Serving as a culinary incubator for rising chefs, the kitchen at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ new concept Intro Chicago relies on an efficient layout and world-class equipment selection to make all of its menus shine.
When a kitchen has been well-designed from the get-go, its equipment and layout stand ready to support nearly any concept its owners can conceive, even when the concept encompasses a totally new culinary direction and leader every two to three months. Such is the case with Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Founder Rich Melman’s latest debut. Intro Chicago opened in February across from Chicago’s Lincoln Park Conservatory, taking over the location—and kitchen—of LEYE’s two Michelin-star restaurant formerly known as L2O, which operated from 2008 to the end of 2014.
Melman calls Intro Chicago a “school for entrepreneurs” where he can introduce “up-and-coming chefs to Chicago, but also introduce these chefs to some of the things that have made Lettuce successful,” Melman explained in an LEYE press release. “Chefs will work with us every step of the way, have a financial partnership stake in the concept they create and, if they go on to open a restaurant of their own, they’ll have Lettuce senior partners as mentors.”
Intro Chicago—part laboratory, part startup incubator—is a partnership between Melman, Chef/Partner Matthew Kirkley (former L2O head), Operating Chef Bob Broskey and a series of rising-star chefs from around the country who will “audition” with the LEYE team to take over the kitchen for a two- to three-month guest-chef run. Intro Chicago’s first guest chef is CJ Jacobson, a recent winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef Duels” and executive chef at Girasol restaurant, Studio City, Calif.
As for the restaurant, its architecture and both its original look (as L2O) and new look (as Intro) were created by Dirk Denison Architects, Chicago. The kitchen, totally revamped for L2O’s 2008 debut, was designed by consultant Tim Harrison, owner of Harrison & Koellner LLC, Mill Valley, Calif.
Price points at Intro Chicago range from $65-$95 (depending on the concept and not including wine pairings, taxes or tips), and reservations will be sold in advance, concert-ticket style, via a new system called Tock.
Intro To The Kitchen
Load-bearing walls in the historic Chicago building where Intro is housed required the space be broken into a series of smaller work areas: the restaurant’s main cooking area, a pastry/garde manger area, a fish prep room, bakery, storage and two warewashing areas, including one for pots and pans and one for tableware. But good planning has allowed an overall smooth flow of staff and product.
The heart of the kitchen—a clean and elegant space with white subway-tile walls, slate-gray floors and gleaming equipment—features two cook lines that flank two generously sized staging/work counters. The well-lit counters, equipped also with heat lamps, provide plenty of room for plating, saucing and finishing dishes. They are topped with custom, non-slip, commercial-grade silicone pads in black. “These heat-proof pads really keep down the noise from banging plates, pots and pans,” Broskey says. During service times, 15 or more culinary pros in this area alone are in constant motion as they prepare and plate Jacobson’s menu creations.
Below the staging/work counters are a few heated cabinets where stacks of plates stay warm. The doors on these cabinets, located on both sides for dual access, lift garage-door-style and tuck out of the way during service. Also part of the staging areas: cold drawers below, a tiny prep sink, a handy cutout in the counter over a trash receptacle for food waste and a short raised-rail unit at the far end of one staging/work table to hold garnishes.
Off to one side of the work-table area is a pastry station/garde manger. The area is small in size but big in flexibility. “Most of its refrigerated undercounter drawers can be turned into freezers at the flip of a switch,” Broskey says. A dedicated undercounter freezer holds sorbets and ice creams made in the restaurant’s Pacojet or Carpigiani machines. The well of a raised rail on one refrigerated prep table has the flexibility to operate in hot or cold modes or as an immersion circulator to retherm sous-vide items. A wall-mounted glass-door refrigerator offers additional cold holding/staging space. And on one wall, an electric, variable-height salamander made by Sodir/Equipex is conveniently positioned to toast breads or flash-heat items.
The two cook lines feature Bonnet ranges and ovens and four Rational combi ovens. The original kitchen designers and chefs opted for solid French tops on the ranges rather than individual burners. “The center is the hottest part, and the range top gets cooler toward the perimeter, so it provides great temperature control for our cooks,” Broskey says. “And instead of only being able to fit six pans on a conventional range, you can fit up to 20 small pans.”
Other cook-line features include planchas, a grill and individual cooktops dedicated to large stockpots. Additional wall-mounted gas salamanders offer high-temperature flash heating, quick melting and finishing.
Prep And Support
Fresh fish proved such a key part of the former L2O menu—and now Intro Chicago’s—that it earned not only a dedicated prep room, but also several large tanks to hold live lobsters. The fish prep room also is outfitted with cold drawers filled with crushed ice for whole fish, a scaling sink, plenty of sharp knives—and Joe, the fish-prep specialist.
In a neat design twist, the pot-washing area features a pass-through window that opens into the kitchen. “Our chefs and cooks can hand soiled pots and pans through the window during service, and the cleaning crew can pass us back clean ones, so we don’t have to walk around to pot wash during service,” Broskey says. (Not to mention pot washers get to enjoy a view of the culinary action.)
Broskey also mentions a line of three, five-shelf racks stocked with saucepans, fry pans and stockpots as well as other metal cookware. “We rely on a single brand of cookware—Mauviel. The nice thing about that is that every single pot in this kitchen has a lid that fits, which I’ve never seen happen anywhere.”
Storage in the old building is eked out of nooks and crannies. One reach-in cabinet holds countertop electric equipment, such as blenders, countertop deep fryers, scales and stand mixers. Another set of shallow in-wall cabinets holds canisters of dry ingredients: spices, dried herbs, powders and more.
Intro Chicago offers its chefs some creative specialty equipment, of which Jacobson, whose cooking style has been described as “rustic refined with a focus on hyper seasonal local ingredients,” is taking full advantage. Among them: a smoker, dehydrators and a vacuum-pack unit.
The industrial-sized Enviro-Pak smoker, which among other things has been used for smoked chocolate ganache, one part of Jacobson’s signature grande finale.
“[The Enviro-Pak is] the Rolls Royce of smokers,” Broskey says. “You can control temperature, humidity, timing, everything.”
Seven Excalibur nine-tray dehydrator units stay in near-constant use for menu items, including slow-dried rutabaga “noodles” (served rehydrated in an oxtail “tea” broth), potato jackets that later will be quick-fried and savory melt-on-the-tongue meringue balls resembling forest mushrooms.
A Multivac machine is used for vacuum-packing food items for sous-vide precision-temperature cooking.
Intro Chicago’s wide array of traditional and cutting-edge food-preparation equipment can meet almost any need. However, if a future Intro Chicago chef were to request a specific piece of equipment not currently included in the kitchen, the answer likely will be, “Yes.”
“We have a supplies budget in place,” Broskey says. “But I think such requests will be rare—this kitchen puts a lot at a chef’s disposal!”
With such a well-equipped space, Intro Chicago is ready for all comers. “I think Rich [Melman] wants to keep the place surprising,” Broskey says. “It’s fun, and it’s fluid.”
MENU/SEGMENT: Fine dining
HOURS: Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.
SIZE: 2,500 sq. ft. with 98 seats
PARENT COMPANY: Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Chicago
KEY PLAYERS: Rich Melman, LEYE founder; Matthew Kirkley, LEYE chef/partner; Bob Broskey, Intro operating chef; CJ Jacobson, guest chef
KITCHEN DESIGNER: Harrison & Koellner LLC, Mill Valley, Calif.
ARCHITECT: Dirk Denison Architects, Chicago