Erica Marcus at Newsday

Keith Luce: All-star chef of Luce & Hawkins

Originally published: September 14, 2010 2:03 PM
Updated: September 14, 2010 4:48 PM

Keith Luce, the chef-proprietor of Luce & Hawkins

Photo credit: Gordon M. Grant | Keith Luce, the chef-proprietor of Luce & Hawkins restaurant in Jamesport, scrapes out custard for a rosemary-infused ice cream. (August 25, 2010)

The Jedediah Hawkins Inn has not been kind to chefs. When Jamesport’s restored Victorian beauty opened in 2006, the kitchen was overseen by Tom Schaudel and Michael Ross. They departed two years later, followed, in turn, by Matt Murphy and Steven Lewis. Each regime tweaked the formula – now a little more local, now a little less expensive – but by the time Lewis left late last year, the restaurant was suffering from a full-blown identity crisis.

Keith Luce comes home  It was around this time that Keith Luce started looking for a restaurant on the North Fork. The award-winning executive chef of the Herbfarm in Woodinville, Wash., Lucewas born and bred on the North Fork.  Now married with a young son, he wanted to come home.

After graduating in 1987 from Riverhead High School, Luce cooked in some of the best kitchens in New York before becoming sous chef at the Clinton White House, at the age of 22. A subsequent gig, executive chef at Spruce in Chicago, earned him a Food & Wine “Best New Chef” award in 1997 and the James Beard Rising Star Chef award of 1998. He kept moving west, to San Francisco, Napa and, finally, in 2006, to the Herbfarm outside Seattle.

After a deal in Greenport fell through, Luce started talking with the owners of Jedediah Hawkins about his vision for a North Fork restaurant. An agreement was struck and, in January, he moved his family back to where he started, not five miles from the 300-year-old Luce Farm on Sound Avenue.

The task at hand  On one wall of the restaurant’s kitchen hang framed definitions of three bywords: excellence, integrity, honesty. To that you can add intensity. Luce is not a chatty fellow and has no apparent interest in crafting a persona that will get him on TV. Nor does he have the time: In addition to executive chef, he is a part-owner of the inn and he has been working 15-hour-plus days for as long as he can remember.

His goal has always been clear: To make Luce & Hawkins the restaurant the inn deserves by highlighting the bounty of Long Island’s North Fork. That involved assembling a staff of like-minded individuals, the first of which was Michael Kaminski, the Herbfarm’s sommelier. Kaminski is director of the inn and, along with Luce, has assembled an eclectic (and highly readable) wine list that draws from the North Fork and beyond.

Soon after he opened in May, Luce & Hawkins earned a vaunted 31/2 stars from Newsday’s dining critic Peter M. Gianotti, putting it in the very top tier of Long Island restaurants and becoming, along with Southold’s North Fork Table and Inn, a destination that, on its own, justifies a trip out east.

The primacy of ingredients  “You’re only as good as your ingredients” is a sentiment given lip service by virtually any chef with aspirations. But Luce puts his money – and his time – where his mouth is. The chef spends a good chunk of his day driving around the North Fork, shopping for produce and fish.

It’s not enough to have farm-fresh produce delivered to the restaurant. “For one thing,” he said, “my presence sends a message to the farmer, the fishmonger. When they see me, the chef, they know that I am really paying attention.” For another, Luce can’t finalize his menu until he’s finished shopping. “The guys in the kitchen have gotten to the point where they can prep without me,” he said. “And I call them from the road to tell them what I’m buying.”

On a recent Wednesday morning, Luce set out in his beat-up Honda CRV and drove past a number of farm stands selling perfectly lovely berries until he reached Oysterponds Farm in Orient. “I’ve found their berries to be the most consistent,” he said, “fantastic raspberries – red, yellow, pale salmon. And up until last week they had these blackberries that were almost as big as your fist.”

Luce greeted Tom and Kevin Stevenson, the brothers who run the farm. “You ever think about figs?”

“We have some figs,” responded Tom, and they walked over to a row of mission figs heavy with fruit. “I will buy these,” Luce said, gathering as many as he could in his arms. “And in the fall, I will buy the leaves.”

With the berries and figs in the backseat, Luce headed west, stopping at Southold Fish Market for the sea bass he needs for his Thai-style whole fried fish; Wowak’s farm stand in Laurel for the string beans he flash fries and then seasons with Sichuan flavors; Wickham’s in Cutchogue for the little Suffolk Red grapes he serves with the chicken salad. (The figs wound up lending a sweet touch to a pizza topped with serrano ham and Manchego cheese.)

Then there are the super-local ingredients – the ones he raises himself on the inn’s grounds. A few steps away from the kitchen’s back door is a 7,500-square-foot garden where Luce grows all of his herbs and some of his vegetables. Behind the garden is the coop, home to 20 Australorp and Barred Rock chickens. He bought them as chicks and now, seven months later, they have begun to lay.

What does Luce do with all this bounty? He tries not to do too much. At the age of 41, he has grown weary of what he calls “that whole dog and pony show. Food isn’t about ego,” he said. “And it’s not about pushing the envelope just to push the envelope. Mostly, it’s about an ingredient that you don’t mess with too much.”

Luce’s menu reflects this minimalist approach. It’s written in simple English, not chef-ese. The only tricky thing about it is that it’s two-sided. That’s because, when the restaurant first opened, the idea was that the inn’s main dining room would house Luce & Hawkins, a formal venue serving a fixed-price chef’s tasting. The inn’s glassed-in patio would be the casual Luce’s Landing, serving an a la carte menu of small plates.

Customers’ desires  By midsummer, however, customer desire for more flexibility prevailed. The whole dining operation now goes by the name Luce & Hawkins, and you can get either menu in either room, though the five-course tasting menu, currently $85 a person, must be ordered by the entire table. Late-summer menu items have involved local squid two ways with corn soup; Shinnecock scallops with cauliflower, potato and almonds; and Kobe strip steak with shelling beans and eggplant.

Luce’s original “small plates” have given way to a surprisingly affordable lineup of tweaked comfort classics: addictive Crescent Farm duck wings that allude to their Buffalo-chicken cousins with a spicy marinade and cooling cucumber-feta raita; daily pizzas that are served in a pizza box; “macked-out” macaroni and cheese that comes with an utterly superfluous (and delicious) pitcher of sauce Mornay; a Chinese-inspired steamed bun stuffed with pork belly and raw Montauk tuna, a fantastic burger and fries. Prices range from $5 to $12 for appetizers and sides; $10 to $28 for main courses (except for a 24-ounce cowboy steak, $50), $8 for desserts such as the “chocolate flower pot,” a terra-cotta container filled with a brownie and bacon-walnut-caramel sauce.

These are the sorts of items – and prices – that bring locals in regularly for a not-necessarily-big-deal meal. That he is lavishing all his award-winning, sustainable, locavore passion on such humble dishes is, for Keith Luce, the most innovative facet of his enterprise.

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