on their birthday, for instance.
How did you think about what themes you wanted to explore?
Well, the first year was strictly seasonal, we changed on the solstices and we wanted to tell a story that was specific to that season. So the first one was "One Day in Winter," and we literally went from dawn break to the end of night, and told a linear story of a day, waking up, walking outside, walking through a winter's woods, storm coming, returning to your house. Spring was the story of three different environments in spring—the field, the stream, and the pasture. Summer was the summer markets, we kind of wanted to highlight the bounty of the summer, and fall we finished with the festivals, how the autumn festivals are so important, Halloween, Dia de Muertos, to some of the ideas of the transhumanist movements of cattle coming from the high pastures down, so there's celebrations that go on in the Basque regions and the regions of France, as well, that celebrate the return of the shepherds.
This year, what we're drawing on is really what we see directly outside our windows. So we started with the story of Chicago, the fact that this restaurant is located with such an iconic view—the Wrigley Building staring you in the face every day, that kind of reminder that "You're in the middle of Chicago!" So we really wanted to make that a focal part of the story.
The other thing that I find a lot of inspiration from is coming in early in the morning, or leaving late at night, and seeing how the skyline changes. So that was literally our inspiration, looking out the window and seeing how the day changes as we're here sixteen, eighteen hours a day.
Do you actually have windows in the kitchen?
We do not! That's actually part of the reason why—if the view was there all the time, we wouldn't see it. I make an effort to come out and look at it at least four or five times a day. It's the same reason why I don't come in the service entrance to the hotel, I come in the front door—because I need to see the people I'm serving. I need to see where we're located, because that's a constant reminder of why we do this and where we're doing it.
I've done this long enough that I've realized that you have to do that. I spent ten years of my life in a windowless kitchen—
And you came from Vegas, the ultimate timeless environment—
At Robuchon we were trapped inside this giant casino to begin with, and then taking this little jewel box from France and planting it in the middle of the MGM Grand, we were literally the little island inside the big island. We never even saw the casino, because we were inside the little mansion. So then to go from that to Quince in San Francisco, where there were windows that were literally the street front, and every guest walked by the kitchen, you're going to the markets constantly. Being part of the environment you're in made an impact on me and made me want to make it part of my cooking.
So going to the "Night and Day" theme—how did you differentiate the food between night and day? It seems like, the same things are growing at both times of the day.
The easiest place to start for us was the things that were affected by the growth cycles of light. So we chose a lot of green vegetables—as the days lengthen, what are the things that you see first? So we have ramps, we have the first asparagus of the season, all the things that are the harbingers of spring.
Then for night, the first thing that popped into our heads was the lunar cycles, the things that are affected by the tides. Like razor clams and geoducks, which can only be harvested in certain times of the lunar cycle. A lot of shellfish are affected by the lunar cycle.
We also wanted to play around with things that grow in the absence of light. So we picked a couple of items like white asparagus, Belgian endive. Things that wouldn't exist if they grew with light. Mushrooms are another thing that seem to pop up overnight. There's a lot of activity, a lot of growth happening in the night, whether you see it or not.
I also liked that the dishes were sort of subtle at making visual references, you might hint at the phases of the moon but you weren't obviously drawing a cartoon moon in sauce on the plate, say.
I think we're getting better at that. That's one of the hard things about cooking, is that idea of trying to not use a sledgehammer to get your point across. We learned a lot in the "Chicago" menu because that was about storytelling, we were literally doing a dish that looked like the Mies van der Rohe building next door. If you make it too literal, it's like eating Legos. That's not right.
Any time you take a themed approach you can end up taking it a little too esoteric, a little too preachy. That's why we also wanted to take it back to some cultural things, like a bedtime story, that root it back in the human experience.
So we take a lot of time in the creative process, six weeks or two months working on the dish, playing with the plating, so we can get to the point that you get the idea across without losing the integrity of the dish. It's like with the fairy ring [inspired by the way mushrooms grow in a circle]—all you need is to have a little something in the middle that evokes that idea. You don't have to have little marshmallow mushrooms all around it.
How have people reacted to the themed dinners?
They've responded really well. One of the things we wanted to do was change the way that the actual menus are presented to people. That's something that we've been playing around with a lot. And I think the fact that we have the astrological wheel for a menu kind of forces people to be involved with the meal from the moment they sit down. They're not going to be, like, "Oh, this is a normal dining experience," and then once the food comes it isn't what they expected. They understand that this is a different process and you're going to be involved with it, that there's going to be a dialogue and a story between the service and the guest. People understand that they're in for a different thing.
But you're in a hotel, which has its own traffic. Do you get people who come in and look at this and don't get it. Can they just get a cheeseburger?
No, they can't [laughs]. We fortunately have another dining area for that. I mean, I'm in the hospitality business. I'm here to give people what they want and make them happy, but we have another area we can offer them for that kind of fare. But the dinner crowd is 90 percent from outside the hotel anyway.
And I'd say 85 percent of those people who do wander in are incredibly excited by the time they leave. I really like being able to win over a guest who didn't know what they were getting into, and they're stunned by the time they leave. That's kind of what it's all about, actually.