John Chiakulas is Corporate Executive Chef for Lettuce Entertain You and Partner of Antico Posto, Beatrix, Ēma, Foodease, Foodlife and Mity Nice Bar & Grill. For the last 35 years, Chiakulas has worked at almost three dozen Lettuce restaurants including The Pump Room, Scoozi, Wildfire and Beatrix.
Even as a young entrepreneur Chiakulas was destined to be in the restaurant business. His mother remembers when he opened his first “restaurant” at the age of ten serving ten cent cheese sandwiches and hotdogs to his brothers. A Chicago native, Chiakulas began his professional career in high school, bussing tables at My Π Pizzeria then received his first cooking job at Gordon’s Restaurant.
Chiakulas’ journey with Lettuce Entertain You began at Ambria in 1981 as a fish butcher and soufflé cook. Soon after, he opened Avanzare, serving as the saucier until 1984 when he was promoted to Sous Chef. In 1987 Chiakulas’ hard work paid off and he became Avanzare’s Head Chef. At Avanzare, he traveled throughout Italy where he found a new appreciation for authentic Italian cuisine. He embraced these new experiences when he became Executive Chef at Scoozi in 1992.
In 1994, Chiakulas became a Corporate Chef giving him the opportunity to work at many Lettuce restaurants, including Tru, L. Woods and Di Pescara. Chiakulas considers his time in 1997 as Executive Chef for the Pump Room to be amongst the highlights of his career.
Founder of Lettuce Entertain You, Rich Melman, went on to bring Chiakulas on as Corporate Executive Chef in August 2002; "In this position we can utilize John’s versatile talents to work with me on special projects and develop new concepts," said Melman. As Corporate Executive Chef, Chiakulas manages the development, creation and maintenance of many Lettuce menus and recipes, as well as oversees every aspect of the restaurants’ operations.
In 2007, Chiakulas teamed up with Executive Partner Marc Jacobs at Goodlife as a chef and supervisor, reengineering the dining stations and introducing new recipes and dishes. He sees Foodlife as a “chef’s playground” where he can work with many different cuisines while also staying close to the customer. He says, “This job is a chef’s dream. Not only am I developing recipes for different cuisines everyday, but I feel truly connected to our guests. I love that side of this position.” In 2011, Chiakulas helped bring Foodease Market to life, Lettuce’s first market style restaurant.
In addition to developing new Lettuce restaurants, Chiakulas works with the Lettuce Consulting Group, where he is able to travel around the country to create new menus and work with different concepts.
In 2013, Chiakulas was instrumental in the menu creation at Beatrix, which later opened its second location in Streeterville in October 2015. Most recently, he was a part of the opening team of Ēma, a Mediterranean and California-inspired restaurant in River North.
He is constantly testing new dishes, updating and perfecting existing items and using his creativity and skill to push the envelope with healthful, yet tasty ingredients. Chiakulas is still inspired by Rich everyday, “Rich has taught me to not be afraid of failure and to never rest on my laurels.” Throughout his time as Corporate Executive Chef, he has become more comfortable in this leadership role but is still “hungry for more” and is excited for the next challenge. With a love for chocolate and a nickname to match (Chocco-latte), Chiakulas’ passion is still cooking, something he considers to be a “labor of love.”
Chiakulas lives in Chicago’s Northwest suburbs, married with four sons and one granddaughter. In his free time he enjoys entertaining and cooking at home, gardening, fishing and golf.