Grant Kessler

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Life in the Bigger Picture

Beverly Stephen / March 2007

Chicago chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand are launching themselves into the entrepreneurial stratosphere with four timely concepts that have prototype written all over them.

"Are you doing this to get into the business or to get out of the business?" That's what Rick Tramonto's wife wants to know.

"This" is the gargantuan new restaurant multiplex he and his partner in Cenitare (Latin for "to dine often") Restaurants, Gale Gand, just opened in The Westin Chicago North Shore in Wheeling, a posh suburb. Turn left at the dazzling $1 million, 10,000-bottle glass-enclosed two-story wine wall and you're in the clubby Tramonto's Steak & Seafood that also houses a bar, a sushi/oyster bar, a lounge, a wine room chef's table, and a private dining room. Or go right and you're in Osteria di Tramonto, where ochre Tuscan village walls and vaulted brick ceiling meet a modern Milanese glass and steel chandelier. Then proceed on past the bar to Gale's Bake Shop for sandwiches and pastries so exquisite that a number of guests feel they cry out for a split of sparkling wine. Over 27,000 square feet altogether, comprising 425 seats and 300 employees.

Looks like you have to speed up to slow down.

"Yes," says Tramonto, "but now there's light at the end of the tunnel."

It's not as if Tramonto had just been slouching around the kitchen when Starwood came calling. He and Gand own Tru, one of Chicago's finest, in partnership with Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. Two years ago they added Osteria Via Stato, a wildly popular family-style Italian spot. They've both done TV and written cookbooks, plus all the glad-handing, charity events, appearances, etc. that make up the life of a modern chef. And yet… After 27 years in the business Tramonto has had two knee replacements plus back surgery. "My doctor asked me if I was a football player," he says ruefully. He has three boys to put through college. "I had to ask myself how am I going to grow financially and as a chef," Tramonto says, explaining his desire to take a giant step forward into the ranks of the globetrotting chefpreneurs, even though he wants more family time and more time for his church work.

"It's amazing when Starwood asks if you would like to come up with some concepts for some of their hotels," Tramonto says. "There may be an opportunity to go to New York, Washington, D.C., or L.A. And they're building a Starwood in Las Vegas. The company understands the branding of celebrity chefs and having high quality restaurants in their hotels. It's hard to be just a one restaurant chef these days."

And so in this prime location minutes from Chicago Executive Airport (formerly Palwaukee Municipal Air­port), the busiest private airport in the Midwest, and within a cell phone's shout from such mighty corporate headquarters as Motorola, Discover Card, Abbott, and Walgreens, he's laying the foundation for concepts that should work well in any high-end hotel where the movers and shakers feed and sleep at the end of the day.

So why Italian? Why steak? "Italian is easy for me, it's a no-brainer," he says, crediting his heritage as well as the success of Osteria via Stato. "Steak was one of my first jobs at The Scotch 'N Sirloin in upstate New York. And now there's this whole resurgence of the steakhouse thing with celebrity chefs." And it goes without saying that Gand, as queen of pastry chefs, would have her own outlet in addition to producing restaurant desserts.

So they set to work on their biggest venture to date. The kitchens that would drive the concepts had to be powerful workhorses. Each would have a photogenic open kitchen with a Wood Stone wood-burning oven that could produce pizzas, wood-roasted octopus, escargots, mussels, oysters Rockefeller, whole fish, and chicken. Backstage, each would have major league prep kitchens.

In Osteria, guests can sit at the counter facing the open kitchen and exclaim delight over their bubbling pizzas as they emerge from the wood-burning oven. Blocks of Himalayan salt decorate the counter, but pieces have already been chipped off to use for seasoning steaks. There's also a picturesque assortment of salumi (some house-made) hanging in a glass refrigerated case.

About half the pasta on the menu is house-made, so in the back there's a space devoted to pasta making, a Pitco pasta cooker, and a Jade 10-top devoted exclusively to pasta sauces such as lamb sausage, broccoli raab, and tomato for the house-made cavatelli or the veal, beef, and pork ragù for pappardelle. Also on the hot line there's another Jade 10-top for sautéing and "a super high heat plancha that's great for fish and chicken breasts." An Alto-Shaam holding oven maintains wood-oven braised pork shanks, beef ribs, and the like at perfect temperature in their braising liquid.

The prep area is equipped with convenient undercounter refrigeration and a Traulsen blast chiller that "cools everything down super fast" and gives instant digital readouts indicating how long items have been held at a temperature setting.

Off to the far right side is Gand's pastry kitchen. It's somewhat larger than an average pastry kitchen be­cause it supplies items for Gale's Bake Shop (pecan/sour cream coffee cake, carrot/walnut bread) as well as the res­taurant's needs for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and room service. "It's used 24 hours a day," Gand says. "It's always alive.

"We have a big 60-quart Hobart mixer because we make pizza dough, a small fryer for doughnuts and ricotta doughnut holes, and a Carpigiani gelato machine," she says. Otherwise the equipment is standard: two Blodgett convection ovens, a 12-top Jade oven.
Gand is also looking for lifestyle changes and more family time. Her twin daughters just turned 2. "This is three minutes from my house," she explains. "I can run home if I need to. I still go into the city once a week, but Tru is like an older child who doesn't need you as much. Tru can function whether we're there or not."

On the other side of the wine wall is the 250 seat Tramonto Steak & Sea­food, highlighted by a two-story waterfall by the bar and an open kitchen framed by a glass hood. While it's possible to see cooks scurrying about and catch the excitement of flames in the grill and wood-burning oven, the view is obscured by open shelving housing tableware and cooking utensils. From a distance, guests can marvel at lamb chops or a pork porterhouse sizzling over open flames on the Jade grill or get a vicarious thrill out of watching a cook feed applewood and ash logs to the gas assisted wood-burning oven. A fryer, 10-top sauté station, prime rib carving station, and a double high-speed broiler for cooking steaks are all part of the open kitchen. "We usually go up to 800 degrees, though the broiler can go up to 1,000, on the steaks for a charred surface and then finish them at a lower temperature in the bottom drawer,"

Tramonto explains. Steak toppers such as blue cheese crust, sliced bone marrow, truffled poached egg, and foie gras—yes, foie gras, because this is the suburbs—can be ordered to gild the lily, er, filet mignons, rib eyes, New York strips, etc. "I serve foie gras because I can," says Tramonto, who took a stand against the Chicago city council ban of the unctuous liver.

Behind the automatic door ("You don't have to kick it") is a sauté station, a flattop, two Blodgett double convection ovens where the prime ribs are roasted and then slow cooked for additional time in an Alto-Shaam, which allows for "programming different types of moisture for slow cooking," a candy or stockpot stove, a 90-quart Groen steam kettle, and a 60-quart Hobart mixer. Outside there's a separate walk-in about 10 feet long for aging the meat. This is a steakhouse, after all. "I'm not on a crusade to say dry aged or anything is the best," Tramonto says. "I said, ‘Let's eat through all the steak categories and pick what we like.' We have a mixture of dry, wet, Kobe, corn fed, and grass fed, and we articulate that on the menu."

Guests can wash any of those steaks down with Martinis, single malt Scotches, microbrewed beers, specialty cocktails, or wine from just about anywhere in the world. But one of the most popular options invented by corporate director of wine and spirits Belinda Chang is her "Square Deal" flight plan. She selects and pours four three-ounce portions of her favorite wines for $24, thus giving customers the opportunity to taste different wines and freeing them from the burden of picking the wines themselves.

Upstairs at the 40 seat RT Lounge there's a veritable harmonic convergence of trends--sushi bar (with two sushi chefs), crudo, raw bar, specialty cocktails and small plates, low tables around a glass-enclosed fireplace, late hours, and the option to only order dessert. "A lot of people like to graze," says Tramonto. "It serves the person who doesn't want to commit to two hours of eating."

There's just enough cooking capacity upstairs—induction burners, rice cooker, toaster oven, hot box—to take care of the rice and a few apps plus three micro kitchens for coffee, water service, and bread service.

So he's got all the bases covered: fish lovers, carnivores, Italophiles, wine geeks, cocktail connoisseurs, customers with a sweet tooth, families, night owls, full-fledged diners, grazers.

Any or all of the concepts that please this diverse and demanding crowd should travel well. Stay tuned.


Beverly Stephen

Blast chillers Traulsen
Blenders Vita-Mix
Deep fryers Pitco
Freezers Traulsen
Grill, gas assisted Jade
Ice cream machines Carpigiani, Taylor
Induction burners Vollrath
Ovens Alto-Shaam, Blodgett, Jade
Pasta cooker Pitco
Plancha Jade
Ranges Jade
Refrigeration Penn, Traulsen
Salamanders Sodir
Sanitation system Ecolab
Slicers Berkel, Blodgett
Stand mixers Hobart
Steam kettles Groen
Swiss braisers Groen
Wood-burning ovens Wood Stone