Reinventing fine dining 16 floors above Chicago’s Wabash Avenue, Chef Thomas Lents ’95 brings his philosophical inclinations to the table—a feast for the senses that tells its own story.
Thomas Lents is no celebrity chef. He doesn’t consider himself an artist.
Lents prefers to be known as a storyteller.
His stories—crafted with a team-building approach and creativity that pushes the boundaries of fine dining—have earned in-ternational acclaim, including two Michelin stars.
He tells those stories on the 16th floor of the Trump Tower in downtown Chicago. The restaurant has long been known for its fabulous views of the Wrigley Building, Tri-bune Tower, and the Chicago River. Now it’s recognized for Lents’ novel approach to upscale dining. The Wabash philosophy major and TKE is one of the young chefs in the Windy City reinventing the genre.
“What we’re doing here is not like anything I’ve ever done in the past with anyone else,” Lents says, sitting next to the towering windows of Sixteen on a snowy February afternoon. “We have a different way of looking at fine dining. What are we going to do with the four hours we have you here? It’s not simply about the food. At this level and price point you should leave with more than just a full belly.”
Lents navigates the border between the craftsmanship and artistry of cooking.
“You’re never going to get me to say I’m an artist, because I don’t think I am. But we are capable of elevating the craft past just having dinner.”
The Battle Creek, MI, native became Six-teen’s executive chef in January 2012. His path from Wabash to this restaurant and its stunning view is impressive. He came to Chicago from the Michelin three star-rated restaurant opened in Las Vegas’ MGM Grand by Joel Robuchon, one of France’s most honored chefs. Lents was the first American-born chef to serve as chef de cuisine there.
Lents actually began his career in Chicago at Everest, and then cooked in Michelin-starred restaurants in England and Dublin. He worked as sous chef for Robuchon before helping Michael Tusk open the new Quince in San Francisco. He returned to Vegas and Robuchon for two years before joining the Trump empire.
“Fine dining is going through a growing period. The old foundations of what was considered fine dining had to sort of look at itself in the mirror and grow and change.
“What can we do that’s different than just bringing out luxurious ingredients on fine china? There’s got to be more than that for me. It’s not just about telling the stories, but about having a conversation with the guests.”
Lents and his team start that conversation with four innovative menus each year.
“If you give someone a traditional menu, it can become a sort of shield to deflect conversation,” Lents told Food Arts writer Kelsey Murdoch last year. By using the unexpected—from astrology charts for “Night and Day” to farmers’ market carts wheeled tableside for “The Summer Market”—Lents draws his guests into a delicious, even thought-provoking adventure.
“It can’t be too esoteric, too ‘out there.’ It has to be something that the guests can feel comfortable with—they have to feel a sense of hospitality. We’re not trying to do this to the guest; we’re trying to do this with them. That changes their perspective and makes them more open to it.”
In 2012 Sixteen’s menus told stories of the seasons, featuring the foods available during different quarters of the year. In 2013 Lents and his team hit stride. Winter 2013 featured “The Story of Chicago” with a menu modeled after the Chicago Transit Authority map of the city’s train and bus system. The food was inspired by the city’s Native American origins, as well as the influences of Irish, Slavic, Latin, and West African settlers.
Last summer’s “Inspirations From Where Land Meets Water” featured dishes like beef tartare/osetra caviar with oyster leaf, mussels, and green curry. The physical menu was built on a map of the Chicago waterfront that covered each table.
But Lents’ philosophy is best illustrated by a menu inspired by a member of his staff.
“We had a Liberian dishwasher. He has an amazing story. He was locked in a shipping container for six weeks getting here. His favorite thing is palm butter, which I’d never dealt with before. But being able to cook something that reminded him of home and finding a way to put that in a two-star Michelin restaurant was really cool for me.”
Designing such involved menus requires considerable time and effort.
“It’s about forming a team of thoughtful and dedicated people. We get together at the beginning of the year and think about the story we want to tell this year. What can we do that will push the restaurant forward and challenge us creatively?
“Sometimes we take the story and try to fit the food into it, and sometimes we take the food and allow that to develop the story.”
Lents’ team takes about six weeks to create each of the four annual menus. But getting the food right is only part of the experience.
“We put images up on the walls to help explain the story we’re telling. It’s the music in the dining room. It’s all part of setting the mood for the conversation we’re going to have with our guests.”
Telling stories and managing one of Chicago’s most prestigious restaurants may seem like a reach for a young man who started as a 14-year-old flipping bur-gers on weekends in his hometown. Lents says cooking was just something that developed for him. And a big part of that development came at Wabash College.
Lents’ father is an English professor, and his mother is also a teacher.
“My parents were very big on education for education’s sake and not for a specific job skill. Wabash taught me how to think, how to deal with situations with a critical mind. It can be about staffing a restaurant or how to deal with a huge party. The liberal arts education provides the confidence that you know you can go in and handle any situation if you just take the steps you’ve learned and think about it.”
Lents won the J. Harry Cotton Prize for the best work in philosophy in 1995.
“I have good memories of working with Tom in several classes,” Professor Cheryl Hughes recalls. “When he asked me to write a recommendation for graduate school in 1997, I was pleased to recommend him. He would have done very well if he had followed that path, but it looks like he has done very well in his current path.”
Lents was TKE House president when the house was struggling financially and had to let its cook go. He would collect money from each fraternity brother on Sundays and cook a big dinner. That experience grew into a series of faculty dinners and led to Lents’ first job after graduation at Joe’s Restaurant on Green Street in Crawfordsville.
He also took that year after Wabash to seriously contemplate pursuing a PhD, but decided against it.
“I got to the point that I needed something other than the esoteric thought- process of academia. I saw my father, a man of ideas, who had only produced ideas all of his life. I wanted to produce something on a daily basis that I could say, ‘This is the work that I have done and this is what I produced.’”
So Lents traveled to Florida to work in a restaurant owned by friends, a venture so successful that they opened a second restaurant with Lents as head cook. He realized, then, that he wanted to become a chef. He attended the New England Culinary Institute and earned an advanced placement degree.
Lents acknowledges that professional cooking comes with many challenges, including low entry-level wages and little time for family and friends.
“It’s not even the physical labor of it that’s difficult—it’s the fact you work when everyone else plays. It is always going to be very difficult to get any time off around the holidays. You’re going to slowly drift away from those 9-to-5 friends you have.
“You have to be ready for that and willing to do that. Your partner needs to be willing to have somebody that does this.”
Lents’ wife, Rebecca LaMalfa, more than understands that. She’s executive sous chef at Chicago’s Trenchermen in Wicker Park, and Lents describes her as ambitious with slightly different goals than his own. She appeared on the Bravo TV show Top Chef.
Lents supports his wife’s decision but has little interest in the “celebrity chef” lifestyle.
“Chefs get a little too much credit for what we do. A lot of the time chefs are busy doing things they shouldn’t be doing. A lot of times they’re not in their kitchens. They’re more into their brands than the food they’re putting out. In that sense, they’re being good businessmen.
“People look at this profession as romantic, but it’s not. This career is 90 percent business. Besides, I’m not a TV guy. I’m an old school chef. I prefer to be in my restaurant.”
The accolades—Forbes’ best five-star rating and being the No. 1-rated Chicago restaurant on Open Table, in addition to those two Michelin stars—are nice. But Lents is happiest alone in the kitchen.
“I just love to cook. Nothing makes me happier than coming into a completely empty kitchen and cooking by myself. There are no meetings, no emails, and no telling 15 different cooks they’re doing something right or wrong.”
But don’t think he’s not ambitious. Lents wants to achieve a new standard of fine dining driven by the story just as much as the food.
“I’ve just always wanted more. I’ve always wanted to see how far I can take something. Part of my drive is to really see if we can make something great and some-thing unique.”