Meet your neighbor... Chef Luis Lopez
Published 10:25 am, Saturday, April 16, 2016
NEW CANAAN — In just under a decade, Chef Luis of Elm Street has become an institution. Under the direction of its gregarious head chef and namesake Luis Lopez, the restaurant has successfully fused Latin American, Italian, French, Asian and American cuisines to create a singular dining experience.
Lopez immigrated to Texas in the 1980s and worked his way east, taking jobs removing asbestos, landscaping and painting before rekindling his love of cooking first discovered as a boy in Guatemala.
For all the talk of his food — multiple reviews in the New York Times, a Zagat rating and raves on sites like Tripadvisor.com — Lopez is perhaps best known for his tableside manner. On a given night he splits his time between cooking and socializing, getting to know each of his customers by name and learning their likes and dislikes.
On Tuesday morning before the midday rush, Lopez talked about his journey to America, the beginnings of Chef Luis and his vision for the restaurant.
When did you begin cooking?
I was probably 6 or 7 years old, and my mom used to work. We lived in a house with about 12 families. Each family had one room, and we had a communal kitchen. My mom used to leave the pot of beans ready to go, so I’d come home from school, light up the fire, put the pot on, then time it. As soon as it started to boil, after one hour, I’d take it and put them on the side. That’s how it started, and I hated it.
As I grew up, my mom taught me how to use the knife because it was part of what I needed to do. She had to work and my stepfather had to work, and as the older brother I raised my sister and my little brother. So I needed to cook for them.
One day, she made me do a couple things. I got upset and said to her, ‘This is a job for a woman.’ She slapped me in the face, two times. That was mom, old school. She said to me, ‘Everything you learn in life, it will serve a purpose.’ She was right.
At what age did you come to America?
I left my house back in 1985 at the age of 18. My real father was killed for politics. He became a very wealthy person, but after he was gunned down by the government, I started getting into trouble. My mom told me, ‘You’ve got to do something with your life.’
So I applied for political asylum and I got a working permit for many years. I worked in anything. I’d remove asbestos. I was a painter, I did landscaping, you name it. I’ve done everything.
How did you find the restaurant industry?
In Texas in the late ’80s the economy was very bad. So a friend of mine was coming this way (east), and he told me he had a friend in New York and we drove to Essex, Conn. That’s where his friend actually lived. We met him, got along very well and then I asked him for work. He used to work in a restaurant and he said to me, ‘Do you speak English?’ I said, ‘Yes, yes.’ I had no clue. The only thing I used to know how to say was “yes” and “no problem.” And I got a long way with yes and no problem. So he offered me a job as a dishwasher.
After a stint at another local restaurant, you decided to go your own way. What inspired you to open Chef Luis?
My family started growing up, and you have more needs. The idea of Chef Luis came down because I couldn't support my family with the money that I was making. ... My wife was angry because I came to the restaurant at 8 a.m. and didn’t leave until 1 a.m.
I asked for a raise and I wasn’t going to get a raise, so I needed to do something. I convinced my wife that I was going to find a way to do a small take-out place. I’d come here at 6 in the morning and by 5:30 p.m. I’d be going home. That was the plan. So I found a partner; they helped me out to start. I opened one Saturday in January 2007. We had 10 chairs and five tables. I printed 300 take-out menus. I thought they were going to last five weeks. We opened at 4 p.m.; by 5 p.m. there were no menus left.
Your menu ranges from tacos, to fish and chips, to Texas barbecue pulled pork. How would you describe your food?
It has no name; it’s my food. I call it “mutt” cooking. It’s everything, with my style, with a lot of passion.
I was exposed to ingredients that I never saw before and techniques of cooking that I had never done. I like French cuisine a lot. I’m not a very good French cook, but I like the dishes, so I took some of the techniques. I took the freshness of Italian cooking. I brought the American way of eating and I season with Latin spices. That’s the mutt.
To what do you attribute the favorable response to Chef Luis around town?
I think it’s because of the way I treat people. I learned the balance of how to please pretty much any kind of customer. And what you see is what you get. It’s nothing fancy, it’s nothing shiny. I’m a very truthful person. I try to project that.
I wanted to make sure this business is unique and different in every way. Not only because we have great food, not only because we have a great atmosphere at the bar, not only because we have great service and good people. But an overall idea of service to the community.
Look at it this way. I’m an immigrant, I’m Hispanic and I have a business in one of the most elite towns in the world. Where else can you get that? Only in America, my friend. I’m very blessed to have the opportunity.