Eric Lees is ready for the challenge at Spiaggia as management from the Michelin-starred Italian restaurant last month announced his appointment as new executive chef. Spiaggia is a Chicago landmark, perched above the Mag Mile in downtown Chicago. Lees, who has worked at the restaurant since 2016, joins a batch of noteworthy chefs including Top Chef champion Joe Flamm and Sarah Grueneberg (Monteverde) who thrived under the tutelage of respected restaurateur Tony Mantuano.
What should Chicagoans expect from Spiaggia, one of Chicago’s essential restaurants, with Lees in charge? Here are five things to know about Spiaggia’s new executive chef.
Lees grew up in Minnesota. He’s a midwesterner who roots for the Twins and Vikings. When he first moved to the Chicago area, he lived in suburban Forest Park and made a long commute to Evanston where he worked at Quince. That’s where he met Joe Giacomino who worked under chef Mathias Merges (Yusho, A10, Mordecai). When Lees’s car broke down, he used the CTA to get from the South Side to Evanston. Giacomino’s former roommate, Joe Flamm, would occasionally drive him to the CTA train stop.
He contemplated moving to Detroit. After Giacomino left Chicago to open Grey Ghost, he tried to convince Lees to move to Motown. During one conversation with Giacomino, Flamm called and stole his thunder by offering Lees a sous chef job at Spiaggia. Lees said he took the job on the spot: “Let’s just do right now,” Lees said, telling Flamm “I’ll see you on Monday.”
Spiaggia’s fall menu kicks off in October. Lees took inspiration from his recent 10-day trip to Italy, a Mantuano-mandated voyage past executive chefs have indulged in, dining across the country and cooking at some of the country’s best restaurants. Lees will key in on Northern Italy (Milan specifically) for the fall with items like an olive oil-poached venison loin with gorgonzola dolce polenta cooked creamy and in cake form. There’s also a risotto Milanese with saffron and tomato jam. Lees will swap the customary veal for panko-crusted beef tongue.
Lees takes an old-school mentality. While in Italy, Lees ate at traditional and modern restaurants. He saw kitchens full of sous vide machines and it disheartened him to a point. Water immersion is a great tool, but he prefers classical methods. He could use sous vide for his venison loin, but didn’t want to be gimmicky.
Top Chef doesn’t interest Lees. Spiaggia has been a springboard for Flamm and Grueneberg, two Top Chef alums. Big-time talents like Missy Robbins also worked at Spiaggia. TV doesn’t appeal to Lees as he’d rather stay in the kitchen: “The chefs I grew up around — the chefs I looked up to the most — didn’t have any of that stuff. It’s not for everyone.”