Rick Tramonto is leaving TRU. We think we know his next move.
As reported by the Diva and Grub Street, a press release has gone out announcing Rick Tramonto's departure from TRU. The departure is not only from the kitchen (where Tramonto has stopped by about once every two weeks to consult with his chefs), but from Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, a company he has been involved with, off and on, for about twenty years.
So where's he going? Tramonto is being uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the whole thing—usually reachable by email and phone, these past two weeks he's been sending automated replies to emails and sending calls to voicemail. This is perhaps due to his being busy touring for his new book; more likely, he's avoiding the media—and any announcements—until he can talk about his next project on his own terms, which he says he'll do after July 4th. Until that announcement comes there's no way to be sure what his next move is. But in my talks with the chef I've picked up some clues.
Tramonto has a reputation for being a great mentor, but lately he seems to be looking up to the people who once looked up to him. He particularly looks up to Chris Pandel, who worked with Tramonto at Osteria Via Stato as well as the Cenitare restaurants in Wheeling, and Jared Van Camp. Both of those chefs have gone the gastropub route, and on more than one occasion Tramonto has told me how much he'd like to do something similar. He sends out a similar vibe in his new book, which is all about steaks, burgers, and other rustic comfort foods you'd never find at TRU. In an interview I conducted with the chef in late April, he hinted at a mild frustration he has with the way he's perceived in the world. With this book, he said, "I really want to let some people into Rick’s life through cooking. They just know me as big, fancy Rick Tramonto, chef at TRU. But that’s not what I grew up with."
If Tramonto's going to go the gastropub route, where will he do it? Some have suggested that the language in the press release hints that he's leaving Chicago, but I doubt that—his connection to his church is too strong, and he's still co-raising a child with his former wife, Gale Gand. But that doesn't mean he can't open a restaurant elsewhere. In fact, that's something he's been talking about doing for a while. "I may have a wonderful opportunity in New Orleans," he told me in April. "There's a hotel down there that I've been in pretty deep talks with the last few months." Also, "I've got this thing in San Francisco I've been working on. I'd like to do a steakhouse out there, so I've been trying to do a licensing agreement."
Assuming he does open in New Orleans and San Francisco, and still kept his steakhouse in Wheeling (which he told me is doing very well), the chef would have more than enough to keep him busy. But I think it's only a matter of time before we get a Rick Tramonto burger-and-beer place. Think Kuma's Corner (a favorite of his), only with a little more truffle oil, a little less metal—and a lot less Lettuce.