Petit snails with herbs and breadcrumb has been a surprise hit for executive chef Eric Lees at Spiaggia: “It’s a dish I wasn’t sure anyone was going to like, and it’s the favorite dish on the tasting menu.”
Being named executive chef of a Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago is serious business. When that restaurant is Spiaggia—for 35 years considered one of the city’s absolute finest dining destinations, frequented by presidents, celebrities and global A-listers, and for 35 years firmly stamped with the hand of legendary chef Tony Mantuano—it’s epic. So when, shortly after the appointment of Eric Lees as the restaurant’s new top toque late last year, Mantuano announced he was leaving the restaurant, the question on everyone’s mind was: Can Lees continue Spiaggia’s success on his own? After our recent experience at the restaurant, the answer is a resounding yes. With the chef’s envelope-pushing outlook and passion for the restaurant’s extensive network of purveyors, Spiaggia is as exciting as it has been in years.
The fact that he’s now sole captain of the Spiaggia ship isn’t lost on Lees. “It’s surreal,” says the 35-year-old native of Blaine, Minn. “Fifteen years ago when I started cooking I would hear about Spiaggia, not realizing that I’d someday be running it.” Surreal or not, Lees is certainly unfazed by the pressure if the masterful cuisine the kitchen is turning out is any indication. Decadent foie gras with pawpaw butter cake and chestnut; ribbons of strangozzi with funky black truffle; tender pheasant with sausage, lentil and carrot; and airy, delicate rice fritter with cherries, chocolate and nutty almond gelato—each dish built on the last and showcased Lees’ facility with the finest ingredients. Simply put, this is some of the most exciting Italian fare we’ve had in years.
For all the hubbub of Mantuano’s departure, the master chef is far from forgotten. “We talk two or three times a week,” says Lees. “With this last risotto dish, I was about 85% there. And I texted him—I said, ‘Tony, I’m stuck. I’m trying this, I’m trying that, and it’s just not the answer.’ And within two minutes he sent me three ideas, and instantly it was like boom, that’s the answer. So he’s still right at my fingertips.” But make no mistake: This is Lees’ kitchen now, and he’s putting an undeniably delicious stamp on it.
What of the TV fame that lured away past Spiaggia chefs de cuisine Missy Robbins and Joe Flamm, both Top Chef players? Not interested, says Lees. “I’m a hands-on guy,” says the chef. “I’m on the line cooking—the first chef I learned under, that was their style, and I always want to do that. You have to be there. The restaurant doesn’t run the same when you’re gone. I don’t want to put myself in that category [of being a TV chef]. It’s not for everyone. There are other ways to become a star chef, and my focus is to become the best I can be without having to do that.”
With artful preparations and a passion for pure ingredients, executive chef Eric Lees has hit the ground running as Spiaggia’s new top toque.
For now, that means focusing on Spiaggia’s coming spring menu (sure to be a seasonal favorite: a dish of pasta with pickled ramps and braised rabbit that he and his sous chef Brian Motyka have been working on); retaining the restaurant’s Michelin star (“It’d be crazy to say, ‘Let’s try to go for two,’ but we’re just going to keep pushing that envelope”); and putting his head down and serving the best food Spiaggia can serve. “Our goal is to really push the envelope, stay relevant and make sure everyone knows Spiaggia isn’t going anywhere. It hasn’t lost its awesomeness or its focus. I hope we’re going to keep getting better and better.” 980 N. Michigan Ave., 2nd Floor, 312.280.2750
Photography by: Matt Haas/courtesy of Spiaggia