By Franz Scheurer
Luke Hayes-Alexander is a young chef in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, where he runs the burners in his own, tiny restaurant with his mother Carrie running the floor. Imagine, just two people running a restaurant; they must be super-dedicated, stupid or mad. They are no doubt dedicated but they neither silly nor mad; they are pursuing a dream. A dream to serve innovative, original dishes, based on the craft of cooking over the last couple of millennia with a twist; buy and source produce locally and serve food without accepting normal commercial criteria.
On second thoughts, this might be a little mad.
Luke is self taught, home educated, and he has managed to grab the attention of food-critics from all over the world with his avant-garde creations, which force you to think before you eat. Luke is aloof, lives in his own world, and despite the fact that he’s genius-level bright, he is following his heart a lot more than his head and Carrie’s life revolves around Luke for the sole purpose of furthering his talent. It’s a dream team and finally, a dream come true. Naturally they struggled getting the super conservative crowd of Kingston, primarily an university town, to eat at their restaurant or savour the new flavours and textures and it might also have been a touch out of reach for most of the poor uni-student. This has now changed due to his speech for TED late last year and the fact that finally a local journalist, Greg Burliuk, food editor, took up the call and dedicated a whole page of the Kingston Whig Standard, to the local boy-wonder and his restaurant. Luke also helped by putting on a couple of simple, affordable dished to bring in the student crowd.
I was so intrigued by Luke’s creations (he’s unusually active and open on Twitter) my wife and I flew to Toronto, hired a car, drove to Kingston and spent a couple of days eating at Luke’s Gastronomy.
Luke just celebrated his 20th Birthday at the end of last year and it is astounding to see the amount of knowledge he managed to cram into his head in this short time. He butchered his first pig when he was in his early teens and constantly devours cook-book from any chef, anywhere in the world and from any period, slowly accumulating priceless knowledge forming a snapshot of food, frozen in time. Due to the fact that he has neither done stages at other restaurants nor easily makes friends, his food is unique; It’s Luke’s food and Luke’s Gastronomy in Kingston is the only place in the world where you can sample it; and YES, it’s worth the trip from Sydney, Australia.
My first impression of the restaurant was ‘a tiny food oasis lost in time… probably Woodstock... ‘. Loosely hanging gauze curtains separate the tables and the menu is a simple, in-house print job. The wine list is short and mainly features wines from their family vineyard in Prince Edward County, which I must say are not the world’s best wines. The food however, is sensational. We basically ate ourselves through the menu over two subsequent nights and there is not a single dish that is not superb. I can name the ‘Blues Junkie Goat’ as my favourite and I am honoured that Luke chose to name one of his creations after my Twitter handle. I loved the ‘Tête du Cochon’ so much I ordered it twice and the ‘Flight (to First Century Rome’, comprising Lucanian sausage, wild blueberries, pinot grigio, rustica salad, moretum, must bread, walnuts, rue, barley and makshufa is a revelation. My favourite dessert had to be the ‘Testosterone’ a concoction using vanilla tobacco, coffee, honey dates and Scotch. I never knew just how much heat is in tobacco, but boy it’s good.
As Luke’s Gastronomy will eventually grow there will be a time when Luke will have to learn what it means to work in a team; at the moment he’s totally self-reliant. He jokes that his assistants are his left and his right arm. To run a brigade is a very different thing and I hope that he’ll have the chance to learn how to produce his food without compromise but with the help of others. I certainly believe in him!
Luke Hayes Alexander – I salute you!
Below a short interview I conducted with Luke for the Centurion American Express Magazine in November 2010 (alas they decided not to run it), using a lot of the material that he presented during his TED speech, as I believe it gives you a great insight of the man.
Luke Hayes-Alexander – A Chef That Makes a Difference
By Franz Scheurer
It’s about 3½ hours drive north-east from Toronto, along the shores of Lake Ontario, to Kingston a small university town at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, one of the great waterways of the world. Kingston is a lovely town, conservative, quiet, safe and the jump-off point for visiting the area known as the Thousand Islands a little further upstream in the Saint Lawrence.
Kingston is also the home of Luke’s Gastronomy, a quirky, tiny restaurant on the main street that you’ll miss if you blink. This restaurant and its owner/chef Luke Hayes-Alexander, attract food-savvy diners from all over the world, flocking to this out-of-the-way altar of food to pay their respects. Most amazingly, Luke is not even 20 years old yet…
Luke is not just talented, he’s gifted (savant level) but although he is no doubt one in a million he’s neither anti-social nor only focused on one talent or obsession. Luke is very bright and would probably have succeeded in any profession of his choosing but thankfully for us, he followed his passion for food and cooking. His mother assured me that he was already reading at the age of one and although he went to public school from grade 1 to 4 the teachers simply didn’t know what to do with this kid. He switched to private school until grade 8, which was a little better but eventually found that only home schooling could challenge him in any way. His mother Carrie is his teacher, front of house in the restaurant and his best friend.
Recently I decided to check out this wunderkind and his cuisine and flew halfway around the world to Kingston and I spent two glorious nights eating Luke’s food and two days chatting to Luke and his mum, Carrie.
When did you decide to become a cook and why?
Since the age of 11, I've immersed myself in the mysterious, beautiful, sometimes confusing, delicious world of food. It was then that I decided to devote my life to food & cooking & to teach myself all that I would need to know. I also decided to not eat anything unless I had sourced the ingredients locally and prepared them myself. I can't tell you the looks on my parents' faces when I mentioned all of this at dinner one night 8 years ago. And so my journey began. I was very lucky that my parents owned a restaurant that already used a fair amount of local foods. Luckily, they also owned a lot of cookbooks & food history books. That night, while brushing my teeth, I realized that if I wanted bread the next day, I'd have to bake some. Into the kitchen I ran with a bread cookbook, some locally milled spelt flour I had found in the pantry, and way too much confidence. I had often watched my Dad making breads at the restaurant...how hard could it be? Three hours later, covered in flour, I turned out the kitchen light; sadly glancing at the sorriest loaf of bread I had ever seen.
So I take it the bread episode did not discourage you?
No, not at all; if anything it made me more determined to succeed. For four years every waking hour was spent reading books, researching, experimenting, and cooking. Wow, did I cook...I braised, sautéed, sliced & diced, julienned, pickled & poached. I butchered and boned, trussed and trimmed, peeled & pureed. I had decided to start at the beginning of the food timeline and to teach myself the techniques I would require to cook my way through the history of food. So, while other kids my age were riding their bikes & playing video games, I was teaching myself how to butcher animals, bake peasant breads, churn butter, emulsify, confit & brine. I was travelling the world without having to go through customs. The Middle East, North Africa, France, Italy..... each day brought new wonders, new experiences and new tastes. It was exhilarating and challenging. And I got to know and love, in spirit, the great Chefs whose books guided me day after day. The first time I trussed a chicken it was Julia Child's voice instructing me. On the days I tackled the craft of Charcuterie I had the presence of Jacques Pepin guiding my hands. Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Harold McGee...so many mentors. I may have been alone in my kitchen, but I was never alone.
When Luke turned 15, after 4 intense years of training himself and learning his chosen craft from books, he became Executive Chef and suddenly none of this was play anymore but the cold reality of not only having to cook but to run a business and earn an income.
What challenges did you face and what makes your restaurant different to so many other good eateries in Kingston?
When I first started my journey 8 years ago it was a challenge finding a lot of the foods I needed locally. Today I can say that 95% of all ingredients I use in my kitchen come from local sources. That blows me away. Cheeses, meats, produce, flours..... all produced and grown by local artisans. Hard working people willing to take the chance that enough people will want their products to justify what they are doing. People who are painstakingly producing foods from our past all the while hoping we'll hear their message today. What a simple message it is..."Support us and we'll continue growing foods that are better for our bodies and souls, better for our communities and better for our environment." To that I'd like to add, as a bonus, they just taste better, ergo my food tastes better.
Did you ever think of growing your own fruit and vegetables, being a farmer on the side?
Obviously I've never farmed. But when I was 7 my parents purchased land in Prince Edward County and decided to plant grapevines. For a couple of years we did all the work ourselves. Irrigation during droughts, pruning, weeding, harvesting, hilling up after harvest, un-hilling in the Spring. It was hard back-breaking work. We always managed to make it fun...singing songs, telling stories, playing word games... but it really made me respect farmers. They have to put up with the environment, the heat, the cold, the rain. I realised farming would be a full time job, not just for the body but also for the mind. My calling was the kitchen and respect the produce that the farmers grew.
What, in your opinion, is the future in food?
That's what I call a "big" question...one that has no easy answer. I read somewhere recently that Forbes has predicted that by 2018, 20% of all foods eaten in the United States will have been grown in rooftop and parking lot gardens. That filled me with such hope. 20% ? That's a lot of food! I think it is safe to say that we can apply the same percentage to our own country. That tells me that the movement towards local, sustainable foods is not a fleeting trend, as so many naysayers have predicted. This is here to stay. We, the enthusiastic proponents, are here to stay. The people, families, communities, and organizations embracing this new/old way of nourishing ourselves are definitely not going away. On the contrary, they are growing tomatoes on balconies, harvesting eggs from heirloom hens in their backyards, and tending to beehives on rooftops.
So, as a 19 year old Chef...how do I see the future of food? I see farmers' markets growing exponentially and flourishing. I see the farmers who supply and work in those markets being, finally, rewarded for their endeavours. I see more communities, worldwide, planting sustainable gardens, with the encouragement and financial support from all levels of government and, when necessary, from NGO's and other support groups. I envision us slowly going back to our future, food wise, that is. The people who embrace and support this coming food revolution are my heroes. They will carry it forward until it simply becomes a "way of life" I hope I can help inspire and encourage them in some small way. Teach, and help, a community, city, or village, to grow their own food, allow them the independence and dignity of providing their own nourishment. We need to applaud the future proponents of this food revolution.
Luke Hayes-Alexander is the future of gastronomy. His uncompromising attitude and respect for all ingredients will hopefully help in a small way to change the way we look at food. He’s decided to be an innovator, not a follower and his recipes can take months to come to fruition. He cooks with a sense of adventure, but he never forgets history and the origin of an ingredient. His presentation is his interpretation of Avant-Garde and it works. To see the end-result on a plate, be surprised by the presentation, smell the aromas and taste the flavours is both a privilege and sheer culinary pleasure.
Some random pics from our trip to Luke's Gastronomy: