Happy 10th Birthday, Elm!
To celebrate, we interviewed chef Luke Venner who has steered the venerable eatery through numerous changes in foodie proclivities and, who could forget, a pandemic. Yet Elm endures due to Luke’s commitment to fresh, high-quality ingredients, a culture of engagement and inclusion, and wholesome, approachable dishes. Oh - and the Animal burger.
DL: Where did you work before coming to Elm in 2015?
LV: I helmed the kitchens of both BLT Fish and BLT Steak in New York City.
DL: In your early teens, your parents divorced, forcing you briefly onto the “free lunch” list. All “free lunch” students received their lunches only after the paying students had been served (such a creative and effective way to undermine a child’s self-esteem!) Embarrassed your friends would find out, you began making your own lunches. Was this your first taste of cooking and what drew you to work at a restaurant in high school?
LV: Perhaps I had early ambitions, but it was my mother that would have the most influence on what went into my lunch pail every week. My favorite items were always a peanut butter sandwich (without the cloying jelly) that she would griddle in brown butter and a B.L.T. with the leftover bacon from that morning's breakfast.
DL: You mention you can make a great dish with only 2-3 ingredients. What’s an example?
LV: We serve burrata with charred bread and a very simple pesto made from nasturtium leaves. Every once in a while I think about replacing it, but then I'll order it and immediately remember why it's one of my favorite items on the menu.
DL: One day you walked into the dining room and noticed everyone was eating the same salad. What salad was it and is it still offered?
LV: It was a fairly basic mixed-green salad that was mostly there by default. Everyone was ordering it because there was no other salad choice on the menu. Once I noticed that I decided to offer several different composed salads that would give our lunch clientele much more to get excited about. I think it worked out!
DL: When you offer new items, where do you look for inspiration?
LV: While traveling I inevitably encounter something new and different that excites me everywhere I go. I also love when the seasons change and I get to pick up an ingredient that I haven't gotten to work with in nearly a year. I always try to approach it differently than I may have in the past.
DL: What are your three favorite dishes on the menu?
LV: I often return to the simpler things- the tandoori chicken liver mousse, the spaghetti carbonara with black pepper oil and anything that can be eaten alongside french fries. I think we make really good french fries.
DL: What’s your proudest moment at The Elm?
LV: I think we had some of our proudest moments during the pandemic when things were the most challenging. We were very creative from the start about unique ways to still serve our community but our goal, first and foremost, was to take care of our staff.
DL: What’s your worst?
LV: March 13th, 2020. The day I made the difficult decision to shutter the restaurant in preparation for the pandemic.
DL: I LOVE high tea! Whose idea was this and when did it start? (and thank you!)
LV: It's an idea that got kicked around for a long time. With so many of the prestigious city hotels that typically offer afternoon tea closed or slow to reopen, it seemed like a really fun thing to try out. To be honest, I wasn't sure if people would order it, but the response has been terrific!