Everything’s at Steak: The New Conrad Hotel’s Exec Chef Takes Us Inside His Kitchen

chef james of the conrad hotel
Chef James Lintelman (Conrad Hotel)

Compensation was provided by PRE Brands, a beef supplier known for being obsessively choosy. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and are not indicative of the opinions or positions of PRE Brands.

From the outside, it looks luxurious. Rested neatly in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, the new Conrad Hotel is leaps and bounds beyond its past life as a hub for commuters. It is now decidedly more chic. More modern. More for locals and transients alike.

James Lintelman was recently appointed executive chef of the hotel, master of in-room dining and two of the Conrad’s three dining spaces. He’s deciding everything from the towels and aprons to the meat and potatoes. As a Charlie Trotter’s survivor and having cooked for The Lobby, he’s ready. Chef Lintelman is visibly both proud and humbled by his new designation, and as we delicately walk past the dust and construction oddly peppered among custom handmade dishes by artist Amber Kendrick and Platner chairs, he sees only the finished masterpiece.

Here he takes us into his kitchen to discuss the work behind the menu, the unconventional way he found his plate artist, and some beef named Chuck.

chef james of the conrad hotel

chef james of the conrad hotelFrom The Lobby to the Kitchen

Thanks for meeting with me, Chef. You’re overseeing two dining spaces at Conrad, right?

No, thank you! Yes. Baptiste & Bottle and Noyane.

Are they going to differ much from each other and if so how?

Very different. So, [Noyane focuses on Japanese fusion and] Baptise & Bottles on the 20th floor…

It’s like a whiskey bar, right?

I hate to say whiskey bar because drinks should be secondary to the food.

You sound like a chef.

Right?  I want people to come in and eat, not come in and get drunk. I want everyone to have fun, of course, but I want them to come here to eat and have fun. We’re calling it “American Regional” cuisine.

What region?

It doesn’t mean anything. So, we can do whatever we want. We’re having fun with a lot of great flavors.

What are some entrees we should anticipate?

I’ve tasted through a lot of dishes. We’re doing this awesome carrot salad right now. It’s with smoked farmers cheese. We make this caramelized macadamia butter and smoked sherry. It’s really, really good.

Ooooo, you lost me with salad but brought me back with butter.

Yea. There’s no steak on it. Sorry. We have a really cool squash soup, too.

Are you acquiring local ingredients [in addition to beef from PRE Brand]?

That’s one of the things most important to me, and the team we have here now really supports what I want to do. We’re working with Genesis Growers. We buy chickens from Gunthorp. We get our pigs from Seabaugh Farms. They’re all family companies. We try to give back to the Chicago area as much as possible by buying ingredients locally.

…. Right now we’ve been making a lot of pickles. A lot of vegetable are at their height, in season. We have like 17 different vinegars right now and like 40 different kinds of pickles. I want to eat cherries in February.  I want to eat gooseberries in January. It’ll be really cool.

So you have a bunch of space in here to do with whatever you want?

Yea. We get creative.

Is this the first restaurant you’ve run solo?

When I started, there were ten people that worked here. We just hired our 72nd employee – in the entire hotel. So I did the ordering from top to bottom. Seeing it all come to fruition is really humbling.

What did you learn from your time working for Charlie Trotter?

That was a cut throat situation. Aggressive. Very angry. We worked really well as a team but it was every man for himself, in a lot of ways. When I went there I was a really good cook. Charlie Trotter taught me how to be a chef.

It was your crucible.

Yea, that’s what I say. I started on garde manger there. The meat cook quit and so they asked if I could cook meat. I lied and said yes, got put on the meat station. The people I met there I’ll be friends with forever.

What lessons have you learned that you bring with you to the Conrad?

I’m really good at being mean. But I don’t do it. I like everyone to work as a team. An intense atmosphere doesn’t impress me. It’s great just running a kitchen I would want to work in. We try to make every member of the team, myself included, better at their job.

Amber Kendrick, owner of the architectural-based design company Cloud Terre designed your plates. How did you find her?

Funny story: My friend Gramm’s wife does yoga with her. (Throws hands up.)

[Laughs] A Funny, short story.

Yea, it’s just one of those things. I was trying to get a hold of her because I met her at the NRA (National Restaurant Association) show and my friend was like, “No way. My wife does yoga with her.” She’s awesome. I’ll sketch something and she’ll design a piece customized for us.

chef james of the conrad hotel

chef james of the conrad hotel

How to Properly Cook and Serve Meat

How does one properly cook and serve a steak?

Don’t be afraid of salt. Salt makes things taste good.

But before or after cooking.

Before AND after. Before you cook you want to make sure your meat is nice and tempered. Not ice cold. Invest in finishing salt, sea salt or Maldon Salt. It’s not saltier than table salt; it’s just very clean and has a great texture.

So, don’t leave salt out for guest to use as they wish?

No. We won’t even be doing that here at Conrad. If it’s going out to a guest, we should be proud of the dish. If a guest then wants salt we’ll give it to them but it shouldn’t just be left out on the table.

chef james of the conrad hotelHow to Properly Plate Meat

This season, there will be a lot of dinner party hosting going ‘round. How do we properly plate steak and other meats?

[Laughs.] Honestly, you just have to feel it. There’s no secret combination. No color combination. In fact, I’m color blind. When you know a plate is done, you just know.

Chef Lintelman cooked the chuck steak by PRE Brands above in his new kitchen. It will not be on the menu, however. Not yet, anyway. Still, he recommends, “Don’t be afraid of chuck. He has a so-so reputation but, if you treat him right, he’s a great piece of steak.”

Follow PRE Brands on Instagram.

Baptiste & Bottle and Noyane will be opening inside of the Conrad Hotel this fall.

101 E Erie St, Chicago, IL 60611

Phone: (312) 667-6700