Despite the critical success of Intro, Lettuce Entertain You's chef-changing concept is not the moneymaker Rich Melman hoped for. "If I was judging in the press, I'd say it was terrific," he says. "What's been up and down is how much the different chefs have been able to make for the restaurant and themselves." Rather than let the concept continue as a financial dud, the restaurateur behind over 100 properties decided to evolve.
As the restaurant hits its one-year anniversary, it introduces a slew of changes, starting with the appointment of its last chef-in-residence Stephen Gillanders as its first executive chef. Gillanders pioneered an a la carte menu in addition to prix fixe. In doing so, he increased diners' options from less than 10 to more than 20, while also becoming the most financially viable Intro chef. "It broke down the barrier of a special occasion-type restaurant," Gillanders says. "People realized they could eat here more than once and have very different experiences."
Rather than a total overhaul with every new chef, every three months, much of Gillanders' a la carte menu will remain, while the chef-in-residence—henceforth known as visiting chef—can add items in addition to showcasing a stand-alone menu. Gillanders himself will act as an advisor, making sure these menus are seamlessly executed, without any competition from existing dishes. For example, a current sea scallop dish with maitake mushrooms is altered in response to a new dish featuring the same mushrooms; meanwhile, his popular beef gets 86ed to make room for an incoming lamb course.
"I don't want to be looked at as a speed bump or some person they have to tippy-toe around," Gillanders says. "My responsibility now is to make sure that the chefs who come in can realize fully what they are trying to accomplish."
First under Gillanders' guidance is Jessica Largey, a California native who earned the 2015 James Beard Rising Star Chef award for her work as chef de cuisine at Manresa. The shifts at Intro work in favor of Largey's forthcoming restaurant, which will be more casual compared to her fine dining pedigree. Starting on February 8, she will preview it with a vegetable-focused menu—featuring dishes such as allium veloute with pear, endive, and farm egg—accompanied by large-format, family-style selection debuted on February 15.
"I'm super passionate about cooking vegetables," Largey says. "It's a great challenge to find out what it's like to work with winter vegetables in the Midwest." In addition to local produce, she will import winter citrus from California—one of her favorite ingredients.
The culinary viability of Largey's new concept will not be the only thing put to the test when she starts at Intro, but also her ability to run a restaurant. She, along with her manager and business partner in California, have spent the past few weeks being mentored by Melman on the ins and outs of ownership. It is all part of Intro's entrepreneurial mission—one thing that will not change at Intro 2.0, according to Melman, due to it's success with previous chefs.
"The first chef was C.J. Jacobson and we are doing a restaurant with him that will open in May or June," Melman says. Jacobson isn't the only one who stuck around. Obviously, Gillanders now has a permanent role within the company. Aaron Martinez was also brought on as chef de cuisine at il Porcellino. "I truly didn't expect it, but it worked out beautifully."