Courtesy of Rene De Leon
Rene De Leon was tapped by Billy Lawless (Henri, The Gage) to head the as-yet-unnamed new American restaurant at 730 West Grand Avenue, in the former Orange space. Dish talked with him recently to discuss his bright future on the Chicago food scene.
Dish: Are you French?
Rene De Leon: I have not been to Paris yet. I’m from Corpus Christi, Texas. [At first] my name was actually pronounced REE-nee. [My mom] changed it to sound like René.
D: Did you grow up in Texas?
RD: I grew up in Vegas. That’s where I got interested in food. I started making food for my brothers because Mom worked at night, like most people who live in Vegas. It was Hamburger Helper and mac ‘n’ cheese until I got the Better Homes [and Gardens] cookbook. Chicken à la king, chicken cacciatore, those were my power moves.
D: When did you know you wanted it to be your career?
RD: When the French Laundry book came out, I got one of the first editions. Once I read it, I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life. Game over. [My uncle in Ohio said,] “Come live in Cincinnati. Work and save some money.” I didn’t know about Grant Achatz or Trio. I just wanted to work at the French Laundry. Then I read about Achatz, and [I thought,] He is going to be a blend of Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller. Old school and new school blended together.
D: So you came to Chicago then?
RD: I had $1,000 and three suitcases when I got to Chicago. Same as when I arrived in Cincinnati [a year before]. I knew I could get a job anywhere in a hotel or in catering. I wanted to hold out for a job at Alinea. I didn’t make their opening team, and I ended up at Hopleaf with [the owner,] Mike Roper. He’s tremendous.
D: How did that happen?
RD: I went to apply for a catering gig around there. I literally had $18 in my pocket. [At the catering job,] it was going to be a month before I could get a paycheck. So I went to Hopleaf and at the end of bar was Michael Roper. He was interviewing people for a cook’s position at the time. I literally had my résumé with me. They hired me. They knew as soon as I could get into something like Alinea, I would go.
D: What are you bringing to this project from your stints at Alinea and Next?
RD: I understand how good chicken à la king can be if you make it properly. It’s not as though you have to sous vide something, and then purée it, and then mix it with a modified starch, spread it into a sheet and dehydrate it, and then that you actually fry. But I also picked up organization, discipline, and cleanliness and how to run a successful restaurant [along the way].
D: Do you mean that the principles are the same, even if the food uses different techniques?
RD: It’s a thought process that I learned with Chef Achatz at those places. [At the new Lawless place,] I’ll take a suckling pig, and I walk to your table and carve it and talk about how I made it for you. How I brined it. How I cooked it in a combination oven for a slow-cooking process. How I got the skin so crispy. [But] at the end of the day, it’s going to look like a suckling pig.
D: Why do a more casual place instead of the rarefied ultra-fine-dining realm?
RD: Most people might say it’s time for me to get my own place, fine dining, a book, a three-star Michelin restaurant. But it’s not about how good you are, but how hard you are willing to work. To have a three-star, you need to never get to go to bed. It’s like 17 or 18 hours a day and sacrifice family and friends.
D: What’s important to you?
RD: Food is important to me. This is my first place. It will be my three-star place in the beginning, because I won’t go to bed and I will work seven days a week until we get it where we are comfortable.