It’s hard to think how Thomas Lents’ resume could have been more perfect for his new gig at Sixteen in the Trump International Hotel & Tower— or perhaps we should say that his real assignment is to get back the Michelin star that the restaurant lost when it was between lead chefs. From Chicago’s Everest to France and Ireland to working for Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, Lents’ credentials at the top of fine dining are impeccable. But we wanted to put meat on those resume bones, so we talked with Lents about what he learned at each of the stops on his rise, and what they taught him that we’ll begin to see when his menu debuts at Sixteen next month. We caught him as he was driving from Santa Fe to Boulder on his way back to Chicago, where his career began.
You started your career at Everest, which is a pretty heady beginning. Tell us about what you learned there.
I really credit Chef Jean Joho and Chef Thierry Tritsch for starting my career. Right from the beginning I saw a great model of fine dining, which taught me the right attitude and work ethic. It showed me the levels that dining can go to.
And although it was formal French dining, you know it also has this Alsatian influence, that’s where chef Joho and chef Tritsch were both from. So I really came to love Alsatian food. The way they talked about L’Auberge de l’Ill, Marc Haeberlin’s Michelin three-star where they’d worked— the reverence they held that place in, made me realize that I needed to go to Europe and see some of those restaurants which American French restaurants are modeled on.
Next you worked for Kevin Thornton, at his restaurant in the Fitzwilliam Hotel in Dublin. He’s not someone who’s probably very well known in America, so tell us why you went to work for him and what you learned there.
What drew me to him was his personality. He belongs to that school of brash Irish-English chefs, gruff and very direct in his cooking. One thing I took from him, that I really want to reflect, was his ability to take his training under Paul Bocuse and make it his own with Irish game and ingredients. That was an inspiration to me— to work with great French techniques but make something of my own with them.
Does that mean there will be a lot of game on your menu?
Well, not the same game they have in Ireland. But we have game of our own in America, and especially at this time of year, there will be at least one game slot. It’s an important element that I think is underutilized— everybody has offal on the menu these days, and I think game should be brought into the same prominence.
Then you went to Vegas to work for Joel Robuchon.
Actually I worked in a couple of places in England. Then I got the call— I’d been offered things in Vegas before, but it’s not my kind of place, the only reason to go there was for Robuchon. He’s one of the great masters, everybody holds him in the highest regard.
Working for him took my technique to another level. He demands a level of perfection that’s very rare. The precision that’s expected of you there— every chef could do that and get better.
I rose to executive sous chef there, and then I helped Michael Tusk reopen Quince in San Francisco, and spent about a year there. I had never done Italian food, so that was great. Then Robuchon called me back and offered me the chance to be his first American chef de cuisine. And I couldn’t say no to that.
There’s a bunch of Robuchon Vegas veterans here now, did you work with—
I worked with all those guys! Anthony Martin at Tru, Matt Kirkley [L2O], Ryan LaRoche [NoMI Kitchen]— I can’t wait to see those guys, it’ll be like a little Robuchon homecoming.
So how’d you wind up at Sixteen? Did one of them tip you off or anything?
Not really. I had been in Chicago and gone there, I knew it was one of the best hotels, if not the best, and seeing the room I saw what it could be. I saw how there was room for it to grow. So I was immediately interested when they contacted me.
You’re coming to Chicago with this classical French background and resume at a time when dining seems to be moving in the other direction— The Four Seasons just closed its fine dining restaurant and went more casual, to name one. How do you feel about bucking that casualization trend?
I think that’s what it is, a trend. It’s one thing on the dining scene and Chicago is a big enough city that there’s room for all of it. It’s as cosmopolitan as any city in the world. If these other restaurants are leaving that part of the market, then that just throws that much more of a spotlight on Sixteen.
The thing is, I’m not running a French restaurant. It’s a modern restaurant utilizing modern techniques. I mean, I’m an American. I grew up in the midwest. I’m taking French techniques and bringing that level of precision and drive to American cooking, not reproducing French cuisine.