DE SOTO - No one had faith in Lasse and Maryjane Sorensen's plans - not even their lawyer.
Living in California, the couple decided to explore options for moving to Southern Illinois. Maryjane had been raised in the region, while her husband's roots were in Denmark. Tired of the hustle and bustle of the West Coast, they desired a more relaxed life in a peaceful environment.
Lasse had built an international reputation for himself as a culinary master; so naturally, they aimed to continue the restaurant business in the region. Eyeing real estate listings, Lasse found a building north of De Soto with a rich history known as Tom's Place.
Maryjane was the first of countless people to tell Lasse that opening a high-class restaurant in Southern Illinois wasn't a viable option. He listened, while keeping the idea alive in his mind, for five years, until they reconsidered and purchased the building.
From that moment on, people insisted they were crazy and destined to fail.
"He (their lawyer) told us, ‘I don't want anything to do with this because you'll never make it,'" Lasse said. "It's all about working hard and focusing on your goals. I never had a doubt we'd make it."
Fifteen years later, Tom's Place remains in a class almost of its own in Southern Illinois. The restaurant is one of 3,000 worldwide to have earned a Wine Spectator Award and was awarded a five-star Award of Excellence from the North American Restaurant Association.
Much has changed since the Sorensens took over. They've upgraded the infrastructure, added an extensive list of fine wines and meals to the menu and put their own special touch on the place. But there are still countless remnants, including photographs and old menus, of the 80-year history of Tom's Place.
Many people in Southern Illinois recognize the restaurant as a top-notch fine dining experience, but Lasse said he still has people that say they've never heard of it. He also sees travelers passing through town who stop in and, based on the name and appearance of the building, assume they'll be able to find fried chicken waiting inside.
Rather, the menu will often feature items like guinea fowl, Boston lobsters, oysters from the Pacific Northwest and fish from both coasts. Now, Lasse admits he's scaled back some of his more exotic dishes and increased his portion sizes to cater to the more "meat-and-potato" diners of Southern Illinois. But in 15 years, he's managed to turn some of that culinary mentality around.
"The people who have come here for years trust me," Lasse said, explaining he knows many of his customers well enough to make suggestions to them to expand their horizons. "I've converted a lot of people."
This year, the Sorensens have many special plans for celebrating 15 years in the business, including special events geared at introducing new customers to Tom's Place by offering a lower price point. A calendar of events for the year will soon be released on the restaurant's website.
Among the highlights are a prime rib night, the annual Easter breakfast buffet, weekly wine dinners, a morel mushroom feast and an evening of Spanish cuisine.
But as they settle into their positions as the second-longest of Tom's Place's eight owners, the Sorensens are just pleased to look back at the success they've enjoyed and the friends they've met.
"It's almost against all odds that we're sitting here," Lasse said. "It's amazing that it worked."