Family Meals, Moroccan Green Tea, and Msemen
A Conversation with Luke Ostrom
As Luke put it, “It’s been… quite a path, an ever changing path, where you evolve and change... as you know, Josh, you can’t do it without loving what you do.”
When we, at Counter Service, started to talk about Family Style – I really wanted to talk to Luke Ostrom because as he grew from dishwasher to prep cook and kept adding new sets of skills (did I mention that he basically has done everything in a restaurant?), he has the most well rounded view of what the hell Family Meal is, can be, and what it means.
He was WAY too nice to take some time to out of running 9,000 restaurants (or 19, same thing right?) and chat.
To set the stage, Luke has been in restaurants since he was about 14 years old. He started with a part-time job washing dishes (because a NYC law stated no one under 15 could handle knives, or something like that..) and, he loved it. He loved the camaraderie of hospitality and the performance they put on everyday.
In time, he moved from prep cook to line cook and ended up going to Culinary School at Johnson and Wales. He worked around restaurants in Boston, Cape Cod, and California, all working as a chef. Some time in there he moved to New York and continued on at Cafe Boulud, A Voce, and really was in the Chef’s process until he was 30 or 31 years old .
With 15 years cooking at a professional level — he realized how much he was enjoying other aspects of business: from Front of House to Design and building out a restaurant… Although he always knew he wanted to pen his own restaurant, he just assumed it would be as a chef.
In his early 30’s, Luke took a leap of faith to take white chef coat off, joined forces with Andrew Carmellini and Joshua Pickard, and started a restaurant. And now, after nine years, he's the founding partner of NoHo Hospitality Group... about 19 restaurants strong.
We talked family meal, eating pre-marathon dinners at Ballato's on Houston before The Dutch (restaurant number two) was a reality. More than anything, Luke's passion and thoughtfulness struck me -- when I asked him what exactly Family Meal meant, he quipped back
So when we talk about family meal, the idea behind all of it is twofold.
There is a utilitarian need for it, that is to say you need to feed everyone to be able get the job done to stay alert and have energy to do it well. But also family meal is nourishment (which is the same premise for our guests). We nourish the guests that comes into our restaurants and we nourish our family and team members before we put on that show.
Family Meal is an important part of it. It’s a little different than the regular other day to day of setting the table or taking the order or cooking the chicken; it is a departure or experience — although it’s not the same plates of food going out on table 23, it’s still the same premise.
Luke's sense of wholistic knowledge -- complete restaurant awareness -- is something that has always impressed me. Yes there is a hierarchy where there are bosses and employees in his restaurants, but I never doubt that he is always thinking of each person, each family member in what is the NoHo Hospitality Group's family.
And since Luke has been in and around food for over half his life, I needed to know --
I feel like everyone in restaurant has a story about family meal. Do you have a family meal in particular that you remember and love and still think about?
Luke Ostrom: Yeah, there’s been so many different ones — most family meal experiences are generally similar, but there are certain special occasion (see: holiday lunches). But then, there are also certain occasions in the past that have been outrageously different than just normal family meal.
Probably the one that comes to mind the most it was a pretty long time ago. We have a team member who we work with (you may know him, Josh). Bouchaib Jehhar? He goes by Bouch? He’s been at Locanda for a really long time. Bouch is both a team member and dear friend of ours. He was actually working at Cafe Boulud before I was working there (I think he started there in 1999 and I started in 2001), so he’s been working with [Andrew] Carmellini now for about 20 years. He might literally be our longest running team member still working with us now. And, after Boulud, he moved with us to A Voce and moved with us to Locanda, and has been there ever since.
Bouch got married a number of years ago (I hope I’m telling this story right) I believe it was when they were at A Voce — this would be in in 2005 — he got married to this amazing woman he met. Being both from Morocco, in celebration of that marriage, he really wanted the opportunity for he and his wife to bring in some traditional things from Morocco for family meal. We didn’t totally know what that meant — we were like “sure it sounds great” — I think we even made a back up family meal just in case he brought a small thing.
The day he had told us he was bringing in family meal, punctual as always -- he showed up at 3:30 or something like that and they made this elaborate spread of tradition Moroccan dishes.
One was this incredible huge — like literally 20” diameter Pastilla (which is traditional in Morocco), almost like a meat pie with squab and dried fruits and nuts and grains. To make it you put together this huge mixture and bake it in this very elaborate looking puff pastry pie that is very very decorative. His wife make all these cuts on the dough so when it baked, sprinkled with powdered sugar, it was so gorgeous.
They also brough over this other thing — it’s called a Msemen — it’s almost like a big giant roti / pancake almost which is filled with ground meat, spices. It’s huge.
And they brought in green tea — but like Green tea, like the Moroccan style ceremonial experience — where you make the tea, brew it very carefully over stove with special dishes and pots, and you raise your arm like three feet in the air so the tea gets going and make it very aerated. It was real treat. I’ll never forget it.
We were all in shock — we thought we would have to bust out this other family meal (a soup and salad backup)… which we obviously didn’t have to do.
The family meal was the first time we met his new wife and really the first time we got to eat a lot of those dishes. It was so traditionally made and executed at such a high level; the way it was presented and made it seemed such a pro level.
There’s been a couple other cases of that where we’ve had some guys back at Cafe Boulud — traditionally from southern Mexico who had these old family recipes like this special stew. Honestly, there’s been a few of those stories throughout the years where people are reaching back through food to their own traditional style.
CS: I feel like the thing that’s coming through is that some of the more special experiences are when those people who get to cook (be that a sous chef, a prep cook, a cook, somebody you’ve been with three months or five years) get to reach back into their own history (be that growing up in Virginia or Mexico or Morocco)And are able to reach back and present something that is super important to them something that they remember growing up and get to cook it with a little more love.
LO: Exactly, it becomes less utilitarian, less of a task, less of “this is my job and what I need to do.” There’s a little more (I don’t want to get hoaky)… but there is a little more Spiritual connection.
If it’s super inspired by history or the past, it’s going to translate into the food.
Luke, if you can’t tell by now, is an incredible human and we can’t thank him enough for his time, and passion.