Tomy Lokvicic

Tanta

07/10/2015

Tomy Lokvicic is the general manager of Tanta in River North.

How old were you when you moved here from Santiago, Chile?

I was twenty-two and I came to America wanting to learn English. I didn’t know anybody. I sold my stuff and took a plane to Chicago. One of my friends had a connection at Charlie Trotter’s so the day after I arrived, I was working. I didn’t have time to think about the fact that I was starting a new life. I advanced at Trotter’s from valet parking all the way to becoming a manager over ten years. After that, I opened the Elysian hotel, one of the most luxurious hotels in Chicago.

Could you outline your roles and responsibilities as a GM?

A general manager is basically like—you have an orchestra, right? You got to have all your pieces online, you have to make sure everything is cohesive. And if you’re missing one part you need to make sure you replace that, so the sound is perfect. The same thing with the restaurant. I have all my pieces. They all have responsibilities. I have to support them so that they have everything to do their jobs well.

You have to make sure the guest is happy, of course. And we can’t forget we are running a business. Sometimes the small details make the biggest impact. Like if the soap dispenser is leaking too much soap. By the end of the year, you’ll see a significant loss of money. Those are the things that you cannot see. The general manager has to have a clearer vision than anybody else. You need to see things under the water, pretty much. When you identify those you do a good job.

You’re a coach too. You have to build that culture and philosophy as a GM; you need to put your stamp on the restaurant. If it had been a different GM than me it would be 100% different. It depends on your philosophy, on your culture as a person. As a leader. As a boss. And being responsible with what you have in your hands.

What has being a manager taught you about communicating with people?

Listen. And have the time to listen. Have an open door policy. My office is always open. If someone has an issue, come talk to me. There’s never a stupid or bad question. If you don’t fix a problem this week, it builds and becomes a bigger problem, all because I didn’t have the time to talk to you. If I want you to pay more attention to silver, you might say, “Well, I can’t do it faster because I don’t have enough plates or silverware.” You need to make sure they have everything, all the tools and training. It’s like having a sports team: If you don’t train, if you don’t provide for them to perform at the level that you want, they’re not gonna perform. And it’s gonna be your fault, not theirs. You can’t blame them for making a mistake if you don’t give them enough training, or show them how to do things right. At the end of the day, we do that right, that’s why we have a very solid team.

Our servers and bartenders are happy. And that’s what we hear from people. “We love the food, we love the atmosphere.” We love to see a happy group of people. It’s very intense because it’s very busy. It’s not like some other restaurants that I’ve been in, where you see people screaming at each other. I still have people come here and they remember me from when I used to work at Trotter’s. “You were our server on our tenth anniversary.” Those are things that pay off too. I’m doing the right thing. It confirms that the culture of my vision is the right one.

What are some misconceptions that you think people have about working in the restaurant industry?

I think the majority of young people these days, they feel that working in a restaurant is easy money. But it’s not. Especially in Chicago. We are a city where the standard for everybody that comes in is high. And you need to be in a restaurant because you wanna be in a restaurant. You have to be knowledgeable, you have to work hard, you have to be passionate, and you have to show that to your guests. You never know who you are gonna be serving. You may have a very angry cop who got stuck in traffic for three hours. And all of that builds up until they come here. And then you’re the one who is in charge of fixing that.

It’s not an easy job to be a server. It’s not just selling a food item, putting an order through. It’s building and creating an experience for people. Something memorable that will make them come back to your restaurant. Actually, that’s our mission—and this is looking into the business part. It’s how you create a moment for each guest. You want them to think, “You know what, we need to go out next week for our friend John’s birthday. Where can we take him? Oh, remember last week? We went to Tanta and we had an amazing experience. Let’s go back there.” That’s the thing that you have to do. And you only have an hour and a half, two hours to do that. You have enough restaurants in Chicago that you can go a couple years without returning to the first one. And you will have a great experience, and great meals. So, how do you do it? That’s our goal, our mission: make people come back to our restaurant.

What was your first experience with Peruvian food?

I’m from Chile, and historically we’re not very good friends with Peruvians. [laughs] I never thought I would get hired to run a Peruvian restaurant. But I did have Peruvian cuisine in Chile. Before I moved to the U.S. in 1999, there were a couple restaurants in Chile; Peruvian cuisine was starting to get popular. I had a couple ceviches, but nothing else. My first real experience was when I got hired here and I got sent to Lima for two weeks. Our chef, Gastón Acurio, sent me out to six or seven restaurants everyday, and I absorbed everything. I was amazed. It was the best trip I’ve ever had in my life. Peruvian food has all of these influences I didn’t know about previously, from China, Japan, and Africa.

I was very impressed with how much things have changed over there in the past ten or fifteen years. I think Chef Gastón had a lot to do with that. He pushed the cuisine and started taking it outside of their country. Machu Picchu was such a big draw— but now, there are people who go to Lima just to eat. They forget about Machu Picchu. It’s not just a stop because you have to fly to Lima in order to go to Machu Picchu. It’s a destination as well.

Do you think that people in Chicago have an idea of what to expect from Peruvian cuisine? Has there been a good response to less familiar items?

I think we are on the right track. Of course, it’s gonna take a little bit more than a couple years for a Peruvian restaurant to create that knowledge in people, but I think we’re on the right track. We have return guests all the time, people who have eaten here five or ten times. That’s what you want. Our menu is designed to please every palette. If you are a vegetarian; if you are a seafood lover; if you’re a meat lover; if you like fried stuff, braised meats, raw, cooked; you will find everything.

The servers have the responsibility to build your experience and make sure you choose what the right thing is for you. Not that we don’t want you to experience different things, but if you’re a first timer, we want to make sure you come back. So we need to identify what it is that will make you come back. And then when you come back, we might suggest something new to try. “Oh, I've never had beef heart!” “Trust me, if you haven’t had beef heart, this is place to have it for the first time.” And people love it. They love the texture. As soon as you please them and find what they like, you have a little more room to play around.

Do you have any favorite dishes you’d want someone to try when they came to Tanta for the first time?

Definitely ceviche. That’s Peru’s national dish. It has a Japanese influence, too, with the raw fish and citrus juice. Ceviche is essentially seafood cured in lime juice. You don’t chop the fish like you do in Central American or Mexican ceviche. This is literally a ¾ inch cube. The other component is the Leche de Tigre, which is essentially liquid ceviche. You mix fish, fish stock, lime juice, onion, cilantro, chiles, garlic, all that in a blender, you make an emulsion, then you strain it and you get a very light ceviche juice. You make everything à la minute, you mix the fish instantly and add more chile, more salt; more onions; more cilantro. You garnish with Peruvian corn and sweet potato and there’s your ceviche.

You can’t hide the flavor if it’s that fresh. That's the difference from other ceviches. I’m not saying they don’t do it right, but you can hide anything if you let it marinate for five hours in citrus juice. Then all you taste is citrus. Here you taste the texture, the fish; and all the flavors complement one another. “Leche de Tigre” means “tiger’s milk”. It invigorates you. It’ll wake you up.

How did external influences build the Peruvian cuisine you see today in Peru and at Tanta?

There is a lot of crossover from Chinese and Japanese cuisine. About two-hundred years ago, people moved from China and Japan to Peru, thinking it was an undiscovered land, and they found out there were all these different microclimates and regions: the Amazon, the Sierra, the valleys, the coastline. It was a perfect scenario for building your life, and growing rice. One of our most popular dishes is Chaufa Aeropuerto: It’s a stir fried rice with pork, vegetables, chiles, soy sauce, fish sauce and done in the wok, the right way. It’s finished up with something like an omelet: an egg tortilla with shrimp in it, and Chinese spices on top. It’s served in a hot Korean or Chinese stone bowl that you can put in an open fire. It’s a noisy dish! The rice grains on the bottom get crispy, and then you mix it tableside and it’s an aroma explosion. When you see one of those walking through the dining room, you know there are gonna be twenty more coming up in the order, because everyone’s like, “What is that?”

Chef Gastón has opened some forty-five restaurants and changed the face of modern Peruvian cuisine. What motivates him?

The goal is to have Peruvian cuisine be a staple. You are home on a Sunday night thinking, “What do we eat? Italian? Sushi? Or should we do Peruvian?” That’s how Chef Gastón wants people to think. The same way you find Italian restaurants everywhere, he wants you to find Peruvian restaurants everywhere.

Last question: what do you do with your time away from Tanta?

I hang out with friends. I like to go out to eat. I play soccer; I’ve been playing since I was five years old. Actually, I didn't do it this year because I was focused on the restaurant, but I got a call today that they want me to join a team. So I’m probably gonna play on Monday. I’m very excited about that.

I like to go and try different restaurants and bars with friends, get ideas and support people locally as well. I have a very simple, easy life. I like to travel a little bit when I have time. Go see my family in Chile. Besides that, I think that the majority of my life is the restaurant. This is my family, and what I spend my days doing. It makes me happy.

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