Marshall V. King
Dining A La King
Richie Lutes is back with the family who gave him his start in the food business.
Lutes became chef at Lucchese's Italian Restaurant, 655 C.R. 17, Elkhart, this fall.
It was going back to where he started as an 18- or 19-year-old.
Granted, the restaurant has moved from downtown Elkhart to C.R. 17 and roles of the family members in the second and third generations of Luccheses have shifted.
Michele Lucchese, daughter of founders John and Kathy, is an executive chef along with Lutes. Pat Lucchese, Michele's brother, is helping manage it. So is Frank Lucchese and his wife, Tonja.
“For us, it's fun to have Richie back,” said Pat. Everyone's smiling and enjoying his return to their family business.
After Lutes graduated from Concord in 2004, he went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Pittsburgh. When he came back, he worked a year at the Matterhorn in Elkhart, then two years doing sushi at Chubby Trout, and then went back to the Matterhorn for four years. (Editor's note - The original version had the date wrong for the year he graduated. This version is correct.)
He helped oversee the banquets and catering at both the Matterhorn and the Lerner Theatre.
Lutes is one of the people in this world who can cook 500 chicken or roast beef dinners so they're hot and tender at a banquet.
But now he's taking on a different role.
Instead of 80 to 100 hours a week doing that type of work, he's working 60 or 70 overseeing five people to produce Lucchese's Italian food and some of his own new takes.
The hours are shorter, but have more surprises.
“It's a different beast because you don't know what's coming in and how busy you'll be,” he said.
He got married a year ago. And at 28 he's getting an opportunity to live and cook in a different way.
“This isn't just a job to me,” he said. He's passionate about what he creates, saying part of himself goes out the kitchen to the diners. “I'm on that plate. It's part of me. I'm putting it out there. If I wouldn't want to eat it, I wouldn't want to serve it,” he added.
He looks forward to using local produce from Bullard's Farm Market a few hundred yards away.
He's enjoying the fish he's getting from fresh vendors.
He said he's working on upping his game.
From what I've tasted, his game is pretty good.
You can tell he's worked for Kurt Janowsky, the successful Elkhart and South Bend restaurateur, and alongside someone like Matt Jay, who was at Matterhorn and is now chef at Cafe Navarre.
He wants to layer flavors on top of each other. And he's doing it.
He made a cioppino, a West Coast seafood stew. With several kinds of fish and components to the sauce, it had rich flavors as a special last week. The monkfish, mahi mahi and sea bass were great with shellfish and the sauce had saffron and the right amount of spice.
He's playing with some other pasta dishes too. And he's got all sorts of ideas about both how to play with the food that Lucchese's is known for while adding his own twist. For example, he wants to make a sausage fondue with the Italian blend made for the restaurant by Charlie's Butcher Block.
Since Lucchese's moved and expanded, there are more moving parts. More moving parts means that sometimes it's not as consistent as I want it to be.
I believe Lutes can bring consistency to the kitchen. It's coming, but is still a work in process.
I had a meal when he was out of town recently and the fried goat cheese appetizer came out without the toast that's part of the plate. The rest of the meal didn't come out of the kitchen in a timely manner. It was an off night, but pointed to how Lutes can help. And he is.
Though a new version of the menu came out this past year, Lutes is working on another for the spring. And I expect it'll have some very good dishes.
Elkhart is blessed with great Italian food. Bad Italian places don't tend to make it because there's so much good food. Lutes is now back in that tradition and will add to it.
“It's fun working here. I feel alive again,” he said.
That's good for Elkhart diners.
I'm hungry. Let's eat.
Marshall V. King is managing editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth. You can reach him at 574-296-5805, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Five things about Richie Lutes
1. Comfort food for him: “I'm just like a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy,” he said. He loves Texas Roadhouse because it's so consistent and he's never had a bad steak there.
2. Earliest childhood food memory: “When I was younger, I watched cooking shows instead of cartoons.”
3. Best meal: Recently it was fish and chips in Pike's Place Market in Seattle. “Simple and easy — how it's traditionally been done,” he said.
4. Favorite chef/food personality: Matt Jay, his former colleague at Matterhorn and now chef at Cafe Navarre. “I just learned to love food more being around him,” Lutes said.
5. Best thing he's made recently: Cioppino with three kinds of fish plus calamari, shrimp, mussels and clams, he said. He spent several days making the sauce and reduction.