November has been a roller coaster for L2O (2300 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-868-0002). On November 5th, word leaked out that the world-class, seafood-focused Lincoln Park restaurant’s chef, Laurent Gras, had left, maybe temporarily, maybe permanently. On November 16th, Michelin gave L2O three stars in the guide’s first-ever Chicago rankings. The next day, Gras told Food & Wine that he was leaving L2O to open a restaurant in New York.
Rich Melman, the head of L2O’s parent company, Lettuce Entertain You, analyzed the divorce. “This is what I realized about myself,” he says. “I’m better off marrying for love.” Melman’s goal with L2O was to create a high-class seafood place along the lines of New York’s Le Bernardin, and he spent ten years kicking the idea around and interviewing potential chefs before he met Gras. “As brilliant as he was as a chef, there were other things in the relationship that didn’t work,” Melman says. “Maybe both of us married for money.” Conflicts arose. For example, Melman wanted to change the shabu course, a dish where diners cook hamachi in a hot pot at their table. Irreconcilable differences followed.
In 2008, Melman said, “If Laurent left, that would be a problem.” The man lucky or unlucky enough to determine the truth of that statement is the new chef, Francis Brennan, who developed L2O’s famous bread service on the opening team and returned to the restaurant a month ago. Dish spoke with Brennan about his opportunity.
Dish: How did you get here?
Francis Brennan: I grew up outside of San Francisco in the East Bay. After [college], I moved to Europe, and that’s when I really got into cooking. I worked at a two-star Michelin in Dublin called Patrick Guibaud. Then I came over to the States and worked for Charlie Trotter [in Chicago] and Marcus Samuelsson and Francois Payard [in New York]. After New York, I moved to San Francisco, and I worked for Laurent Gras at The Fifth Floor for three years.
D: When L2O opened, what was your position?
FB: Chef de cuisine. I’d be that natural person to come and fill in for him. I had a good understanding of how he was working.
D: When did you know for certain Gras was not returning?
FB: I think when everybody else did. I learned about it through his interview [with Food & Wine].
D: And what was your first reaction?
FB: Just business as usual.
D: What has changed as of tonight’s menu?
FB: We’ve changed about 40 to 50 percent of the menu: more truffles, more seasonal items.
D: What’s your vision for L2O?
FB: We want to be a seafood-focused restaurant that is very luxurious and elegant, but my vision from this point forward is to bring more of a spirit of warmth and generosity to the overall experience.
D: Do you think that the experience of eating at L2O was too stiff?
FB: The service needs a little more warmth. No fault of the people [who work there]. It’s just been part of the culture of the restaurant. I don’t think fine dining needs to be serious. It’s not like you’re going to church.
D: Can that warmth translate to the food as well?
FB: Approachability has something to do with that. A good balance between approachability and mystery. I think in the past people come, and they don’t know what they are reading [on the menu]. I want to change the structure of the menu a little bit and make it more comfortable.
D: What about the shabu course?
FB: We have changed it, made it a little more exciting. It’s now being served with more than just hamachi. Now we serve it with Toyama Bay white shrimp, Maine lobster, Taylor Bay scallops, medai (also known as butterfish), in a shiso-infused dashi bouillon.
D: Do you ever stop and say, Wow, now I am the chef of a Michelin three-star restaurant?
FB: No. I’ve run every kitchen I’ve been in for the last few years. I am very humbled by the fact that Rich has so much confidence in me and gave me the opportunity to take what Gras has done and bring it to the next level.