After studying and living in various cities from New Mexico and Denver to Montpelier and Washington D.C., Cara Luff moved to Seattle where she cooked at Crush for three years, rising through the ranks from garde manger to sous chef. She started this year as executive sous chef at Quinn's Pub, where the more casual gastropub fare presented its own set of challenges and inspirations. Though Northwest ingredients are casting its spell, the travel bug may hit again for Luff. If we're lucky, we may end up seeing more from the well-traveled sous chef, including one of her hometown favorites, a Fritos Pie. Guess we'll have to, as she says, wait and see.
Photo by Tiffany Ran
Definitely by choice, because I feel like I have to live everywhere before I decide where I want to settle down. I've traveled a lot abroad too. I feel like I don't quite know where home is yet. I mean, home will always be New Mexico but I feel like I can't go back there, except to visit.
It's gotten easier as I've come out west. I love the West Coast. I love all of the herbs and the mushrooms that grow around here, all of the things we imported while I worked in D.C. because the chef I worked for had worked at the French Laundry and he loved everything that grew on the West Coast. He tried to bring as much of that as he can to D.C. When I came up here, I just realized, "This is amazing. There's rosemary on every street corner. Who would've thought?" Especially growing up in New Mexico where we pretty much have peppers.
What do you eat at home when you're not making New American or West Coast cuisine?
I'm a New Mexican at heart so I have a stash of Green Hatch Peppers this year. Usually, they only roast once a year. My parents would bring it out and I would just stash it in the freezer. It gets significantly hotter as it sits in the freezer.
Have you had a Frito pie before?
Basically, you just make a really delicious chili with beans and beef, or whatever you have, and the New Mexican Hatch Pepper, and you pour it over Fritos, sour cream, cheese. I would say that's one of my favorites and most people demand that I make it more often. I haven't broken the Hatch Peppers into Quinn's, but I think that it'll happen pretty soon.
Has it been an easier transition from Crush to more casual fare at Quinn's?
I thought it would be, but definitely not. At Crush, we used a lot of great ingredients. Like foie, here we use grade B, at Crush we used Grade A. I feel like if you seared it off right, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. It's just taking one step back and saying, what are we using this for and how well can you cut it and make it just as beautiful as Grade A?
Working with Jeremy [Ravetz], the chef here, has just been amazing. He brings a lot to the table. He's always pushing me, you know, asking me why I'm doing this, how am I doing this, or asking me how I would approach it, and then showing me a totally different way. But his way totally makes sense because I might be using 10 percent more than what I would've been using of that product, [where] I may have thrown it away or done something completely different.
How do you approach transitioning into a new kitchen?
I feel like every kitchen I walk into, I'm quiet. [I stand] up straight and just watch everybody. See how the kitchen runs, see how people react with everybody and I just go from there. I spend a couple weeks in silence just absorbing what's going on.
Be sure to see Cara Luff of Quinn's Pub's recipe for duck liver pâté
Was it hard to leave Crush after having cooked there for so long? How do go about something like that, and what would you say?
Yeah, what do you say? I basically gave three months notice. It's very hard to leave. I definitely didn't want to leave them with nothing. I wanted to give my input, sit that person down and be able to say, "Hey this is how things are here, this is what I've learned, take whatever you can from that and move forward."
It takes a lot. Especially if you haven't worked there, if you walk into the sous chef role like the chef who replaced me did, it's a lot to take in or to pass on. Three months wasn't even enough. A lot of people who came for the job were a lot of sous chefs from the city that I worked with before and I respect all of their cooking. It was interesting to see how the food would change based on the sous chef dynamic rotating [in from] around the city.
That subtle influence that a sous chef has on a dish or a menu is something that diners don't often see. How would you explain the scope of that influence, or how sous chefs might put their fingerprints on certain dishes or the menu as a whole?
I sat down not too long ago with Jeremy to discuss a menu change and he was thinking, "Okay let's change the soup." [We thought] beans, a mushroom beef broth with beans, fresh and dried beans. We had some veal breasts lying around so we decided, "How about some veal breast croutons?" One of the servers will ask, "Is this your idea, Cara?" and I would say, it's basically both of us and also, what we think Scott [Staples] would do.
This is Scott and Jeremy's food and we sit around and talk about menu ideas all the time. I did that as well with Jason [Wilson]. There was another sous chef as well and the three of us would talk for two hours. I don't feel like I could say that this was mine but I can say that my technique came from all of these places. I think the only way that you could ever see what I'm doing is if I'm going out on my own.
Is that the end goal, to have a restaurant?
I think my end goal is to own my own place, I just don't know where yet.
I love modern American food. I love that you can have steak on your menu, you can have pasta. You can have the variety that you call modern American food. I would love to get into sous vide again. I love sous vide. It's not only efficient, but flavorful. There's so much you can do with it.
Which you did at Crush?
Yes. I don't think I'll ever do that much sous vide again. That was a lot of sous vide.
I'd like to hit a middle ground between a place at Crush and a place like Quinn's. Maybe step it up a bit, not to get too focused on the bar, and step it down from Crush where it's not going to involve a bunch of courses. Though, I do miss tasting menus.
I'd like to hit a middle ground, but I really don't know yet. That's why I'm very comfortable being a sous chef, just saving money before I figure out what I'm going to do.
Would you like to open this place in Seattle?
Would you like to open this place in Seattle?
Maybe not in Seattle. I do have that travel itch. I'm hitting four years [in Seattle] and I'm feeling a little bit in limbo after leaving Crush. I'm glad I found Quinn's. I guess I'm just waiting to see.