Food trends come and go (foam is out, fried chicken is in), and restaurant concepts flare up and die down (communal tables are hot, lazy Susans are not). But kitchen hierarchy has always called for a single chef at the top, a person who puts a definitive stamp on the menu—generally over a long period of time.
Enter Intro (formerly L2O), a restaurant where the cuisine, the vibe, and even the chef will change every few months. Who but Rich Melman—the founder and chairman of Lettuce Entertain You and the guy who brought the salad bar to Chicago (R.J. Grunts, 1971), turned upscale tapas into mainstream fare (Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, 1985), and reinvented the food court into a “food forum” (Foodlife, 1993)—could dream this one up?
Read on to learn how Melman thinks and to meet Intro’s inaugural chef, CJ Jacobson, who’s got precious little time to win you over before he leaves. The clock is ticking.
Intro (2300 N. Lincoln Park West, 773-868-0002) opens February 4, and tickets can be purchased at introchicago.com.
L2O was at the top of its game. Why close it?
I promised Matthew Kirkley, the executive chef, a new project after two years. It’s been three years. I don’t want to go out and find another chef to continue L2O. I’m done with four-star restaurants.
How did you come up with the idea for Intro?
Did you ever see a movie called 20 Feet from Stardom? It’s about backup singers to a big band. It explores who they are and their talents. They’re really good, but they never make it. Got me thinking about who the chefs are going to be in the next five years.
What can you do for a chef in three months’ time?
Part of Lettuce is a school for entrepreneurs. Chefs will come in, and I will help them as they plan the menu. I am going to mentor them. Show them how food costs factor in, how to think about these things. Give them a whole support team. Whoever comes in will be a partner for those few months.
You are still a businessman. What’s the benefit to you and your company?
I suspect that in the course of a year, maybe there will be one chef that I want to back. And I think it will be much more fun for me than L2O.
How did you get started as a chef?
It was my dream to play volleyball in the Olympics. I got cut before the Sydney Olympics and went to Europe for three years. Back in L.A., I tried to get into film, but I didn’t like it. In 2002, I staged at Mélisse [a Michelin-starred spot in Santa Monica]. I knew I wanted to be a chef.
With absolutely no kitchen experience, why did Mélisse take you?
Because anyone can pick chervil.
What have you done since Mélisse?
I worked prep and pastry prep at Axe, a very locally sourced restaurant [in Venice, California]. Then I went to a Cordon Bleu affiliate in Pasadena. I staged at Noma in Copenhagen with René Redzepi. He taught me the profound importance of knowing where your food comes from. Now I am executive chef at Girasol [in Studio City, California].
Why take this three-month gig at Intro?
I am very excited to be the first one to do it. I get to learn from the best in the business. And the kitchen is amazing.
Chicago’s restaurant evolution has been on fast-forward since the 1980s (when haute French was all the rage), with every new wave leading closer to Intro. Here’s how the city got from there to here.