The Lost Fire Interview with Chef German Lucarelli
The way you describe your early discovery of Maine is so beautiful, we love the way you associate it with your beloved Patagonia, and differentiate it from your experience in New York with such admiration. What was it that led you to explore Maine as a possible location in the first place?
You mention your first encounter with Maine in 2012, with the Lost Fire’s opening date being 2018, how did you keep busy in the meantime?
I was working as a chef in New York City when I first discovered Maine. In 2012, leaving that life behind was not even a thought. Being a chef in a fast-paced, busy, well-known restaurant in a large city had been my dream for years. I was working 60+ hours a week and had the drive and determination to succeed. I was making great money, had a great life and things were going well. But as I turned 40, I started to question how long I could keep up the pace, more importantly how long I wanted to keep up the pace. Even more, I really wanted to cook my own food, the food I had learned to prepare both in my home Argentina, as well as Europe where I’d spent my early years cooking.
I started exploring options of opening my own restaurant. My business partner and I began looking for a location. At first in New York City, but the failure rate of new restaurants in New York far exceeds the success rate. And I really wanted a slower pace for myself. We began to search outside the city and at some point I took another weekend trip to Maine, and thought, why not? We we began looking in southern Maine are and eventually, found a spot in Kennebunkport to open the Italian restaurant (Ports of Italy) I’d been working toward. We opened in the spring of 2015 and had a great run. Everything was house-made. It was a lot of work, but I loved that I was finally cooking my own food.
The restaurant had a slow start but eventually took off and was a real success. I was working for myself, and along the way, creating a new life. I discovered the hospitality that I describe from Argentina in the people of Kennebunkport. This hospitably stirred a need to get back to my true roots. The Asado. I wanted to share the warmth and food of the people of my country with my new found friends.
I started looking for a place to open a second restaurant. My friends thought I was crazy, but I knew my vision would work. It took a long time to find the right spot and my friends really thought I was crazy based on the location. We bought the building, renovated it and opened for business in late August of 2018. It was a very slow start, but I really believed that if I shared my love of the open flame and good meat cooked on the wood-fired grill people would come. And they did.
You acknowledge how much of the Lost Fires’ success is due to the guests’ response to the fire and the outstanding group of people you had on your team. Was there anything special you looked for when building that inaugural crew? Did you bring cooks with you from New York or start fresh with Mainers (locals)?
The answer to both questions is yes. My brother joined me as a resource. He too has a passion for cooking and was very helpful in getting the doors open. I also had my good friend Nano who I have known for years, come up from Miami to help as well. We were joined by a few local people and the front-of-house staff was all Mainers.
The first few months were trial and error. We made many mistakes but had far more successes. We continue to work and change, and grow and by the spring had a solid team of quality professionals that have gotten us to where we are today.
Musk, Char, + Flame seem to be the core of the brand. What three words would you use to describe the dining experience at the Lost Fire, from the food to the service + atmosphere?
I don’t know about three words but I stand at the window cooking every night and I see the expressions on our guest's faces as they come through the curtains into the dining room. They are not expecting the site that is in front of them. The 23 seat bar, the open kitchen, with the glow of flame and embers cooking meats. I hear repeatedly that they had no idea that the restaurant looked this way from the outside.
The food is all about quality. We serve only the best ingredients available to us. I go to the market twice a week myself to hand pick the vegetables and seafood that we serve. I have worked very hard the past 4 years to ensure that the beef that we serve exceeds everyone’s exceptions. And then when it comes to cooking there are no short cuts ever. When cooking with fire, there is no rushing the process. The meat takes as long as the meat takes. I can’t turn up the heat. I can’t push it along. The smoke and char from the open flame flavors our food unlike any traditional grill ever could.
As for the service in front of house, it’s all about hospitality. We aspire to treat everyone who walks through door as though they are visiting our homes. We share the stories of my home and travels and the restaurant. We explain the cooking process. We talk about our love of food. And then we execute 5-star service in a casual atmosphere. We coach our staff that they must believe in the process. You can’t teach this passion, you can only cultivate it. And as I stand and listen to the servers talk about the specials and my grandmother’s bread pudding, I know they believe in what we are doing here.
The Lost Fire is open year-round, are there any major adaptations you make to the space to survive the Maine winters? Did you have any big pivots to adapt during the pandemic?
There have been so many changes to our physical space since we opened. In August, 2018 we opened with about 50 seats in our dining room and 23 seats at the bar. We had two family style tables that would seat 4 each. That seems so long ago. The thought that we’d adapt and grow to the business we are today, exceeded even my expectations. We got through our first season and learned a lot.
Yes, there is seasonality to a restaurant in coastal Maine, but there is also much to learn about the winters. The area is not as desolate as it used to be in January and February. There are countless people who spend the whole year here and the lack of year-round restaurants is noticeable. I never gave a thought to closing in the winter.
Our first big change was adding The Gallery. It was inspired by cabanas that I’d seen at a restaurant in Florida. The addition of the 4 season area allowed us to do larger parties, have overflow seating for walk-ins, and expanded the number of people we could do in one evening.
The Gallery was finished about a month before the shutdown with Covid.
As with every business owner, the year 2020 was a struggle. We pivoted, and pivoted and pivoted again.
We closed for six weeks along with everyone else. Eventually, we adapted our menu and did take out. Steaks don’t lend themselves to being boxed up, so we went with pizzas, rotisserie chickens, and burgers. It proved quite popular and kept us afloat. I rented a tent and had it put in the parking lot. We were able to expand seating, but the institutional element of the tent went against my belief that our space needs to be warm and inviting.
I had the tent, that was fully paid for removed, and I hired a team to build a rudimentary version of what is now our Patio Luca. It proved to be quite popular, expanded our seating, and was very bohemian. Over the winter of 2021, I made major improvements to the patio. I turned a storage shed into an outdoor bar and restrooms, I added lighting, and this year I added all new tables and chairs. What started as a response to the pandemic forced us to make changes that ultimately benefited the business altogether.
How long did the cookbook take to put together? Were there recipes created specifically for the book, or have they all been used in the restaurant before?
The cookbook has been on the burner for a while. I knew that I wanted to do it. Believed that people would embrace it. But I needed to get the business off the ground first. About year before its publication, I started actively putting it together.
The recipes are a blend of family recipes and dishes I created myself. It took a long time to get them recorded, tested, made, and photographed. I spent a lot of last summer and fall doing the heavy lifting. I can’t believe how beautiful the book turned out. I am immensely proud of it.
You very recently passed the four year anniversary of opening, congrats! Did you do anything to celebrate?
On the day of our 4th birthday, I did what I do every day. I did owner work in the morning, and then at 2:00 put on my chef’s coat and started prepping for the busy August evening in front of us. Even after all these years, my favorite part of the day is lighting the grill and getting ready to start service. There is an energy in the building that defies description. My General Manager compares it to a show opening. The lights are adjusted, the music is turned on, the cast is in place and when we open the doors the show begins. The fast pace of summer in Maine is tremendous.
As you can imagine, herbs + spices are a large part of who we are at SKORDO. If you could only have 3 herbs + spices for the rest of your cooking career (salt and pepper not included) which would you choose?
Asking me to choose a spice or herb is the same as asking a parent which child is their favorite. For me, it depends on the food I’m cooking. Basil, Rosemary and Thyme are big go-to's for me. And, I’ve never met any Middle Eastern spice blend that I didn’t like. The only ingredient that I don’t really care for is Anise. I’m not much of a fan of any licorice-flavored foods.
We appreciate the time you took to elaborate on the beauty of a true Asado. Is there a meal or dish you recall being particularly outstanding that a friend or family member cooked for you back home? Perhaps your grandmother Maria Elena?
Empanadas in Argentina are a way of life. They were always available and each region has their own take on it. My grandmothers each brought their own take on them. This reminds me of home more than anything else. And of course as everyone knows, my grandmother’s bread pudding was a real treat at my home growing up.
You’re very well-traveled, and speak about the nomadic nature of those in the industry. Do you have hobbies outside of cooking? What do you think you’d be doing for a living if you didn’t spend your life in the kitchen?
I have lots of hobbies that unfortunately involve spending money. I have a motorcycle that I love to get out on in the summer months. It allows me to escape from the world for a bit and lose myself. I also just recently bought a 1998 jeep Sahara that has proven to be a lot of fun with my friends this summer. And I still like to travel. Last winter over Christmas break, I took my RV on a tour of the southern part of the country. It is great to explore the country, but I do have to admit it's still a bit of work, as every stop has me exploring restaurant sand grilling techniques in other restaurants. I am committed to continuing to expand my understanding of cooking and all things culinary. This winter, I’m going to take my son to the rural areas of my home country and explore with him true Argentinian food. We’ll spend about two weeks there and then I’m going to return and look at how I can incorporate what I’ve experienced into new menu items at The Lost Fire.
Pick up your copy of The Lost Fire in stores at our Old Port + Maine Mall locations, or here online at SKORDO.com
The images in this blog are courtesy of the Lost Fire Instagram account.