You saw the videos earlier this week of the two contenders for the position of executive chef at Old Town’s upcoming The Refinery, serving their versions of some classic dishes as well as some dishes they chose to show off their skills. Now owners Bob and Tom Ellis have made their selection, and it’s Lawrence Letrero, currently sous chef at Untitled. "Both chefs did an excellent job at offering their interpretations of the dishes at The Refinery," said Bob Ellis, who is managing partner of the restaurant, set to open in late spring, "but Lawrence’s food stood out and spoke more to the concept of refinement of familiar dishes, and he just seemed the best guy to represent The Refinery." We spoke with both Letrero and Ellis about the competition.
How did the process of selecting a chef by competition work?
ELLIS: We started with a dozen chefs, mostly in the Chicago area. We interviewed them and narrowed it down to four, and then down to two. At that point we felt that the best way to reach a decision was to have a competition— their skill sets were very similar and it was time to get a, pardon the pun, flavor for what they could do.
Our concept is very much about interaction with the guest, so the idea of doing the competition with our clientele, and making a video of it, was a good fit with that. We want a good reaction from everyone who comes in the place, so this was a great way to dig right into that interaction with our chefs.
What interested you in The Refinery, Lawrence?
LETRERO: I met Bob through a friend of a friend. I wasn’t really looking— everything was going well at Untitled, but it’s a big place and when I heard about this, I was interested in something smaller and more intimate. I was on the same page with Bob and his brother’s philosophy and concept, it’s very much my style of food— taking something everyone knows, you don’t have to explain chicken wings, but elevating it and making it my own. Doing it nice and doing it well.
What’s your background, Bob? Have you had a restaurant before?
ELLIS: I spent 17 years in the restaurant and bar business, mostly in corporate management— I worked with Bennigan’s, Steak & Ale, and other companies. I left that in 1994 and then I went into finance for 18 years, and had my own business, money management for high net worth individuals. A few years ago I decided finance wasn’t really driving me any more, and I was involved with construction on a few projects as a general contractor. So I was really looking at my experience and thinking, finance, construction, restaurant and bar— what’s the perfect thing for me to do now? So this is the flagship of what I expect will be a larger enterprise.
The name is really what we’re about— refining the things people like to eat, refining the experience. And we liked that Lawrence was coming from Untitled, which is also a place where they do a lot of refining and create things that are pretty impressive.
What would you say your approach will be, Lawrence?
LETRERO: Well, when you look at where we’re going to be, in Old Town, it’s kind of an area with a lot of gastropubs. So we’re looking to be an alternative to that, very approachable fine dining that’s casual but at a high level. I’m going to use local farmers as much as I can, I like to cook with the seasons. I like to have just three or four things on the plate. I want it to just be good, honest food.