For a majority of Kingstonist’s readers, Chef Luke Hayes-Alexander does not require much of an introduction. My past dining experiences at Luke’s have been extraordinary treats, as the locally sourced, creative menu is unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere in the Limestone City. Or any other city for that matter. After multiple viewings of Luke’s Kitchen, I set out to learn more about this young chef, from how he got his start to how he develops new recipes. Luke kindly obliged my request for an interview, which provides an extended glimpse into his kitchen, philosophy and passion for cooking.
1. Your love for cooking and the art of charcuterie was apparent from a very early age. While there are numerous retellings of your first experience butchering a pig at the age of 12, could you share the exciting story of your first, full dinner service?
My first full dinner service? Well, that would have been in early January 2006, shortly after my 15th birthday. I’ll be honest in saying that I don’t remember much except that I was very nervous. I knew I was ready and was confident with the menu, but I was 15 yrs. old and we had a full house. I took a few deep breaths and went on Autopilot. I vaguely remember putting out the last desserts just after midnight & celebrating with 4 big glasses of water & a coffee. ( Celebrating a great service with a Sherry came a few years later ) I do remember reading the guest book…the first of many…and being very humbled by the comments. I knew at that moment that my career had begun.
2. Anyone who has visited Luke’s Gastronomy knows that each and every dish is packed with creativity, as well as locally sourced ingredients. How important is the local food movement to you? Furthermore, how does Kingston’s Farmers Market, and your homestead in Prince Edward County influence new recipes, and seasonal menu arrangements?
The local food movement is of utmost importance to me. I recently had the honour of being a guest speaker at a TEDx Conference and that was the foundation of my speech. When I was 11 years old I made the decision to not eat anything unless I had made it myself from locally sourced ingredients. ( This is probably a good time to mention that I’ve never been a “typical” teenager.) It is more important to me today than ever. I want to know who grew the food I eat, and serve in the restaurant. It all comes down to supporting our communities & our neighbours. Foods grown locally are more nutritious, sustainable & just taste better than anything grown 1000’s of miles away. This is why my menu changes so frequently…it changes with the seasons.
3. Your followers on Twitter are regularly tempted with mouth watering photos and enthusiastic descriptions of dishes that you are working on. Would you walk us through a typical day for Luke Hayes-Alexander?
Oh, this is going to sound so boring, I’m afraid. I tend to get in around noon. First thing I do is check my lists from the night before and organize myself. Most afternoons are spent doing prep…getting kitchen ready for service. I love walking so tend to go out for a long walk every day. It clears my head…I often get my best ideas on these walks. Then back to the kitchen to make an early dinner. Something simple. While eating dinner I read the TO Star, the Globe & the NY Times. ( a habit I picked up a few years ago and can’t seem to break) Then service. As you know, after service I like to grab a wee nip of Sherry and the guestbook. Then back to the kitchen. I tend to spend evenings doing research, experimenting, playing with ingredients, planning new dishes or components for existing dishes. Oh, and listening to great music.
4. Your after service routine tends to involve a wee nip of sherry, and a nightly review of your guest book. While the countless accolades and marriage proposals recorded therein are a source of inspiration to you, where else do you acquire new ideas, and recipes from?
Ideas tend to come from all that you’ve mentioned. I have to keep a thick pile of scrap paper and a pen beside my bed as I wake up often with ideas. But I seem to get ideas everywhere, at all times. Walking through the market, flipping through favourite food books, tasting new foods, chatting with foodie friends, showering. About 4 months ago I was lucky to get some local goat. I braised it and was blown away with it’s gorgeous flavour. I mentioned this to a foodie friend in Sydney who lamented never seeing it on restaurant menus. So, I started researching. I discovered that goats were first raised for food in Yemen. I then came across a fable describing how it was these goats who lead to the discovery of coffee. More research and months of experimentation followed. On November 5th ‘Blues Junkie Goat’ debuted on the menu and it has quickly become our top seller. This tends to be the process for everything that ends up on the menu…one simple idea followed by lots of research, then a minimum of 4-6 weeks of experimentation.
5. The dinner menu at Luke’s lists interesting dishes such as cosmic duck, crisp smoked pork belly pizza, and tête de cochon just to name a few. Considering your vast repertoire of recipes, what’s your personal favourite? Otherwise, when you want to make something simple, quick and delicious, what do you make for yourself?
Oh, I couldn’t narrow it down to one. I put so much time into the development and preparation of all dishes that they’re all my “favourites”. Ok, not the answer you were looking for? Well, I guess if I had to pick one dish it would be the Tête du Cochon. It’s something I developed when I was 14. When I became Chef I wanted to put it on the menu but hesitated… this was 5 years ago…before “Nose to Tail” eating became widely accepted. One night we did a test and sent it out to all tables as an “amuse”. Everyone raved…most bowls were, literally, licked clean! The next night it was on the menu and remains one of top selling 1st courses.
Food I prepare for myself tends to be very simple. Lamb Navarin. Pad Thai. Bah Kut Teh. Fresh Fettuccine with Smoked Salmon, Pinot Grigio, Preserved Lemon & Dill. My current favourite snack is silken tofu liberally coated with Prickly Ash, wrapped in rice papers & fried until crispy golden.
6. With the festive season and holiday gatherings fast approaching, what sort of dishes are you most excited about preparing for friends and family?
I just love the holidays, and food is the most important component for me. I always embrace tradition for foods prepared at this time of year. Heirloom turkeys are brined and simply roasted, or I’ll confit the legs and marinate/roast the breasts. Sweet potatoes, squashes, pumpkin, carrots, parsnips…all slow roasted with varying accompaniments & flavourings. If having turkey I’ll make my favourite stuffing…with my peasant bread, lots of garlic, red onions, ginger, chillies, celery, oodles of fresh butter, kosher salt, and fennel. I always make a pate, onion jam, marinated olives, fresh ricotta, a few kinds of breads, roasted garlic and other yummy quick snacks. Last year I did a small suckling pig. I brined it, stuffed a garlic, fennel, thyme, chilli paste under the skin and slow-roasted it. Served it with 7-hour polenta and roasted root veggies …was a gorgeous holiday meal.