The Interview: Chef Lee Wolen

Thirty-year-old chef Lee Wolen began his reign as head chef at The Lobby, inside Chicago's elegant The Peninsula Hotel, in July of 2012 after a three-year stint as sous chef at New York's renowned Eleven Madison Park. While he was there, the restaurant won its Michelin stars, earned four stars from The New York Times, and was named one of the world's top 10 restaurants by San Pellegrino.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Wolen knew from an early age that he wanted to cook, and attended vocational culinary school during high school. He then went on to work in Chicago as sous chef at Moto in 2005, and spent time at el Bulli in Spain.

His new position at The Lobby represents a homecoming for him of sorts, and since he took over, the restaurant received a perfect five-star review from Time Out Chicago's David Tamarkin, the first in eight years. Wolen has also been nominated for "Breakout Chef of the Year" in Time Out Chicago's 2013 Eat Out Awards. His trademark dishes there include a roasted chicken for two as well as a 17-hour sous vide octopus with olive oil, thyme, and garlic.

What was your first restaurant industry job?
My first job in the industry was making salads when I was 14.  I worked at a place called Café 56 in my hometown of Cleveland. It served 56 different salad options!

When you first walk into a restaurant, what do you look for as signs that it's well-run, will be a good experience, etc.?
There are three things I notice when I walk into a restaurant. First, is there a host who is smiling and welcoming guests? I don't like going to restaurants where I'm not greeted. Second, is the staff smiling and do they have good eye contact? I think the interaction between the staff and guests is so important to the overall dining experience and this is definitely something you will notice from us at The Lobby at The Peninsula Chicago. Third, I take note of the overall cleanliness of the restaurant.

Is there anything you absolutely hate cooking?
When I was working in Spain, we had a wild hare dish on the menu and it was the worst smell I think I have ever smelled. I will most likely never cook with wild hare again because of that. 

If one chef from history could prepare one dish for you, what would it be?
Growing up, I never enjoyed oysters or caviar. A few years ago I had the opportunity to eat at Per Se where I was served Oysters and Pearls, one of Thomas Keller's famous dishes. It was the best four bites I have ever tasted and I would love to have it again!

What do you consider to be your biggest success as a chef?
I think my biggest success as a chef is everything I have done up to this point. I never believed I would have the opportunity to spend time in England and Spain, and end up living and working in New York and Chicago. I always claimed that I would never leave Cleveland, but now I'm not sure if I'll ever go back.

What do you consider to be your biggest failure as a chef?
I think my biggest failure was not spending time in Asia. Ideally I would have spent a year traveling throughout Asia to experience and learn about the cultures and cuisines. At least I can always grab dim sum at our hotel's Cantonese restaurant, Shanghai Terrace!

What is the most transcendental dining experience you've ever had?
Dining at Dal Pescatore, the famed three-Michelin-star restaurant outside of Milan, was absolutely mind-blowing. The grandma is in the kitchen making pasta, the balsamic vinegar is made in the backyard, the eels are caught in their pond, and, after you eat the saffron risotto, they bring you a picture of the grandmother picking the saffron in the garden. The food is unreal and the hospitality unmatched.

Are there any foods you will never eat?
Wild hare! And I am also not a huge fan of brains.

Is there a story that, in your opinion, sums up how interesting the restaurant industry can be?
I don't think there is one single story, I believe there are many.  This industry is amazing and I think every chef and restaurant has its own unique story to tell. It's remarkable how our entire country has grown to love food and restaurants so much in the past 15 years, which thankfully has enabled chefs and cooks to have long careers in the hospitality industry. Twenty years ago, a night out would include a trip to the local restaurant or a spot you could take the family on the cheap. Now, dining has become an experience — we are spending money on great food, traveling to get it, and searching the Internet to learn about who is who in food and wine.

Dan Myers is the Eat/Dine Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @sirmyers.