After the fourth course was served, the waiter informed us that we still had four more. I looked at Fernando from across my plate of pan-roasted Sea Bass with spinach and roasted potatoes (Lubina Mediterranea), and then at the waiter, who walked away without a revelatory smile or laugh. "You'd better call our next appointment," I said, and took a bite; though after the Calamares with avocado and tomato, the quesadilla with lobster and shrimp and the Tomate al Escabeche, I wasn't sure I had room for any more...And though we were actually almost through with our tasting menu at Chef Luis in New Canaan, Connecticut, we had yet to meet with the man, Chef Luis, himself.
Before the onslaught of dishes, inspired by Luis' mother's and grandmother's Guatemalan kitchen, Fernando and I perused the list of wines. The restaurant, earthy and bright, was abuzz with lunching ladies on a Tuesday afternoon. Old World or New? asked Fernando, scanning through the selections from California, which includes Vineyard 29 Cru Cabernet Sauvignon and Scarecrow. Old, I said, and we shifted across the Atlantic to Italy, with wines such as La Palazzetta Brunello di Montalcone 2006 and Mauro Veglio Barolo "Vigneto Castelletto" 2007. Fernando selected Barolo, and we noted that the dessert list offers, Vinedo de los Vientos "Alcyone" Tannat from Uruguay.
With elegant power, the "Vigneto Castelletto", which hails from a family run-estate in Monforte d'Alba, shows notes of plump prunes, soft leather and warming eucalyptus. Its silky viscosity wraps approachable tannins, alongside acidity that shines a light and balances.
With bellies full and two appointments missed, we ordered coffee and welcomed Chef Luis to our table. And while we'd noticed the general joviality of the staff, once Luis joined us, it soon became clear that it's his joyful spirit in the kitchen that has a trickle-down affect.
Cooking since the age of seven to aid his mother, Luis was not an early fan of the kitchen. "Mom, cooking is for women," he'd told her then. "And so she slapped me," he added and laughed. "With her is was simple rules...Do the right thing."
Leaving Guatemala for Texas, he then abandoned the big state once the work dried up. With a friend in Connecticut, he came here to work. Starting as a dishwasher, he was moved to the prep-line when the prep didn't show up. Within two months, he was on the grill, but he disliked the restaurant lifestyle, which included heavy drinking, so he left the industry for a while and then came back. Within a few years, Luis was running the kitchen at Solé, an Italian restaurant in New Canaan, just down the street.
Between 2000 and 2007, Luis says he took business at Solé to another level. He became “powerful with customers,” he said, “and corporate didn’t like that.” People started coming to see him. He built a following and when “corporate” tried to become between Luis and his family, he left.
Securing this location a few doors down, in January 2007, Luis opened with the intention of serving “high-end take-out”. He’d printed 500 menus, opened the doors at 4:00 and by 5:00 there were no menus left! With no liquor license and rented tables and chairs, Luis had a strong first year, putting all profits back into the business. By 2008, when the economy had slipped, Luis realized that he had to obtain a liquor license or quit. He kept a positive attitude and didn’t raise his fares; and in May 2011, he closed to renovate and expand.
Remaining faithful to his relationships, Luis circulates the frequently full dining room and has named dishes after regular customers. Harry and Jill’s atún a la Luisiana is named for Harry Connick Jr. and his wife; Cashman’s pasta is named after Brian Cashman, the general manager of the Yankees.
Describing his menu as “a mutt menu”, Luis says, “I love flavors. I love colors…I don’t follow recipes. I take French and Italian and I cook the way my mom cooked.” Using fresh ingredients from the market, Luis creates all of the restaurant’s dishes. He received a fond review from Patricia Brooks in the New York Times, adding, “I want people to come with no expectations, and that’s why we don’t advertise.”
In 2009, he joined Cashman’s family to watch Game Six of the World Series. And of his life he says, “When they say the American dream is dead…anything is possible in this country. I’m an immigrant. I have my restaurant, and this would have never happened in Guatemala. This is America. This is my way to say life is beautiful. You have to work for it.”
To Chef Luis, we raise a glass.