• Behind the Curtain With Rita Dever

     
    POSTED April 15, 2020
     

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.

Event planning and experience design go hand in hand. Just ask Maria Moyano, experience designer for the Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC), based in NYC. “I think that everything is an event. You can go have coffee, and that’s an event. Everything is also an experience. You feel happy, and that’s an experience. It’s about what you are trying to get out of the event—and then how does an experience elevate it,” says Moyano.

 

In the midst of the pandemic last year, Loris Menfi joined San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter and Riverwalk as general manager. At the time of her hire, Rivercenter had recently unveiled a renovation to its 70,000-plus square feet of meeting space.

 

Dorothy Hecht was just 16 years old in 1937 when she waited on her first table at what was then Fischer’s Restaurant in downtown Frankenmuth, and ecstatically earned her first 25-cent tip. When she met and eventually married William “Tiny” Zehnder, whose family owned Zehnder’s Restaurant across the street, her happiness continued, and a legacy began.