Chef Keith Luce Brings Home the Bacon

It’s overcast, a chilly spring afternoon on Chef Keith Luce’s family farm in Jamesport. The farm is not far from Iron Pier Beach (where the Luce family originally landed in the 1600s), and the smell of salt water mixes with, and is eventually overtaken by, the earthly smells of fresh manure, freshly rooted soil and livestock.

Standing atop a small knoll, which “is one of the best places on Long Island to grow cabernet grapes,” according to Luce, one can look down across the 10-acre rolling farm. The options for the farm seem to be limitless. Eventually, Luce would like to have the 10 acres sectioned off for perennial plots of herbs, an orchard, row farming in the center, and a small vineyard on the knoll up top.

Luce Farm

Luce Farm, photo by Alex Goetzfried

After a short drive down a dirt road to the main area of the farm, Luce gets out of his pickup while 30 head of Mangalitsa hogs come trotting and snorting their way to the fence to see if they are getting an unexpected second meal. The wooly hogs occupy a generous six-acre section of the farm. Luce has big plans for his family’s centuries-old property, plans that revolve around his most recent restaurant ventures.

Which brings us to Greenport. A small brick path on the corner of Bay and Main Streets  leads to historic Stirling Square. It is a small walk-around village unto itself, just off the beaten path of the larger village. Stirling Square is home to the former North Fork Oyster Company, as well as three other small spaces, all of which are now owned by NoFo Hospitality Holding LLC.

Three couples are partners in the operation. The CEO is Luce, and he’s the driving force behind the project. His wife, Marta Luce, along with Scott and Veronica Hunzinger and Jason and Kara Graves, are all partners in the LLC with him. The project started when Luce moved back to Greenport and the farm after years of perfecting his culinary craft around the U.S. and Europe.

Luce learned how to cook by doing. His career began in New York at high-end stalwarts such as the Rainbow Room, Le Cirque and La Côte Basque. After his time in the city he lived in Europe for two years, cooking at top Michelin-starred restaurants in France and Italy. Returning to America with the knowledge and experience of working under culinary masters, Luce bounced around the country, cheffing at top resorts, and even served as sous chef at the White House during the first Clinton administration.

Nosh

Nosh, , photo by Alex Goetzfried

Paying his dues in Europe, and having cooked all over America, Luce realized something. The place where he grew up, the North Fork of Long Island, had the same qualities as the regions in Europe famous for the best food in the world. Greenport has exactly what the Spanish, French and Italian countrysides have: small artisanal farms, local wine and fresh seafood.

“That’s why I moved home,” Luce said. “I grew up on a farm, I have kids now, and I want them to grow up in a place like this.” The Luce family farm, which dates back to the 1600s, had lain fallow for 25 years. Luce decided it was time to “wake the soil up.” Any good farmer is first and foremost a dirt farmer, according to Luce. Dense, nutritious soil is needed to raise healthy livestock, and to grow nutrient-rich vegetables. The natural way to do this is to bring in the pigs.

The Mangalitsa breed is especially known for rooting around fence lines. The hogs aerate the soil and provide nitrogen naturally, which brings the earth back to life. Luce feeds the hogs trimmings from his restaurants, spent grain from Greenport Harbor Brewing, whey from local cheese makers, and leftover seasonal vegetables like pumpkins.

The Mangalitsa are also known as curly-hair hogs. They are hairy pigs that have higher mono-unsaturated fat levels than other swine. Luce’s six-acre plot is a very generous space for the pigs, but Luce said there are soon to be more: a few of the sows are currently pregnant. By next year there will be crops growing on the farm as well as livestock. A USDA facility in Pennsylvania will handle processing the pigs.

While the hogs were bringing the farm back to life, Luce launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to open a facility to cure the meat he raises.

Luce’s partners Jason and Kara Graves live in Peconic. After taking a charcuterie class they became interested in curing meat as a hobby. A friend pointed out Luce’s Kickstarter, and they loved the idea and invested.

“It’s how you want to see animals raised,” Kara Graves said. “Yes, they are happy pigs,” her husband Jason Graves agreed. After meeting Luce in person the couple realized that they had
the  same vision, and Luce had the ability to carry it out, so they became partners in the
LLC.

“The need for local charcuterie is the drive,” Kara Graves says. Prep, one of NoFo Hospitality’s outlets in Stirling Square, offers Luce’s artisinal charcuterie along with handmade flatbreads.

The former North Fork Oyster Company, now renamed Main, is the restaurant out of the group. The two other smaller stores are a café called Nosh, and a tasting room called Gather.

All of the new spaces in Stirling Square are now open for business. Luce’s vision for The Square is a bustling and fun culinary village, which will also be respectful to the neighbors. “What I’m trying to do is make a good spot that’s approachable,” Luce said, “that everyone will come to.”

Luce wants The Square to be both local- and tourist-friendly­—­inclusive not exclusive. He would like to be open year-round. “I’m sincere when I say that I want locals
to be comfortable here.”

Luce wants to give the community that raised him a business that will sustain jobs and positions for people. A missing niche in the food industry, according to Luce, is a restaurant that is mid-level priced,  but where one can still get a great meal. That’s  the niche that Main is trying to fill.

The idea for Prep is to be a production kitchen for Main, but in a facility that is open to the public. Old street-cart doors on the side of the Prep building provide passers-by with a street-vendor look into the production operation. Among the delectable items made for both Main and customers alike are fresh pasta, handmade ravioli, flatbreads and loaves of bread baked in a wood-burning oven, ice cream and cured meats. Bacon, prosciutto, salumi and mortadella are the items that Prep is curing with the hogs from Luce’s farm, but he said he will go as far as he can take it.

Over at Nosh there are two windows, each facing the walking path of The Square, where wafts the scent of fresh waffles and crepes into the summer air. Nosh is a bakery, deli and café all rolled into one. Sandwiches, fresh baked goods, coffee and tea are available in the morning and throughout the afternoon.

Across from Nosh is the tasting room Gather. This small, elegant room has a tasting bar for customers to try products as they walk through, and sells canned and jarred items made at Prep. Original wide plank wooden floors, and a brick wall lend a historical, very hip feel to Gather.

Main restaurant space seats approximately 150 when the outdoor patio is open. Appetizers on the menu are $7 to $14 and entrees are $15 to $30. Luce wants it to be more casual, and feels it will provide a good summer job for people in the restaurant business.

Main features moderate prices, with fresh seafood, charcuterie plates with the in-house cured meats and an oyster bar. The locally-farmed oysters are the stars of the oyster bar, but Luce will also have some West Coast offerings for comparison. There will be a succinct beverage list. The wines are 75% local but a few bottles from other regions are peppered in. “There are some people doing an amazing job with Long Island wine,” Luce said, “its getting better and better.”

Alfred Hand will be the chef at Main. The previous owner brought Hand in, and he’ll stay on with Luce. “I had never met him, but I had heard of him,” Hand said of Luce. “I like what he does.” Hand said the cured meat and other projects in Prep will be new for him, and he is excited to learn. The menu will be a collaboration, and the two chefs are a great fit.

Hand is a native of Hampton Bays­ who now resides in Riverhead. He’s a Johnson and Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts graduate who has a long resumé. Hand’s career started with the first season of Oakland’s Restaurant in Hampton Bays, and then he worked at Georgica, Starr Boggs and many other East End restaurants.

“I’m really excited because there’s so much potential,” Hand said. Total in-house production is a chef’s dream, it will help make everything from the quality of ingredients to food cost
better.

Sow, nurture, finesse, serve. This is the mantra of Luce. As the weather improves the farm-to-table project is gaining speed and Luce said it’s becoming more real now. The end goal is to be as self-sufficient as possible, from the Luce farm to the restaurants. This is a long-term project; Luce said it will take five to ten years for his dream to be fully realized. Farm-to-table in the purest sense.

John Luce is Keith Luce’s father, patriarch of the Luce family farm, and the father-and-son team work together on the day-to-day operations. Some of the buildings on the farm date back to the pre-Revolutionary War era. John Luce said that in the 1930s his family would mix their own fertilizer to save $2, a lot of money in the Depression Era—factoring in inflation it would save about $32 today.

The Luce family roots run deep on the North Fork, and Keith Luce has a vision of strengthening that bond.

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