You may not have seen her name among Chicago’s James Beard award nominees or caught in the buzz of another trendy eatery opening, but the ripples of Rita Dever’s culinary creations have made an impact far and wide. After cooking around the world, the Pacific Northwest native put down roots as Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ (LEYE) associate partner and corporate chef where she collaborates in the company’s test kitchen to innovate new dishes for all LEYE restaurants.
What set you on your career path?
I had always loved to cook, but had no intention of becoming a chef. I worked for a telephone company for 10 years and when Ma Bell became Baby Bells it allowed me to cash out and make a career U-turn, heading off to culinary school in Paris. Turns out the breaking up of a phone monopoly changed the trajectory of my life.
You’ve traveled quite a bit as a chef, opening restaurants in Los Angeles, Maui, New York and Seattle with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. How have those experiences influenced your cooking?
The [Four Seasons] have high standards for quality, which was reflected in their ingre- dients. Because I was crisscrossing the country, I was influenced by many populations—Hispanic, Asian, European cuisines, etc.—which came in handy when I began working with Lettuce where all of these populations are reflected in our concepts and menus.
How did you land in Chicago?
I’d worked with Four Seasons chef Susan Weaver, who later came to work with Lettuce and referred me when (founding partner) Rich Melman was looking for a corporate test kitchen chef. He flew me out from Seattle to do a tasting and things just clicked! I put the Space Needle in my rearview mirror and never looked backed.
What does your role entail? What do you enjoy most about your work?
In the Corporate Kitchen, we work to create the partners’ visions, new concepts and support LEYE restaurants with recipe development. We do daily tastings for Rich and send out those that were approved. Some are strikes, some are home runs, but they all generate conversation and often new ideas. We also have time to develop, test and present our own ideas. You never know what will become a concept, but I’m lucky to work with so many types of cuisine and pastry that I’m never bored. You get both the joy and challenge of creating new dishes every day which, keeps things inter- esting. And keeping up with Rich is quite impossible, but it is fun to try!
Where do you find inspiration for new dishes?
Inspiration comes first and foremost from Rich, then magazines, cookbooks, competitive dining, other chefs and the internet. Trends are very important to restaurants— you just like to start them or be at the forefront, never at the end. Often our guests are also telling us what interests them. We are still focusing on healthy trends and realizing how strong vegan and vegetarianism has picked up, as well as alternative milk.