People always ask us, “Where do all of the new restaurant and dish ideas here at Lettuce Entertain You come from?” Well folks, the magic is in the test kitchen: where recipes are tested, chefs are trained and new concepts are born… and hey, we aren’t perfect, there are definitely a few dish faux pas along the way.
Introducing Lettuce Entertain You’s Corporate Chef Rita Dever, who has been the woman behind it all, running the test kitchen and conducting tastings for Lettuce founder Rich Melman and our restaurant partners for more than 12 years. Here, she not only gives us a glimpse of the Lettuce test kitchen but also shares the process of how dishes land on our menus.
In the past 12 years…
Chef Rita not only tests recipes for Rich but also works directly with our chefs to develop recipes for new concepts and support recipes for existing restaurants. The test kitchen is about 100 feet away from Rich’s office and every single day he is there, he is tasting.
“We have one to three chefs in the test kitchen every day be it our executive chefs, visiting chefs, consulting chefs or chefs trying out for Rich. He could be tasting up to 12 items daily. I have a tiny storeroom in the kitchen and we are ready to prep (almost) anything. It is stocked with everything from Mexican ingredients, Asian ingredients, Italian, American, pastry, the list goes on.”
…we have tested more than 30 concepts (some have come to fruition and others haven’t)…
“It’s been great to be involved in so many openings and recipe development projects. HUB 51 was tested here, Saranello’s, Frankie’s, the list goes on.”
Here are some test kitchen highlights:
This one time, with a pizza oven…
“We had a lot of fun with testing the pizza recipes for Frankie’s Scaloppine. We moved a pizza oven into an old warehouse on the third floor of our office building. We made this little area where Rich and our CEO Kevin Brown could taste the pizzas immediately after they were fired up out of the pizza oven.”
The tale of two pie crusts…
“You think pie crust, you think rolled pie dough. Well here in the test kitchen, we know that Rich has an affinity for crumb pie crust. We were developing the Oh My! Caramel Pie for Beatrix, which aside from being delicious, has a liquid filling. Needless to say, it’s challenging to successfully make a pie with a liquid filling and crumb crust without creating pure culinary chaos.”
Well, aren’t we glad they nailed this recipe because the Caramel Pie at Beatrix has become a signature dessert.
How do we come up with, develop, change, taste, tweak again and then put a dish on a restaurant menu?
Let’s talk Beatrix. Chef Rita along with Rich Melman and the Beatrix team created some pretty cool, healthful options for Beatrix Streeterville (671 N. St. Clair Street). Here is the tale of the 3-Grain and Arugula Salad:
Once upon a hearty salad, both Rich and Chef Rita wanted to come up with a dish that combined fresh, seasonal greens with grains. We thought…grains typically weigh down the greens if you toss them together so we chose to put them on the side and let the guest incorporate them into the salad as they eat it.
From there the salad went through about three or four more iterations; we added a protein, tried different styles of dressing and eventually landed on an un-emulsified dressing that the diner shakes or stirs before putting it on their salad. This Beatrix house vinaigrette uses lemon juice and white balsamic; it is tangy yet delicious. By keeping the acidity in the dressing up, you would use less of it and thus keeps the calorie count down.
And voila, the 3-Grain and Arugula Salad with Miller Farm’s Chicken with freekeh, millet and red quinoa, fennel, blueberries, Grana Padano and house vinaigrette was born and now can be enjoyed at Beatrix.
“As we further develop the menu for the new Beatrix, we are constantly working with Rich and the chef/ partners on healthy salad ideas as well as playing with new, exciting healthful ingredients. Just the other day we started to experiment with kamut, an Egyptian wheat that has a nutty flavor that we think will be great for fall.”
…worked with at least 60 chefs per year that have been in-and-out of the test kitchen…
From chef consultants, chef partners, restaurant chefs, and visiting chefs – the test kitchen sees a lot of action.
“It’s a fun, lively place to be and we are fortunate to have seen such amazing talent throughout the years from Chef Tim Hockett from M Burger and Nacional 27, Chef Jeff Mahin of Stella Barra Pizzeria and Summer House Santa Monica, and the rising-stars chefs that Intro brings in like the current chef-in-residence Aaron Martinez. To me, the development process of a menu is still such a phenomenal and fun conquest to be a part of.”
…and still, to this day, we are always trying to nail the perfect fudge recipe.
“The Holy Grail in this test kitchen is fudge. Rich has asked more than 20 chefs to perfect chocolate fudge. He has a very specific idea of what it should taste like. He envisions it to be just like the hot chocolate sauce from the Pump Room that he loved so much. We just haven’t nailed it. He tells us: “That’s close but not quite, keep trying!”
“Secretly, I think he just really likes fudge.”
Our amazing ladies don’t stop with Rita. Check out the girl power behind some of our most famous pastries.