Rare and Well Done
by Elizabeth Clements
This year, on April 24, Chez Léon turns 25—a rare achievement for a restaurant.
For the past two and a half decades, Tita Jensen has delighted people's taste buds at Fermilab's onsite restaurant, and she doesn't have plans to stop anytime soon. "Every day that I open the dining room, it is wonderful," she said. "It is like when you open the curtains to a theater or an opera. It makes me very happy."
Named after Fermilab's second director, Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, Chez Léon started as a place of fine dining for employees and especially for the physicists who traveled to the lab from all around the world. "It was really isolated out there in those days. I used to have to drive to the farthest part of Aurora just to get a red pepper," Jensen said. "Leon always wanted to start a place for fine dining, and it was a big success."
In the beginning, Chez Léon served two dinners and one lunch in the Music Room in the Users' Center. A year later, Chez Léon moved into its current location in the Users' Center. Since that time, Chez Léon has changed quite a bit.
As a professionally trained chef in classic French and Italian cuisine, Jensen learned her technique from Madeline Kammen at a restaurant school in Boston. Jensen has a degree in anthropology, and cooking was not her original plan. After graduating, she quickly realized that finding a job in anthro-pology was easier said than done and turned to cooking. Jensen said, "I was always interested in cooking, but I was very discouraged because it was not a woman's profession at the time."
Jensen will not argue that it could not have worked out better. "Chez Léon is the best thing that ever happened to me," she said. "I am able to create a friendly atmosphere. I get to create my own menus. I have a great staff. It is every chef's dream. The only thing left is to make my customers happy."
With at least 40 standing reservations every Wednesday for lunch, Jensen doesn't appear to have any problems pleasing her customers. "They don't even look at the menu for that day. They just make their reservations for lunch every Wednesday no matter what," she said. "I think that is very funny."
When it comes to choosing the menus, Jensen considers three main things: the season, the cost and the availability. "You don't want to serve asparagus in the middle of the winter," she said.
No matter the inspiration, menus at Chez Léon are without a doubt the product of Jensen's worldly travels. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Jensen met her Danish husband, Hans Jensen, who is a physicist on CDF, while traveling in Peru. They spent some time at CERN in Switzerland and moved to Illinois when CDF was getting started in the late seventies. Jensen explained that she really plans her menus simply around what looks good. "I was trained not to use recipes," she said. "I was told, 'You're an artist. You're trained to use food and techniques.'"
While the food is important, Jensen believes that the atmosphere plays just as big if not a bigger role. "Food is just a medium," she said. "You need a friendly place, where people feel welcome and special."
Looking back on the twenty-five years, Jensen is the first to admit that she is still learning. "When you work with food, you learn something every day," she said. "At every meal, I try to make something that I haven't done before. That is my challenge that I give myself. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn't."
From graduations to birthdays to even divorces, Chez Léon is the place to celebrate at Fermilab. It is indeed a rare day at Chez Léon when Jensen does not emerge from the kitchen with a lighted cake, singing Happy Birthday to a mildly blushing customer. "I was very against Chez Léon being an executive dining room when it first started. Everyone who walks in here is special," Jensen said. "The fact that they choose this as the place to come makes me very proud."
Jensen has mastered the art of celebrating other people's events, but how does she plan to celebrate her own? "I would like to do something where the staff doesn't have to work," she said. "I feel very fortunate because I have the most honest and loyal group of workers. I would like to take them out to a restaurant to celebrate Chez Léon's 25 years."
|last modified 4/8/2004 email Fermilab|