Thomas Lents is not messing around. Since taking over the kitchen in January at Sixteen at Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago, the ambitious executive chef clearly has multiple stars and maybe even a spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in his sights. He’s experimenting with flavors, presentation and technique, all honed over the years cooking for Joel Robuchon at that famously finicky French chef’s luxurious Las Vegas outpost, among other high-pressure gigs. And he’s getting rave reviews in the process, including a rare four stars from the Chicago Tribune, which praised his “scrupulously plotted menu.”
But today we’re here to talk Thanksgiving, a holiday that’s near and dear to Chef Lents’ heart, and to pick his brain for how to take that turkey for a deliciously wild ride.
Rumor has it that you were born on Thanksgiving?
So it must be your favorite holiday.
It actually is. My wife’s birthday is the day before, too, so we definitely go all out for Thanksgiving.
Are you usually in a restaurant kitchen or at home?
Every once in awhile I get to spend it at home. When we do we try to go all-out.
What’s your secret for kicking ass with the turkey?
I like to do a turkey different every single time. I’ve had to do it 10 times, and I literally have tried to do everything I can with it — make a roulade, brine it, smoke it. We’ve deep-fried it. We’ve tried everything really. I think you just have to be fearless. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. A lot of people get so terrified cooking that big of a bird. If you give yourself enough time and you plan ahead, you can really be creative with it.
Does size matter?
From my family’s perspective, we always bought a turkey that was about four times larger than what we needed. We were routinely doing a 26-lb. turkey for like six or seven people, just so we had leftovers and everything. I think in general they tend to be drier than the midsize birds.
What about sourcing? Does that matter?
Absolutely. That’s one of the great things about turkeys in the last 10 or 12 years is that you can get different heirloom varieties and they make a huge difference. If you’re willing to pay for it it’s well worth it.
Do you think turkey is a good protein to incorporate?
Personally, I think there are better proteins than turkey. I’m a big fan of capon for that style. It’s a really overlooked aspect to the poultry industry. The fact that we basically cull all of the rooster population when we could raise them for meat. So I’m a big supporter of capon actually.
How do you prepare a capon, ideally?
It’s a lot like a turkey in terms of the sizing. You can get upwards of a 12-lb. capon going. It’s been fatted so it has quite a bit more fat in the internal meat as well, so it stays a lot more moist. I think a lot of the modern techniques like sous-vide cooking benefits poultry a lot because it keeps the moisture in and you don’t have to worry about drying it out so much.
Can you sous-vide turkey?
I’ve done it, completely. I’ve tried a whole turkey sous-vide, which was pretty much find a bag to fit a whole turkey, which took awhile, but it worked out pretty well. The issue is reheating and roasting, but I brined it and sous-vided the whole turkey and then roasted it in a really hot oven and it came out really well.
You never did it again?
No, it’s always about tying to do something new.
What about sides, what would you recommend to impress?
There are two directions you can take your sides: You can do the vegetable or you can do the stuffing. The stuffing you can go a million ways. My big one is you start to use the gizzards — hearts and kidneys — in your stuffings, different breads. Depending on which direction you’re going to take your turkeys you can move into pumpernickels and ryes, which make it a lot more earthy. I think a lot of people go with nuts and fruit. But for me giblets in the stuffing is vital, and it’s something that stands out.
What’s the vegetable direction?
Brussels sprouts is a fun one. An easy one is to almost make a hash out of it: Shred the brussels sprouts, cook that off with some of the confit pieces of turkey and a little bit of nuts, and it gives you something that’s quick to do and not that hard, and it’s really tasty.
You work with pumpkin on the menu at Sixteen, right?
We try to look at pumpkin three different ways. What we do is try to show that in America, there’s a misconception about pumpkin always being [part of a] sweet dish. I’ve worked with a lot of French guys and it’s always funny when they come over for Thanksgiving dinner and they try pumpkin pie. Every single one of them thinks it’s a pumpkin quiche. They go in for that first bite and they’re like, “What the?!” I saw that and said, there’s a misconceprtion between Europe and America about what this is. Is it a vegetable or something we use in sweets? So you can do some different things with it: treat it as a savory element, use it like the squash that it is: Roast it, do it with duck fat and salsify and a little vinjus — yellow wine from the Jura — which really brings out the nuttiness of it.
Leftover time: What are you doing?
I’ve worked with stews and sauces and you can do a lot of interesting things with that. In the end what I’ve found, my favorite is making agnolotti. At the end you have the darker meats, the moister meats, leftover, and you can make a great agnolotti with it and you’ll never go wrong. A nice turkey filling. Take some braised greens, mix them in with the turkey, and maybe a little ham or speck and then make a nice agnolletti with it.
What about a sandwich?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m never above a good sandwich. Stuffing, cranberry sauce, warmed-up turkey, some mayo, a good piece of bread: There’s nothing wrong with that.
Do you have to make your own mayo?
I don’t. I feel like there’s a lot of arrogance in the cooking community where we feel like we can do things better than other people. There are a lot of people who spend their entire lives making mayonnaise and maybe that 30 minutes [it would take me] is better spent than making mayonnaise.