The fact Chef Thomas Lents majored in philosophy won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has sampled his cuisine. In the past four years since taking the reins at Sixteen, the Michelin two-star restaurant in Chicago’s Trump International Hotel & Tower, Lents’ menu has displayed a narrative and ingenuity worthy of a master storyteller.
One example was his “History of Chicago” menu, which included a trio of courses inspired by Windy City architects. In another course, broth brewed at the table was siphoned to change its direction, all in an effort to mimic the city’s famed flow reversal of the Chicago River. There was also a section on immigration, day and night themes, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
“I try to inspire,” Chef Lents explains. “I really try to showcase the meaning behind why we’re doing something in the restaurant. And I think that’s an important part of dining that people forget about. I think a lot of people go out to be fed. But at this level, I think it needs to be a little bit more than that.”
Chef Lents admits, however, that the last few menus have been a tad heavy on the thematic side. When 2016 approached, he decided to bring the restaurant back to its core.
While there’s nothing simplistic or scaled back about his current premise, “A Study in Ingredients,” it strikes a more pure tone. Given how much time Chef Lents spends on sourcing and on cultivating relationships with producers, not to mention nursing Sixteen’s own rooftop garden, he wanted to step out of the food’s path and simply let its inherent quality shine. “I’m a big believer that you’re never going to make an ingredient better. You have to start with the perfect ingredient or else everything is going to fall apart,” he says. The menu is presented in four courses with multiple options in each: To Begin, To Continue, To Follow, and To Conclude. In the summer, they were split into “current ingredient studies,” including: The Family of Lobster; A Study of Legumes; The Season’s Thistles; Corn: The Arrival of Summer; and The Field of Flowers and Herbs.
One example of a plate, featured in the To Follow section, included Sea Buckthorn, Lavender Poached Langoustine, and Petit Pastoral Salad.
In the fall, the menu turned to autumn flavors that arrive with the season. Lents’ experience as a hunter, and the time he spent abroad, led to game meats assuming a central role, as well as maitake mushrooms. Just like with past iterations, such as the one in winter, which relied heavily on proteins, Chef Lents’ goal has remained focused on the source. “One of the movements we wanted to do as an entire restaurant was to return to the plate,” he says. “In the process, we’ve created something that’s more approachable to the guest and still allows us as cooks and chefs to put as much thought as we did into the other ideas.”