Chef Joe Lucci Prepares for 'Iron Chef'
Restaurant cooking is a highly competitive profession any day of the week, but this month Joseph Lucci, executive chef at Market Place in Danbury, will be competing on a whole new playing field as a challenger on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.” With well over 1.3 million viewers a week, the show could be a game changer for Lucci, a possible first step to becoming a nationally recognized chef, and a way to put Market Place on the culinary map big-time.
At age 26, Lucci has been executive chef at Market Place since it opened in Danbury’s thriving dining district on Mill Plain Road in 2012. The Culinary Institute of America grad is a protégé of Thomas Keller, the chef-owner of such acclaimed restaurants as The French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York City. (Keller is the only American-born chef to hold multiple three-star ratings in the Michelin Guide.) Chef Keller thought highly enough of Lucci that he contacted his friends at the Food Network and arranged for him to be a contestant on “Iron Chef America.” (The episode airs in November.)
Lucci was a little boy when he was first introduced to great food and time-honored cooking techniques at the home of his grandmother, Emilia, an immigrant from Abruzzi, Italy. Joe loved being with her in the kitchen while she prepared homemade pasta, sausage, meatballs, bracciole, Italian wedding soup, and all manner of cakes, cookies and pastries. Savory or sweet, the results were always amazing, says Lucci. As he got older, his grandma would let him help out.
Young Joe’s interest in cooking was nudged up to the next level at age 8 or 9, when he saw his first episode of “The Essence of Emeril” on the Food Network. He remembers that Emeril looked very young—and he was skinny! In the ensuing years Joe “graduated” and became his grandmother’s sous chef. “I loved food,” he says, “but I hadn’t considered it as a career.”
That inspiration came when he was in high school and joined a class trip to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. By the time he got home, he knew he wanted to go to the CIA.
After graduation, Lucci got an externship at Per Se. “I didn’t cook much,” he says, “generally I just followed executive chef Jonathan Benno around and watched.” Keller emphasizes that chefs must know why they do what they do. For example, when making stock, peel the carrots or they will impart a bitter taste to the stock. And always strain a sauce four times to achieve a smooth, silky consistency. “Chef Keller drives his young chefs to settle for nothing less than perfection,” he says.
Chef Lucci carried these lessons with him to Market Place, where he strives for sophisticated, modern American cuisine that will exceed diners’ expectations: He cooks his short ribs for four hours; he braises his pork belly in duck fat. He wants to hit all the tastes on every plate—sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and what the Japanese call “umami,” which can be translated roughly as “deliciousness.”
The team at Market Place has positioned their restaurant as the area’s premier farm-to-table establishment, serving inventive, local, seasonally inspired dishes. Produce comes from organic farms in Connecticut and the Hudson Valley. His duck comes from Long Island. Salmon’s flown in from Scotland, Kobe beef from Japan.
So, which of the Iron Chefs will Lucci challenge? Lucci’s decided to take on Michael Symon: They’re both perfectionists in the kitchen though their tastes are a bit different: Symon loves pork fat; Lucci loves foie gras. “I have so much respect for what chef Symon has accomplished,” Lucci says. “He’s an inspiration to young chefs.”