In the kitchen with Jeremy Luers: Chef at The Phoenix still 'infatuated' with all things culinary

CINCINNATI - We invite you to dig into our weekly column spotlighting different chefs from the Greater Cincinnati area. Each Sunday, WCPO Contributor Grace Yek takes you into their kitchens and talks to them about their food. The chefs reveal their inspirations, philosophies, and provide a glimpse of their authentic selves.  

Jeremy Luers

“Be happy, and enjoy what you’re doing. Sometimes in this industry, people take things too seriously. We want the guests to have a great experience, but at the end of the day, we’re just cooking. We’re not curing any kind of disease. We’re cooking for people.”

If there were such a thing as a culinary gene, it would surely be sequenced in the DNA of Jeremy Luers, executive chef at The Phoenix . How else would you explain a kindergarten wunderkind, cooking a hot breakfast all by himself? 

"I probably shouldn’t have been using the stove, but I was surprising my mom and dad with breakfast in bed, with eggs and stuff," Luers recalled.

Born and raised in Batesville, Ind., Luers has always loved cooking. 

"I've been infatuated with cooking ever since I can remember," he said. From a very young age, Luers was his mother's constant kitchen companion. 

"I wanted to crack the eggs, or mix things. It was just something I enjoyed a lot," he said. The future chef's passion for cooking was further fueled by popular cooking shows of the day, like Graham Kerr’s Galloping Gourmet and Justin Wilson’s Cajun Cooking.

After high school, Luers worked full-time at a wood shop, while swinging a part-time stint as a line cook at a local restaurant. Six months of working in the kitchen hooked him; Luers enrolled himself in culinary school at Sullivan University in Louisville. 

With a culinary degree under his belt, Luers found a kitchen job in Columbus, Ind. It wasn’t long before he came face-to-face with a bunch of snapping crustaceans.

“One of the first jobs the chef gave me was to break down 60 live lobsters,” Luers said. It was a learning curve he has not forgotten. "I do great with lobsters now."

After a couple of years, Luers got a call that would send many young cooks over the moon: An invitation to stage (pronounced: stazh) at Babbo in New York . Luers flew there and worked with the kitchen crew for a day. 

“I got in early in the morning, prepped and went through service with them. At the end of the night, they said ‘if you want a job, we’d love to have you,’” Luers said.

So, Luers hopped on as a line cook at Babbo and rose to the rank of sous chef in the year-and-a-half he was there. It was at Babbo that Luers first met two acclaimed chefs from Cincinnati. 

“It turned out to be David Falk and Jono Fries,” he said.

The hours were long, but life in New York was good--and expensive. Luers moved back to the Midwest to rein in his living expenses and went to work for Falk and Fries at Boca . After more than three years there, he moved worked at other restaurants in Cincinnati, including Enoteca Emilia in O’Bryonville.

In July 2013, Luers joined the Phoenix Restaurant Group as the executive chef and culinary operating partner.  He led the reopening of The Presidents Room Dining Room & Bar and refreshed the catering and restaurant menus. The menus now reflect a contemporary approach, with a hint of Italian and German influences.

Coulotte cut of Wagyu beef, ground and flavored with Dijon mustard, capers, garlic and thyme, then brightened with a twist of lemon.  It is served with Sixteen Bricks' salty rye bread, sieved hard-boiled egg, and black pepper.  The superior marbling of the beef imparts a luxurious mouthfeel. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO

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Food and cooking philosophy

Simplicity ranks high on Luers’ list.

“One thing I don’t do is put too many ingredients in a dish. It gets muddled and confusing, and no one’s exactly sure how it all works together.”

And keeping it clean is big.

“If you get messy, or out of sorts, stop and clean up around you. Get your mind set right and start working again.” 

Luers has a particular fondness for Italian and German cuisines, a reflection of his culinary training and personal heritage. 

“Italian cuisine, which is what I love, is simplistic. German cuisine doesn’t get too fussy over ingredients either.  Let the main ingredients shine through,” he said.

As Luers rose through the culinary ranks, he’s had to change the way he works--letting his team share in duties. 

“That’s the hardest transition for me. I feel I could do the work faster and better, but I’ve grown to realize, I have to train them, let go, and let them do it.” 

Luers is keenly aware of how the chef affects the mood in the kitchen. He’s seen for himself how an uptight chef can bring the whole crew down. 

“When the cooks don’t enjoy what they’re doing, it’s trickles down from there.  If you take things

too seriously, you take the fun out of it. Then I don’t know why you’re doing it.”

A deconstructed rendition of the sweet classic. Petite chocolate cake is paired with coconut gelato, and liberally drizzled with chocolate sauce. Toasted coconut, and candied pecans spiced with a touch of cayenne pepper, completes this delightful dessert. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO

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Essential ingredients & tools

Luers’s kitchen must-haves include:

  1. Diamond Crystal kosher salt. "Salt is the thing chefs touch the most. If I use something else it just feels weird."
  2. Lemon juice and zest, to "pick up" a dish. 
  3. Extra virgin olive oil, both for cold preparations and cooking. Luers reaches for Divina extra virgin olive oil, a Greek import. It has a fruity and grassy flavor, which Luers appreciates.  "I'll also cook with it, if I want to impart its flavor."
  4. 8" to 10" chef's knife. As long as the knife is sharp, and feels good in the hand, Luers is not too fussy about the brand.
  5. Microplane, for zesting different fruits. Luers also uses it to quickly "mince" ginger and garlic.
  6. Vitamix blender
  7. Robocoupe food processor
  8. Food mill, for making rustic style tomato sauces. Luers also uses it to make mashed potatoes.
  9. Fresh herbs, primarily bay leaf, thyme and parsley. "I use bay leaf and thyme in 90 percent of the stuff I’m cooking. My sous chef knows that he has to prepare a lot of chopped parsley, because I throw it in a lot of things to finish."
  10. Good stock. The kitchen team makes stock from scratch. The catering section of the kitchen has a large steam kettle which simplifies the process. 

Inspirations

Luers’ mother was his first culinary inspiration. He vividly remembers how, as a child, he always cooked alongside her. 

“She’s a great cook,” he said. “Every year on my birthday, she made me fried chicken, mashed potatoes with white pan gravy, and corn on the cob.” 

Now that Luers is a father, he finds himself drawing inspiration from his son, age three. 

“He gives me perspective and shows me there’s more than just food.” His son has his own set of nylon knives, and practices cutting beside Luers. 

“He reminds me of the joy in cooking.”

Luers remembers a dish he had in New York that stirred his soul. 

“It was the bone marrow and oxtail marmalade dish at the Blue Ribbon in New York. Everything about the dish was perfect,” he recalled. “I was exuberant. It felt as if everything stopped around me.”

Inspiration, for Luers, is everywhere. 

“Everybody you cook or work with is inspirational. There’s always something you can learn, whether it’s from the line cook or dishwasher.”

Favorite meal to cook for family: Bucatini all’ Amatriciana

On his days off, Luers cooks for his family of pasta lovers. He offers one of his favorite pasta recipes, which he has cooked many times in various restaurants. 

"This is the first dish I ever cooked for my wife Sarah," Luers said

The dish is named for the town of Amatrice, about an hour from Rome.  

"The original dish calls for guanciale, which is a cured pork jowl, but I often have bacon in the fridge and will substitute bacon for the guanciale."

Luers enjoys the smoky flavor that bacon lends to the dish, and recommends using pancetta if you don't care for that smoky flavor.  

Ingredients

  • 1 lb Bucatini (Percatelli) - a thick, spaghetti-like noodle
  • 12 oz good quality thick cut bacon cut into 2” lengths
  • 1 red onion, cut in half lengthwise and then into 1/4-inch-thick half-moons
  • Cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • Fresh Ground black pepper (to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • 28 oz can of whole tomatoes hand crushed (preferably San Marzano)
  • Freshly grated Pecorino Romano

Directions

  1. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, and add 4 tablespoons salt.
  2. Meanwhile, in a 10- to 12-inch sauté pan, render the bacon. After rendered crisp, but not overly cooked, put bacon on paper towels to drain and pour out almost all the bacon fat, keeping about two tablespoons, and add the red onion to the pan.
  3. Cook the onion until translucent and then add the garlic, red pepper flakes and black pepper.  Set over medium heat and cook until the onion and garlic brown slightly.
  4. Once this happens, add hand crushed tomatoes (this is fun to do with the kids). Let the sauce come to a boil and then turn down the heat and simmer for 10-12 minutes.
  5. Add the bacon back to the sauce after simmering.
  6. While the sauce simmers, place the pasta in the boiling water, cooking it a minute or two less than the package tells you to. Be sure to reserve some pasta water after cooking to adjust the sauce if it gets too thick.
  7. Once the sauce is the consistency of a basic tomato sauce, add the cooked pasta to the sauce, letting the pasta and sauce cook together for a minute or two. Remember, you want to coat the pasta with the sauce, not drown it. Add some pecorino and toss gently.
  8. Check for seasoning and adjust if needed.
  9. Divide the pasta among
    1. four heated bowls and serve immediately, topped with a little more freshly grated pecorino.

    Variations and serving suggestions:

    • Add a little fresh-cut Italian parsley to the dish at the end (optional)
    • Great with a salad and grilled bread to gather any extra sauce
    • Goes great with beer or Tuscan Sangiovese

    (Story by WCPO contributor Grace Yek. Photos by WCPO photojournalist Kareem Elgazzar )

     

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