One of the best and most challenging aspects to the location of Lockwood is that it is inside the Palmer House. It is challenging in so much as it has a reputation as an antiquated hotel. Therefore, despite the 170 million dollars in renovations which Lockwood was a part of, it is a constant challenge to catapult ourselves as the ‘in’ place for a young crowd. Oddly, I don’t think the food I’m doing here would be much different than were I on the North side of the river (ok… perhaps less salmon!), but I believe the young crowd would be larger.
The fact that we are in the Loop doesn’t help the restaurant. Despite the improvements made in the area – and aside from the theaters, opera house and ballet – there simply is not too much happening west of Michigan Avenue after dark. And though it is no further from downtown than the meat packing district, there are times it feels as though we might as well be out in Skokie. It seems that no matter what we do here with the cuisine, that to jive amongst the ‘gold coasters’ or ‘meat packing’ restaurants is a feat not unlike climbing the Alps in the Tour de France without steroids.
On the other side of the spectrum, it would be hard to find a setting that has as rich of a history in this city. When I informed my Mom that I had been offered the Chef position here, she couldn’t believe it. My late uncle, Dave Traeger, who brought the first professional basketball team to Chicago – and was even the city’s Man of the Year – was a regular of the famous Empire Room where all of the great performers used to play.
The history of this hotel is astounding and there is surprising little of it online. I can’t say enough how cool it was reading about Bertha Palmer (though a cameo) in the amazing historic novel, Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. If you enjoy reading, check it out. She was an amazing woman who is largely responsible for discovering much of the impressionist art found in the Art Institute down the road, including Monet and Renoir. The hotel was a wedding gift to her by her husband Potter (Lockwood was Bertha’s brother). Our PR guru, Ken Price, knows much more about her than she probably knew about herself.
The Palmer House makes the claim as being the longest consecutively operated hotel in North America despite having burned down almost immediately after opening in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Looking up at the art deco ceiling and the Tiffany lamps in the lobby is a constant reminder not to settle for mediocrity. The ceiling itself is not something you come about many places outside of Rome. In a way, the concept of re-vitalizing the hotel also fits into my style of cuisine. I have a great passion and respect for my predecessors and also enjoy bringing the work they have done to a 21st century audience. I am also very appreciative that it mattered to those who invested in the restoration of the hotel, thus giving me this opportunity.
Not to be any more long winded or stray further from the food on these pages, the Palmer House also takes credit for inventing the brownie when Bertha comissioned the pastry chef (I don’t know his name and he’s long dead) with developing a chocolate dessert her and her friends could take with them on a picnic. Although there is plenty of controversy behind this claim, there was a good deal of pressure to put a form of the brownie on the menu when we first opened. The photo at the top was our take on it and developed by the Pastry Chef of the hotel, Fabrice Bouet. I wound up removing it from the dinner menu shortly after opening, though we still offer a version for lunch, room service, and on the $38 prix fixe menu at dinner.