The Philosopher Chef

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Thomas Lents, Executive Chef, Sixteen at Trump

Expect the unexpected when dining at Sixteen at Trump. The presentation is a delight, but a chef who quotes a philosopher? Absolutely. Chef Thomas Lents credits poet and German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in part, with inspiring his latest nine-course tasting menu, The Day and Night Sky. “You can’t have one without the other,” he says, referring to Hegel’s dialectical thinking.

Chef Lents is arguably serving some of the most clever, story-driven, Chicago-focused menus in the city, and he changes the narrative quarterly. Many of the themes he finds come from the landscape surrounding him and the great philosophical minds that came before him.

Chef Lents earned his bachelor’s in history and philosophy at Wabash College in Indiana. He says he expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a professor, but along the way decided he wanted a career that seemed less esoteric and more immersed in the physical world. “I needed to do something with my hands, so I put myself wholeheartedly behind cooking,” he explains.

He’d already spent years working in kitchens in college to pay the bills, so he knew what he was getting into when he enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute. Chef Lents says that, for the first 10 or 15 years of his career, he really enjoyed learning the classic skills required to assemble a French-inspired meal worthy of accolades and Michelin stars.

Chef Lents spent time in the kitchens of Everest in Chicago, Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas and Quince in San Francisco. Then he began challenging himself in an artistic sense. “About 10 years ago, I realized I needed to try to find a way to try to incorporate more elements of my interests and other things that were important to me into my cooking, as well,” he recalls. “That’s when I started to make my cooking more personal.” By sprinkling in bits and pieces of narrative and philosophy, he continually challenges himself to create a culinary palette that’s new to diners and new to him. Which brings us back to the ever-evolving menus at Sixteen.

The Day and Night Sky Menu

“We wanted to show the inspiration that we garner from the changing of the day and the night skies that we see from the dining room itself,” explains Chef Lents. “So we wanted to talk about how you can see spring coming in the day. The growth that we start to see. The ice receding on the lake. The lengthening of the days.”

The meal begins with an interactive glass menu wheel, divided into ‘Night’ and ‘Day’ sections. As you turn the knob to the wheel, the courses for each menu are revealed, with the Day menu illustrating the seasonal changes from dark to light, from winter to spring, from stillness to life, and the Night menu embracing the setting sun, the guiding stars and the mystery of what happens after dark.

The Day starts with The Rising Sun, a course in which the freshness of cured king salmon and the sweetness of kumquat flirt with one another, their flavors representing dawn, while a salmon skin cracker topped with Osetra caviar served on the side represented the sun’s reflection on Lake Michigan. The next course, Melting Snow, is the most dramatic. A porcini mushroom tea heats over flames, tableside, as a small white bowl with a dome of ice awaits. The hot tea, representing the soil and sun, is poured over the ice, melting the last of winter’s frost, and revealing an earthy bite of foie gras underneath.

Chef Lents’ sense of humor is evident in the next three courses. First, the baby-vegetable-filled Garden Springs dish. “You have everything you’d find in a garden: vegetables and rabbit,” jokes the cheeky server. Then, an age-old question is answered with The Egg Comes First, an egg served on the lightest of truffled dashi rice with green garlic. Appropriately, Then the Chicken (chicken with brioche stuffing, morel and cockscomb) follows.

The most boundary-pushing course is lamb’s tongue, wrapped in tomato confit, served with spring lamb, artichoke and sunchoke. Of the three dessert courses created by Pastry Chef Aya Fukai, May Flowers is the most whimsical with a circular stage of huckleberry filled goat cheese mousse topped with an incredible tiny garden of sprouting mint. Each course is complemented by wine pairings carefully chosen by Restaurant Director Dan Pilkey. In keeping with the natural theme, the wines are organic and biodynamic, showcasing how the changing seasons and natural methods are instrumental to the glass, as well as the plate.

At the time I dined at Sixteen, Chef Lents was just a month into serving the Day and Night Sky menu and already hard at work coming up with the next concept, which debuts with the summer solstice on June 21. He’s still working out specifics, but says the overall theme will play with the concept of having one foot on land and one in the water. No word on which philosopher will play a role in that one.

The nine-course tasting menu is $185/person. Wine pairings showcasing all biodynamic producers include a Horizon pairing for $125 and a Celestial pairing, featuring reserve wine pours served via the Coravin system, for $750. www.sixteenchicago.com

Kate_Silver

About Kate Silver

Kate Silver is a freelance writer, author, editor and corporate communications specialist living in Chicago. She's been writing professionally for more than 10 years. She got her start as a writer at Las Vegas Weekly and worked as an editor at Las Vegas Life magazine before opening her own freelance business, Silver Scribe LLC, in 2007. In addition to writing for national and local press, she's also worked on a number of guidebooks for Frommer's, Mobil Travel Guide and Time Out.