The next time you celebrate a special occasion at Sixteen, the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star dining centerpiece of Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago, be sure to take a minute to tell executive chef Thomas Lents the score of that night’s Blackhawks game. The die-hard hockey fan would love to follow the action himself, but making sure one of the city’s top restaurants is running smoothly can take up quite a bit of your schedule. Once you pile on appearances such as the James Beard Foundation’s Taste Chicago event on October 17, where Lents will join culinary kings Grant Achatz and Sean Brock in the kitchen for a fund-raising dinner, there’s even less time for the NHL. As you’ll see in the following interview, though, Lents isn’t bitter about any lack of free time; if anything, the chef’s too busy smiling about Sixteen’s fall menu, his holiday plans and Chicago’s unique positioning on the epicurean map.
Why is Chicago such a special place to you?
Well, I think as a chef, Chicago offers a lot of different things. One, you know, just being that it is the major city of the Midwest, I think that it really is interested in trying to find different things. We’re not San Francisco. We’re not New York. We don’t have the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean right at our doorstep. So, I think that a lot of the guests that come in to the restaurants are looking for chefs to be more creative. And that really helps us be able to do things that are a little outside of the ordinary, that take the guests on a little bit more of a ride than would normally be done. And diners in Chicago are looking for that. They really support chefs that are out there trying to do a little bit different. There is a reason why guys like Grant Achatz and Graham Elliot have been successful. They wouldn’t necessarily be able to get away with that kind of stuff, I think, in New York or L.A. But in Chicago, the people of the city want to support that kind of movement.
You just mentioned Grant. What do you, he, Sean Brock and others have planned for the Taste Chicago event?
I think it’s really great because we are very different, each one of us, in our own style. [Being a Virginia native], Sean, obviously, is a real proponent of Southern/Middle American cooking. He has done a great job of promoting the resurgence of Southern ingredients and cooking. And Grant is, obviously, a king of molecular…he hates that term. [He prefers] “modern cooking techniques.” And I focus a lot around storytelling and the ability of driving the story and the meaning behind the dining experience. It is really fun for us all to get together and then play off the strengths of each one of the different chefs. So, you know, I think we have a menu that shows the strength of each one of us, but also really allows the characteristic of each chef to show off. I think it will be great for the diners who will be able to see three different styles that are married together in one meal.
For the past few weeks on your Twitter account, you’ve been counting down the days until Sixteen’s fall menu debuted. Why is autumn so important to your kitchen?
Oh, I think there’re two things. One, the season itself. Autumn is to me about the harvest, about all the ingredients coming and about the bounty that happens before winter. And it is especially meaningful in a city like Chicago, where we do have such harsh winters. I’ve lived in California and Vegas, all across the country and a little bit over in Europe, and I think harvest means a little bit something more in the Midwest, because the reality of what is facing us in a couple of months is much more prevalent. We’re going to have another long, cold winter, so fall is a big celebration. It’s a great opportunity for us as chefs to be able to use a lot of great products. Also, for me, we change the menu, not just with the seasons, but we tell a different story every time we do it. This menu that we put on [for fall] was very meaningful for me because it was about the team — the title of the menu is actually “The Faces of Sixteen” and it’s a celebration of all the people who make this restaurant great. And that’s why on my Twitter account, I actually showed a face, one of the members of the team, for each one of the days prior to the menu being launched. It’s an opportunity for me to show that it takes a lot of people to produce the cuisine and the dining experience that we do here, and this menu is a celebration of those individuals that make this restaurant great.
Before long, it will be Thanksgiving time and then Christmas. What do you have in store for the holidays at Sixteen?
One of the nice things is that we are definitely a special-occasion restaurant. For Thanksgiving, we always have a large holiday buffet at the beginning of the day. And then we’ll open up for more of a regular dinner service. I love roasting whole bird, so for Thanksgiving, we always have an auction for the tables to receive a whole roast bird to share. We have different sized birds depending on the different sized tables, so we will start with a poussin and move up to a guinea hen, depending on how many people are at the table. So that’s always nice. It’s a great way to celebrate the season.
With Christmas, it’s a big thing in Chicago, and it’s a great thing for the restaurant as well. We always go out of our way to really try to make the best spirit happen in Chicago, and we reflect that in the restaurant. We’ll change the décor of the restaurant completely at Christmas. The pastry chef actually builds a gingerbread elevator that takes you from the lobby up to the 16th floor. We have one whole elevator completely full of gingerbread. So, that is always a big holiday experience. Christmas Day is usually reasonably quiet. I think most people prefer to spend it with their families. But we always have a huge full house on Christmas Eve. It’s a big day; a lot of people go out. And it’s nice, because we’ll unveil the winter menu, usually about a week before Christmas Eve, so it’s a really good time for a lot of families to come out and see the new menu.
Do you have some things in mind already for the winter menu?
Yeah, I have some ideas. And I think the way I do the cycle, the fall is actually the end of the year. So, the winter menu will begin the new cycle of four new menus for the next year. We try to tell a cohesive story throughout the year, just broken into four different chapters. So, yeah, we have some ideas, but it’s a little too early in the planning stages to start letting the cat out of the bag.
For the person who hasn’t had a Sixteen experience yet, tell him what he’s missed.
I think what we’re trying to do at the restaurant is reconceptualize what I consider to be good, old-school fine dining. We have a very dynamic restaurant that changes menus four times a year, and it’s not just the ingredients that we are changing, or even the dishes that we are changing, but the entire format and the story behind the menu changes. And I think that’s really what we offer at Sixteen that might be a little different from your average high-end fine-dining restaurant with multiple-course tasting menus. There are several of them and they’re very well regarded — Grace, L2O and Alinea — that are our direct — I don’t want to say competition — peers in the city. What we do is really tie together the idea behind it. We tell a story. We told the story of one day through the winter of Chicago. We told the story of harvest. This time we’re telling the story of the people behind the restaurant. And that’s an entire experience. It is not just about the dishes, but also the story behind it and the meaning that we try to put in each evening and each guest experience when they come.
When you aren’t planning menus and overseeing kitchens, what do you do to relax?
I’d love to get to more Blackhawks game. I wish I could, because, honestly, I live just down the road from the arena, and I’m a huge sports fan, so it’s great to be able to get an opportunity. I lived in Vegas prior to moving back to Chicago, and it was so hard not having any actual sports teams to support. So, as many games as I can get to — hockey, football and I’m a Cubs fan as well — I try to get to. But in all honesty, that is one of the hard things about being a chef: We work while everyone else plays. So, those dates that the theaters are open, I’m usually slaving away behind the stove. But yeah, a Sunday afternoon baseball game, every once and awhile I get a chance to attend.