HEARING LETTUCE ENTERTAIN YOU CHAIRMAN Rich Melman talk about Rita Dever, he could be talking about a spouse. “Rita’s perfect for me,” he says. “We’ve been together 13 years. It’s been a long time. She just knows so many of the things that I like and we’ve worked together on so many projects.”
Dever’s role at Lettuce Entertain You is, however, not spouse but corporate chef. LEYE employs a number of chefs in its corporate offices on north Sheridan Road, far from the hustle and bustle of its downtown restaurants, operating as a think tank working on new concepts, and creating new dishes for existing concepts, and helping existing restaurants live up to their full potential.
These chefs have big influence on Lettuce’s restaurants—which can translate to influence on the restaurant industry as a whole—while remaining almost completely unknown to the dining public and food media. And of all of them, arguably Dever—who was named a partner in the Beatrix mini-chain in 2015—has had the most impact on what Lettuce is today.
“She has amazing taste,” Melman says. “She really, I believe, understands what middle America wants.”
Recently, I spent a couple of hours with Dever, who was sharing the kitchen with Aaron Martinez, CJ Jacobson and Stephen Gillanders—the Southern California trio perfecting dishes for Intro’s new dim sum concept. Dever was working on new dishes for Beatrix’s spring menu—including Brussels sprout bacon hash, a spring green salad and breakfast biscotti—as we talked about life in the test kitchen.
You’ve been with LEYE for 13 years now—how has your corporate chef role evolved since you joined in 2004?
There’s more action now. I love it. My job has stayed the same in that it’s testing and developing new restaurants, but there are a lot more chefs in this kitchen now than when I started. It was just two of us back then.
Up here we develop new restaurants and develop support recipes for existing restaurants. You have to grow with the times. In 13 years it’s become healthier and edgier and we’re cooking for young people like yourself. We’re cooking for millennials. You want health, you want gluten-free and vegan. It makes you expand yourself as a chef. I came from a fine dining atmosphere and that doesn’t work as much now because it’s heavier food.
With your 17 years working for Four Seasons and opening hotel restaurants from Maui to New York City, what did you learn that you brought with you to Lettuce Entertain You?
L.A. gave me the whole California and Mexican food background. Hawaii gave me more of an Asian and Thai influence. That was totally awesome. New York gave me more European technique, I’d say. And the marriage of all of those has helped me in this career. I can kind of hop around a bit. I’m not in one lane. I can switch lanes. Although I do admire people who stay in one lane and really learn it in depth.
Rich will bring in one to four chefs to work a week with us. Some are from this city, some are from California or elsewhere. We had Evan Funke in last week and the only thing he does is pasta, he knows the history, all the shapes. He’s probably the best pasta guy in the the US and to learn from him is amazing. This is the development kitchen but Rich understands the need to keep us developing also so he doesn’t hesitate to give us educational opportunities.
What’s your relationship with Rich Melman?
It can be a very humorous relationship. He’s funny but he’s one track. He is food focused. It can be fun sometimes, but it’s always business. It’s about getting it right and getting it to him fast so it can be used in restaurants. It’s a rotating group of chefs who come up to be corporate chefs.
You have to be able to take criticism up here because some people will love it. Some won’t. When we shop up here, we actually shop at Whole Foods, just the grocery store. We’re working on so many different things and you can’t order a large amount. A lot of deliveries are restricted to gallons or full cases. We don’t want big trucks coming up here to drop off one pound of shrimp. And I can shop at all the restaurants. I go see David [diGregorio] at Osteria via Stato if I need Italian food.
How did Rich tell you you’d made partner, and what was your reaction?
It was a complete surprise. What an honor. At first I said no, I didn’t want to be partner. In hindsight that would have been a very stupid thing if he let that ride. I love the test kitchen and didn’t want to give it up. I did not realize the opportunity. But I’m glad that he said “No, you can have them both. You can be a partner in Beatrix and still be in the test kitchen.” I’m grateful he was kind enough to not take me at my word.
I was touched that he gave me partnership in Beatrix because it was something we had developed up here but I hadn’t expected it. I love my job. I love the test kitchen. It’s a unique job for a chef in that it throws you into Chinese one day, Mexican another. You’re in pastries and then vegan dishes and it keeps your mind going. It can get routine in a restaurant but up here it’s the complete opposite. It’s crazy-ville all the time.
Rich’s office is 100 feet away and he brings so many ideas to the table. Other chefs need support and I’m trying to drive myself forward in doing things to surprise him so it’s a collaborative effort up here, by everybody.
Why are you the right woman for this job?
I think the younger chefs don’t want to do this. They want to run a restaurant and be a partner in a restaurant and move it forward from a restaurant angle. I’m a good fit because I don’t want that. I like the job here. It’s interesting to see the concepts coming down the line that haven’t been announced. I never get bored. Ever. I love the chaos and trying to keep up with everything. It keeps me young. It keeps my mind going.
Once I give the recipe away, it belongs to the restaurant. They’re making it on a daily basis.
It’s a treat to work normal hours. I was working until midnight or one o’clock at the Four Seasons and I came here and it was 9 am to 5 pm. Although I’m usually here around 7:30 am or 8 am. And it’s a 10-hour day instead of a 14-hour day. And you get weekends off. So I get, oh my god, a social life. I have a whole group of outside friends and it’s a blast. But you have to have the regular work hours to get that. It’s a funny industry. The regular hours are great. It’s something I haven’t had my entire career.
As a corporate chef, you’re not eligible for some of the accolades (eg. Jean Banchet or James Beard Awards) that many chefs strive for. Has that ever bothered you?
Nope. Doesn’t bother me in the least. What makes me happy is when a restaurant calls and says “Thanks for that recipe, we sold 32 orders last night.” That’s the accolade I want. To have my food selling the best. That’s what does it for me. How many did they sell. And the fact that they feel comfortable calling and asking us to develop items as a team.
Is there anything that diners don’t know you’re responsible for, maybe a dish or idea, that you’d like to take credit for?
No. Because once I give the recipe away, it belongs to the restaurant. It’s to their credit. They’re making it on a daily basis. I may have developed it but they’re perfecting it.
Now that you’re a partner in Beatrix do you spend more time in the restaurant?
When the new Beatrix opens in the West Loop this spring, I’ll be down there for a month and a half, and when Rich isn’t in town I’m down at the restaurant. But usually I get to stay up here.
I read on the LEYE blog that Rich is always asking you to nail a chocolate fudge recipe. Is that something you’re still working on?
It’s not just a running joke. He gets crazy about it but we came up with a pretty good one this winter that made him happy. But it will never be the exact, it’s just something you can’t reach. It’s a mirage. We’ll never get to the perfect fudge recipe. But we’ll keep trying.
Amber Gibson is a Chicago writer. You can follow her world travels on Instagram @amberyv and Twitter @ambergib.
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