Jul 26, 2014

Everybody Loves Chef Luis

A look at the history of the man behind the apron.


If a town is lucky, it’ll have a Cheers.

You know, where everybody knows your name? And everyone’s glad you came? Where your troubles are all the same?

Well, that’s — New Canaan’s Cheers. It’s where you go to get spoiled by servers so personable and attentive, they’ll make your best friend look like a stranger. The daytime brings families and business partners, while the evening atmosphere makes for a wild but cozy hangout - a hotbed for mixing, mingling and a drink or two (or three).

The restaurant operates as if it’s at any moment and Chef Luis Lopez would not have it any other way.

The Guatemala native, a man as jovial as he is talented, is a celebrity in his own right with a fiercely dedicated following; but even the greatest of greats have humble beginnings.

“I used to hate it,” said a wide-eyed Chef Luis, seated on a bench at , reminiscing about cooking in Guatemala. “It was something I had to do with my mother. You don’t cook, you don’t eat." 

“We used to live in a house with 12 to 15 rooms," recalled Luis, "and each room had two families with a communal kitchen. My mother would leave the firewood out for me."

While many children gripe and groan over washing the dishes and moving the lawn, Luis had his own most detested chore as a little cook.  

“What I hated the most was the cornmeal. You’d have to go the mill to cook the corn and only the ladies would go there with their baskets on their heads, but my mother would make me go. My friends would be playing soccer and tease me,” said Luis with a broad grin.

“She taught me how to use the knife, though, my mother. I regret she’ll never see this - the product of all her work."

Luis arrived in the U.S. in 1985 and, like all self-made chefs, started behind a sink rather than a stove.

“I was washing dishes at Olive’s Tavern in Old Saybrook for three days when the owner asked if I spoke English. I said ‘yes’ even though I didn’t know what he was talking about,” laughs Luis, “but I needed a job!" 

“One day, the chef didn’t show up and the owner gave me a box of tomatoes. He screamed and shouted and was cursing when he saw I’d cut up the whole box, but ended up being impressed with how fast I did it. He took me under his wing and showed me how to make soups and things."

When Olive’s Tavern folded, Luis held on to a series of odd jobs until landing a position at making salads in 1999 and, after just one year, moved on to become head chef until 2006.

In 2007, Luis set out to open his own restaurant, but it was a far cry from .

“It was intended to be takeout, but, from day one, people started asking for reservations," said Luis. "We had just ten tables and we started renting tables and chairs. People liked it and, when the bakery space next door opened up, we took the opportunity to expand."

“But, we never could have made it without our investors. At one point I was just asking every customer who came through the door and eventually we pulled it off, selling this idea. I won’t mention names, but we are very, very grateful to those investors. Also the landlord is great, they’re so helpful,” beams Luis.

The chef is quick to point out, however, credit where credit is due.

“I’m in debt to them for the opportunity they gave me,” said Luis of Sole, “I have a lot of love for them. I didn’t take any dishes from them either. People can go to Sole for those dishes.”

As for his own style, Luis fondly calls it ‘mutt.’

“I took some freshness of Italian with French technique and American ingredients. Having uncompromising quality is key and there’s always a secret ingredient as the ace up the sleeve. Ultimately, I listen to the customers, I hear their input and they get what they want,” said Luis, “I even name the dishes after customers.”

Harry & Jill’s Atun a la Louisiana - blackened seared yellow-fin tuna, horseradish mashed potatoes, sautéed greens and lemon cream - is a dish named after customers Harry Connick Jr. and his wife Jill.

Cashman’s Paccheri — large, hollow, tube shaped, Italian bacon, onions, white wine, habanero olive oil, parsley, imported pecorino cheese — is named after Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.

Olympia’s Tomate al Escabeche — charred tomatoes, red onions, Burrata cheese, fresh oregano, olive oil and Jerez vinaigrette — is named after Luis’ wife, a woman he fondly refers to as ‘the architect’ of his family.

“She makes this baccala,” said Luis of his wife, “it’s a dry fish, it’s very salty. She makes it in egg batter and cooks her own tomato sauce. And then there’s this beef stew. I don’t know what’s in it, but I could eat it every day. Isn’t she beautiful?” asks Luis, holding up a cell phone snapshot of Olympia.

Even a full-time job creating complex dishes for a packed house doesn’t stop Luis from cooking at home, but it’s not five-star, gourmet, four-course meals every night for his four sons.

“We still have a lot of pasta, a lot of rice and beans. We’re humble and I want the kids to appreciate and understand what they have...but it’s hard not to spoil my boys,” admits Luis.

Whether he’s hosting a triple digit per head and wine tycoon Peter Deutsch or ordering , Chef Luis has truly become a fixture on Elm Street.


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