Matthew Kirkley, 28, was announced yesterday as the new executive chef at the Michelin three-star restaurant (until at least Tuesday) L2O (Belden-Stratford, 2300 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-868-0002). He replaces Francis Brennan, who ran the kitchen for about a year following the departure of Laurent Gras, who opened the restaurant in 2008. Kirkley was promoted from within the L2O kitchen, and he also has worked at NoMI, Ria, One Sixtyblue, and Joël Robuchon at the Mansion in Las Vegas.
Dish: When did you know Brennan was leaving?
Matthew Kirkley: I think there was always this plan, whether intentional or not, that we would have a transitional period. We had a vision of what cuisine would be under Laurent. When he left, we quietly started changing staff, operations, purveyors, things like that. I have been working closely with Francis, so the food I am doing is a natural progression. I feel the food is now very much mine.
D: Gras’s first initial is in the name of the restaurant, at least according to one explanation of the name. Is his influence still there?
MK: I think he will always have an impact—the aesthetics of the room, the design of the kitchen. What the name means doesn’t matter to me. It’s about a place and time in Chicago. It certainly is not about one person, whether that is Francis or me or Laurent.
D: What at L2O is going to be different, and what will be the same?
MK: I have been charged with running a modern seafood restaurant here. I think Laurent’s emphasis on modern seafood was particularly heavy on the modern part of it. My emphasis is that the seafood is what I am really enamored with. I don’t know if you would call it more traditional, but seafood is the emphasis for me, starting with the quality of the ingredients that we are bringing in.
D: What dishes will remain?
MK: The shabu-shabu and the sashimi platter will always be a part of this restaurant, but they have been changed. I started with changing the shabu-shabu broth. The dashi stock is a bit more flavorful and earthy. From there, we are bringing in fresh abalone from a farm in central California. We are shucking and slicing into thin strips to order. We are using foie gras from France in that dish as well.
D: Foie gras? How does that work in a cook-it-yourself hot pot?
MK: We have cooked it off and sliced it and put it on a bed of ice for the diner. You [wind up] with this amazing broth of the foie gras fat that is kind of bubbling up at the top, with the saltiness of the clam broth that naturally gets released, as well as the kind of odd earthiness that you get off the abalone, Then in the second service, we bring you the traditional buckwheat noodles and you get to drink the broth that you have been cooking in.
D: The Michelin announcement comes Tuesday. What do you expect to happen?
MK: I’m looking forward to getting two stars. I would rather earn three stars in a couple of years—so we earn our own stripes. It’s been my experience that three-star Michelin places are playing defense. They say, “Now that we have three stars we aren’t going to change anything. Don’t mess with it.”
D: So a three-star Michelin rating can make you static?
MK: Right. At two stars you play offense. Some of the best meals I’ve had in France are at two stars. The guys who are really gunning for it.