New Chef, New Friendly Focus, at Top 25 Restaurant Latour

Executive chef Jean-Paul Lourdes, who brought new heights of artistry to Restaurant Latour at the Crystal Springs Resort, has stepped down. The native New Zealander is nearing the end of a three-year work visa, so the move is not unexpected. The new executive chef, already on the job and managing the transition, is Anthony Bucco. Over the last decade, Bucco, 39, has earned critical acclaim as executive chef of restaurants including Stage Left in New Brunswick, Uproot in Warren and the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station.

Robby Younes of Crystal Springs
Robby Younes, COO and director of wine of Crystal Springs Resort and its flagship restaurant, Latour.
Photo: Courtesy Crystal Springs

Robby Younes, the resort’s wine director and vice president of hospitality and lodging, hired both Lourdes and Bucco. The new chef’s cooking, he told me today, “will not be as ultra modern and experimental as J.P.’s, but will strike a balance between bold and classic.”

Bucco’s menu takes effect February 19th.

With the menu will come a new focus. In a separate conversation today, Bucco said, “I think we’ll be doing things in a way that’s more—I don’t want to use the word approachable, because Latour isn’t for everyone—but softer in structure, less intimidating.”

Bucco and Younes both spoke of enabling diners to “customize” their meals. That seems to mean injecting some of the freedom of a la carte ordering into Latour’s prix-fixe structure.

There will still be a $115 five-course and a $145 seven-course prix fixe. But diners will no longer have to choose between two rigid menus—the all-vegetarian “Harvest” or the meat/fowl/seafood “Grazing.”

Instead they will be invited to choose any five or seven dishes from any of five categories: Harvest, Grazing (now meaning meat and fowl), Aquatic, Cheese and Dessert. Each category will have four items to choose from.

“Ignore a category, if you want,” said Younes. “You just enjoy.

“At the bottom of the menu,” he added, “will be supplements, if you want to add caviar or foie gras or anything Anthony finds that is unique and works with certain dishes.”

Younes hired Lourdes, 35, in February 2014 to reinvigorate Latour, the fine dining restaurant and jewel in the crown of the sprawling Sussex County resort’s several restaurants, taverns and cafes. Lourdes had one year left on his three-year work visa. He had spent the first two years working for Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr’s organization.

Younes rebuilt Latour’s kitchen to his new chef’s specifications. He had the dining room redecorated, the plates, silverware and glassware all upgraded. The big changes, though, came straight from that retooled kitchen.

Latour has been a fixture on NJM’s annual Top 25 list. But in naming Latour to last August’s Top 25, I wrote, “Lourdes has taken Latour’s five-course and seven-course tasting menus from excellent to exciting…”

While praising Lourdes as “an amazing artist,” Younes noted, “an experimental cuisine has its negativity. One is wine. You create a dish that has everything on one plate. You have the sugar, the acidity, the sour, the earthy. It is difficult to pair a wine with because the dish is complete. It’s not missing anything.”

The late Gene Mulvihill, who built the sprawling Sussex County resort, amassed one of the greatest wine collections in the world and created Restaurant Latour to showcase it.

The catacomb-like cellar is not only vast, with more than 100,000 bottles, but staggeringly deep in Mulvihill’s favorite wine, Chateau Latour, and the rest of the famed grand crus of Bordeaux. For quality and value, the list is nearly as dazzling in virtually every other important wine country and region.

“What hasn’t been as prominent,” said Bucco, “is the stellar wine collection. From my standpoint, it’s a huge resource that needs to be a bigger part of this restaurant. I want to get back to cooking for wine, really showcasing the merits of that cellar. There’s a story in every bottle, and we have a lot of stories to tell.”

Younes knew from the start that Lourdes would not be able to stay much more than a year. The parting has been amicable. Lourdes and his wife, who is pregnant with their first child and due in March, are residing at the resort. I spoke with Lourdes by phone this afternoon.

He said he might have stayed at Latour a little more, but then his wife got pregnant, “We wanted to have a child, maybe more toward the end of the year,” he said. “I cannot control everything.”

We both laughed. Lourdes knows he’s a total control freak, and everyone at Crystal Springs knows it, too. In some ways, life with Anthony Bucco at the helm will be a little easier.

The couple are expecting a boy. Lourdes’s wife will give birth here. I noted that their son will be born a U.S. citizen.

“He will have as many [citizenships] as we can get him,” Lourdes said with a laugh.

Looking back on his time at Latour, Lourdes said, “It was a successful year for many reasons. I wanted the opportunity to cook the food I wanted to cook.” Speaking of cutting-edge restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen, he said, “I wanted to cook what’s happening in the world right now, but to do it with the ingredients that are natural here in New Jersey and bring that alive a little bit.”

Lourdes, a former pro rugby player who holds a master’s degree in food science and nutrition, has worked in Paris and Southern France, in Tokyo and Beijing. This world traveler took a shine to underdog New Jersey.

“I wanted to show people that these things we foraged grow in your backyard and you can make some very high level food with them,” he said. “This state has a lot of potential. It has a lot of different terrains, and fresh water and the sea. Many things are not really utilized, and are looked down upon by the states that surround New Jersey.”

Concerning Garden State wines, Lourdes said, “I think someone just needs to make a big investment and grow some really big things here. With the climate and the terroir, I think it has a lot of possibility to be very successful. People don’t look at Jersey as the place to do it, which is unfortunate, I think.”

The sojourn at Latour, he admitted, was not all smooth sailing. “We had our ups and downs,” he said. “People didn’t always appreciate what we were trying to do. The first six months were difficult, but the last six months were very pleasurable.

“We were able to attract a clientele, the majority from New York, some from Chicago and the West Coast, but not that many from New Jersey.”

After their son is born, Lourdes and his wife plan to return to Hong Kong, where they own a home. Most of their family, on both sides, live in Asia, he said.

As thrilling as dinner at Latour was under Lourdes, the prix fixe Sunday brunch he introduced—the first for Latour in its 10-year existence—was his most daring and breathtaking creation.

It was, in its way, an eye-opener and La Grand Bouffe rolled into one. Unlimited compound juices, each a fascinating combination of two or three components (credit Latour manager Stephen Thomas with those); unlimited pastries, breads and jams of exquisite quality; a choice of several different coffees; and of course sparkling wines or anything else from the limitless cellar.

It was a three-ring circus of supreme indulgence, but the center ring held its own with memorable and delicious savory dishes like Lourdes’s Moroccan pancake with tandoori apples; his tartine of Iranian figs, burrata and lavender honey; and ineffable scrambled eggs with sorrel and Scottish salmon.

In the new regime, brunch will be suspended, except for Mother’s Day and other brunch-centric holidays and special occasions.

Why? Not enough takers. The prix fixe was $55 or $75, a lot to spend right after rolling out of bed following a Saturday night meal for the ages at Latour.

Sunday will not be rubbed off the calendar. Sunday dinner at Latour will be introduced.

“That’s where 80 percent of the demand is,” said Younes. “Latour is a destination. You’re going for a dinner experience.”

Dropping brunch lessens the strain on staff, he added. “To have people working from 5 am to 1 am, you can’t ask people to put in that many intense hours.”

Dinner at Latour will continue to be leisurely, but only as leisurely as guests want.

“We’re not turning tables here,” Younes said. “If a customer wants to linger, fine. But we don’t want them to be bored or getting anxious. We want to expedite the 7-course in just under two hours, the 5-course in no more than an hour and a half.

“After two hours, you start to get itchy. If you aren’t having a long, involving conversation, it can be tough. We want to give people the options.”

 

 

 

 

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