The Philosopher’s Menu
Kelsey Holloway Murdoch - August 11th, 2014
The rituals of the seasonal tasting menu are metamorphosing at Sixteen, located in the Trump Hotel Chicago, as executive chef Thomas Lents reaches beyond the traditions of fine dining. The summer 2014 menu, “Inspirations From Where Land Meets Water,” blends agrarian and marine ingredients, with dishes like beef tartare/osetra caviar with oyster leaf, mussels, and green curry. Basil and seaweed highlight a first course of lardo and yellowtail, while squab and crab become counterpoints of a dish laced with Sichuan peppercorns. But it’s the physical iteration of the menu that sets Lents’ work apart; this season, menus are built on a map of the Chicago waterfront that covers the table, with dishes represented by etched crystal pillars placed along the shore.
For Lents, the menu designs are key in the interaction between the guest and the restaurant. “If you give someone a traditional menu, it can become a sort of shield to deflect conversation,” says Lents. Instead, he challenges that norm and uses the physical elements of the menu to engage each diner in a discourse, making guests feel present and essential.
With this intent, the culinary team at Sixteen has created a new menu every season since the fall of 2013, each with its own design, from astrology charts for “Night and Day” in spring 2014 to farmers’ market carts wheeled tableside for 2013’s “The Summer Market.” After over a year of development, Sixteen debuted Lents’ personal favorite menu to date, winter 2013’s “The Story of Chicago,” which Paul Leddy of Chicagoist dubbed “one of the most interactive Chicago history presentations in the city.” The menu design mimicking the Chicago Transit Authority’s map of those iconic elevated trains became the medium for Lents and his team to convey the inspirations for the fare.
The 20 course menu celebrating the city’s origins and acclaim garnered much attention for the restaurant, with dishes inspired by the Native American influence as well as Irish, Slavic, Latin, and West African settlers. Desserts from executive pastry chef Aya Fukai honored Chicago’s candy-making industry with subtle nods to Lemonheads, Snicker’s bars, and Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. Lents also created a dish to memorialize Chicago’s astounding solution to the polluted water that contaminated Lake Michigan via the Chicago River in the 1880s: a massive public works project that reversed the flow of the river and redirected the unsanitary water. For “A River Reversed,” Lents used a Yama Vacuum Pot, which creates a reverse vacuum between its two vessels; the lower vessel was filled with boiling consommé, which was then pulled against the force of gravity by vacuum into the upper vessel, where it’s infused with pike, carrot, and herbs before serving.
Lents’ inquiring mind and educational foundation give rise to thoughtful storytelling found in Sixteen’s menus. Although Lents has been cooking since he was 14 and later worked in such notable restaurants as Everest (Chicago), Quince (San Francisco), and Michelin three-star Joël Robuchon (Las Vegas), he spent his undergraduate years studying philosophy. “Having the good fortune to be raised by two educators,” he explains, “I saw schooling completely differently—not as a means to an end, but as a pursuit for the mind.” In Sixteen, Lents has been able to bring that philosophical inclination to the table.