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Nine Questions for Rene De Leon, the Next Big Name in Chicago Dining

The chef tells how his time in the kitchens at Alinea and Next have shaped his plans to run Billy Lawless’s upcoming West Town restaurant.

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.


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