At LEYE’s most surprising concept yet, visiting chefs, mixologists, and other culinary professionals turn out contemporary hits in a fine-dining setting.
Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises founder Rich Melman refers to himself as “part artist.” In that case, it would be difficult to find a more appropriate culinary canvas than the powerhouse company’s rotating-chef concept Intro, which debuted in February 2015 in Chicago’s Lincoln Park area.
“Intro has been a lot of fun for me, and it has worked out well for Lettuce,” says Melman, founder and chairman of Chicago-based LEYE, a privately held restaurant company with about 90 restaurants, 40 of which are in the Windy City.
“I thought it would be very interesting to introduce new talent to Chicago,” he adds. “We wanted to bring these young chefs in and teach them our methodologies. They become our partners for three months. That was the start of the whole thing.”
During the first year of operation, four chefs were given the opportunity to redesign Intro’s 90-seat, finely appointed space, its music, menu, and even the uniforms. The restaurant would close for a week between guest chefs to accommodate the changes. Unsurprisingly, the recurring opening costs cut into profitability.
“For the first month and a half of a chef’s time with us we didn’t make any money because we spent it all on opening costs,” Melman explains. “So I decided to make some changes.”
One of those changes came toward the end of year one when LEYE named Stephen Gillanders, then current chef-in-residence, to the position of executive chef/partner and made his à la carte menu a permanent fixture at Intro. The chef's program will continue, featuring a tasting menu that will also be available to guests in addition to the à la carte items.
Before his October arrival at Intro, Gillanders worked with renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Jean-Georges Management in New York City, where he oversaw nine restaurants.“What surprised me most about Intro is the outpouring of support that I received as an in-residence chef,” Chef Gillanders says. “I was in shock at the staff’s work ethic and passion for cooking. Now, as I move forward, the idea of working with four different chefs creating four different restaurants every year is another opportunity for an unparalleled learning experience.”
Aside from Gillanders, two of the three other first-year chefs-in-residence are now also employees in the LEYE system—one in Chicago and another in Minnesota. Jessica Largey, who won the 2015 James Beard: Rising Star Chef of the Year for her work at Manresa in Northern California, became Intro’s fifth chef-in-residence in February.
Sue Kim, general manager and partner for Intro, agrees Intro’s structure is unlike anything else she’s witnessed in her restaurant career, which includes seven years with the LEYE group.
“This is such a unique restaurant,” she says. “I don’t know any other that features a different visiting chef every few months. We have had all different kinds of food, and we all have to wear many hats to achieve such a high-level experience. It is an entrepreneurial incubator for sure, and the passion is contagious.”
Intro employs about 40 people—15 in the back of the house and 25 in the front of the house.
The 90-seat restaurant averages 200 covers on weekend nights and between 130 and 150 covers on nights during the week.
Tucked behind the kitchen is Naoki Sushi, another LEYE operation, which occupies the 45-seat converted private-dining space of Intro.
“The kitchen is the artery that connects these two different spaces,” says Kim, who manages all of the LEYE restaurants in the building. “Three Lettuce restaurants anchor this building, so we have created more of a dining destination.”
Gillanders’ menu features a variety of dishes including Black Truffle Croquettes, Japanese Eggplant Dip, Hamachi Sashimi, Peekytoe Crab Fritters, and Prime Beef Short Rib. Bestsellers include Baby Artichoke Risotto with a tea and herb infusion, Flat Iron Steak, which is a beef and broccoli dish, and the signature dessert—Banana Budino, caramelized bananas topped with bourbon pudding, granola, pistachio, sea salt, and cacao nibs.
Dinner at Intro averages $70 with between 30 and 35 percent of revenues coming from beverage sales.
“Our cocktail program is very up to date,” Kim says. “Overall, what we look for are classic cocktails with rifts and twists. We embrace mixology.”
During Intro’s first year of operation, service has been a challenge. “Every chef and menu has required a different adaptation of service,” Kim says. “Now, with Stephen here permanently, we have a gracious and intimate style that is more focused on building relationships. We have learned as we go.”
Kim isn’t the only one who has learned something since the restaurant’s inception.
“This restaurant is a launching pad,” Chef Gillanders notes. “I have learned a lot from a business perspective. It has taken me from chef to restaurateur.”
Even veteran restaurateur Melman has expanded his knowledge base. “This year has reinforced how much we like developing and working with people,” Melman says. “You learn how different people think about food, and I have learned I love the process. I am a coach, and that is what I love doing.”