Prodigal Chef

prodigal_chef

A Riverhead native returns.

JAMESPORT-Plates of hors d’oeuvres whirl by me. Pastramicured local bluefish, plump smoked mussels skewered on sprigs of flowering lavender, Lummi Island wild salmon, and vegetable rolls decked with delicate Sang Lee early greens. Evan, the bartender, pours his pick, Paumanok’s crisp chenin blanc. The early evening sun slants through the tall windows of the Jedediah Hawkins Inn in South Jamesport, casting a glow into the front parlor and bar, and onto rich furnishings and the Max Moran paintings on the wall.  We’re aglow, too, the first lucky people to experience star chef-and native son-Keith Luce’s debut onto the East End food scene.

“I took a leap of faith,” says Luce, soft-spoken and intense in his chef coat, of his venture to bring a new level of imaginative, high-quality, organic, sustainable, locally sourced cuisine to his old stomping grounds. “I came back because I love this place. It’s in my blood. And there is something about the climate, soil and maritime influence that creates a depth of flavor in the vegetables and the fruit, and the seafood, and cheeses and meats that I’ve never found elsewhere, not even in California.”

The road home has been long, and Luce has come full circle.  He grew up on a farm in Riverhead, part of a clan whose forebears landed at, yes, Luce’s Landing, near Iron Pier Beach in the mid-1600s. He went on to sous-chef at the White House under the first Clinton administration, cooked in France, Italy and at the Rainbow Room, Le Cirque and La Côte Basque, was named a top-10 chef by Food & Wine in 1997, given a James Beard award for Rising Star Chef in 1998, and, most recently, won acclaim as the executive chef of the Herbfarm in Washington State. He also appeared on Top Chef as a guest judge.

Why, then, when he sports such serious laurels, did he upsticks for the wilds of the North Fork?

He dreamed of bringing his young family here, to a place that’s still much like it was in his childhood, he told me. And, as fate would have it, the Jed Hawkins, a lovingly restored 1863 sea captain’s manse, needed a new life, too. A partnership with a top restaurateur had ended, and a short, all-but-disastrous run with another had left the owners reeling. A serendipitous meeting in the fall of 2009 between Luce and the principal owner Lia Polites led to Polites’s own leap of faith. A few thoughtful changes-the front parlor had been like some grand old auntie’s sitting room, not actually for sitting in, so a wall came down to open up the space-and a new life became reality for all.

There’s Luce & Hawkins, a fine dining restaurant, and Luce’s Landing, a casual bar and patio dining spot. All ingredients are sourced as locally, sustainably and organically as possible. Kitchen herbs, some veggies and Barred Rock laying hens are grown and raised on the grounds.

“We always had fresh food from the farm on our table when I was growing up,” Luce says. “For me, this is an extremely personal project. This isn’t just about an inn and a restaurant; it’s about the region as a whole. I’m hoping to build a truly sustainable model.  In an ideal world, the food we use will all be from the premises or from local producers who share this vision.”

He talks of the close relationships he’s enjoyed on the West Coast; the fishmongers who provided herring roe on native Hemlock branches, the fisheries owner who let him reef-net sockeye salmon in the traditional Native American way, and the time he convinced a poultry farmer to raise-and hand-pluck-squab.  “Amazingly, he still likes me!” he says. “In all seriousness, though, these are the relationships I hope to forge here now that I am home.” And, he says, it’s remarkable how much more there is available now than years ago-artisanal cheeses like Catapano chèvre and the Mecox Dairy cheeses, improved sustainability on the seafood front, more choice in agricultural produce.

“The one thing I wish were further along would be local consumers’ feeling of community,” he says. “On the West Coast, the one thing I was taken with was the level of awareness from a consumer perspective.”

And what gets him boiling? “Big business mentality in agriculture,” he says. “It angers me that our system is set up to “protect” us from all that is good in terms of artisanal food crafts, yet large corporations are spending millions using the values of these artisans as a marketing tool, while raping the earth and putting smaller, more responsible businesses with a passion for doing things right out of business.”

We’re now seated family-style on the covered patio, the Luce’s Landing space. “I want people to feel at home here, to come by often for really well-prepared food at great prices,” says Luce. “A glass of wine, a burger, light bites. Please come and enjoy, otherwise I’ll have to move back to the West Coast!”

The drama in the kitchen unfolds-we watch through the open wall. The blackclad staff deftly assembles dishes. There are no raised voices, no hips banging on doors. It’s almost serene. Luce, looking serious now that the heat is on, bends over a huge new Wood Stone Fire Deck oven and peers inside the beast. This oven, by the way, is causing oven-envy among local chefs.

Fire leaps out of the Wood Stone’s maw as Luce scoops out perfect loaves with a big wooden paddle. Is he pleased? Is that a smile? He dumps the bread by the window to cool, right under our quivering little noses.

It’s great theater.

And then, the procession of dishes starts to arrive. Peconic Bay scallop ceviche topped with Steelhead sea trout caviar from the Quinault River in Washington State. We pour warm, fragrant miso soup onto a local organic egg topped with spring chives. And a truly transcendent food moment; simmered monkfish medallions over shaved artichoke and fennel, dressed with anise seeds, black olives, capers and rum brown butter. It’s paired perfectly with Wölffer Estate’s new barrel-fermented chardonnay, La Perle.

Michael Kaminski, the director and sommelier, chose the wines, and is putting together a thoughtful list of both local and international choices. He also has a flair for the theatric, also comes from acclaim on the West Coast just for this project, young family in tow.  “The wine, like the food, should have a progression of flavors, textures and intensity throughout a truly memorable meal,” says Kaminski, who is certified by the American Chapter of the British Court of Master Sommeliers. “Keith and I work very well together in that respect. He has an understanding and appreciation for how the wine and food work together.”

Luce is smiling now, chatting. We move into the Luce & Hawkins dining room for a rustic, slow-cooked pork belly with celery root, organic carrots and tart cherry in red wine. And there’s “nothing more Long Island than duck and potatoes,” Luce says, presenting an interpretation with local honey glaze and sweet-andsour red cabbage, paired with a Russian River Valley pinot noir.  The duck is from Crescent Duck Farm, near the Peconic Bay.

“It is the best Pekin duck I have ever had,” Luce says. “There’s a natural salinity that speaks in the meat. The only time I’ve had a similar experience was in the Camargue in the South of France where the salt marsh lambs graze on salicornia in the wetlands. It’s as though it’s seasoned from the inside.”

It seems that the salt of the earth, of the native land, gets right into the fiber of a living being and becomes a part of the body. As for the actual land on which Luce grew up, the family farm on Sound Avenue where his parents John and Janet Luce still live?  “Sadly, the land is fallow right now,” he says. “But I intend to change that.”

Gwendolen Groocock is the editor of the Greenport Guide, and writes about food, wine, travel and mommyhood from her home in Greenport.

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