KENNEBUNKPORT — Where there’s faintly sweet smoke from maple lump charcoal and white oak logs, there’s The Lost Fire.
The enticing scent wafted around the parking lot of the Patagonian grill and bar on Rte. 9 one early Wednesday evening in late June, instantly whetting the appetite and building expectations for the South American flame-kissed treats to come.
Inside, back in the open kitchen, chef-owner German Lucarelli, 50, used a wrought-iron fire poker his father made for him to stir the glowing logs beneath one of his two custom-built Argentinian grills. Lucarelli’s first cookbook, “The Lost Fire Cookbook,” would go on sale in a few days.
Published by the locally based Cider Mill Press, the cookbook includes more than 100 recipes for Lost Fire dishes like Argentinian chorizo, Flintstone-sized cuts of beef like grilled bone-in ribeye steak, smoked long-bone short rib and even Lucarelli’s grandmother’s bread pudding. The restaurant’s food is inspired by the weekly feast, or asado, that the chef grew up enjoying in Argentina, where the grass-fed beef cattle are among the world’s best. The asado centers around simply prepared yet big-flavored meats and fish, grilled or slow-roasted over open flames.
As the restaurant’s asador, or grill master, Lucarelli started the fires an hour earlier, at 4 p.m., so they’d be ready in time for 5 p.m. service. His Argentinian grill has crank wheels that let Lucarelli raise or lower the grill grate, away or toward the flames, but nothing needs adjustment. After four years of open-fire cooking in this kitchen – which doesn’t even have a propane hookup – he can tell when the heat is right practically by instinct.
Between the grill fires and the blistering 700-degree Josper charcoal ovens next to each grill, kitchen temperatures reach 120 degrees on summer nights, Lucarelli said. But at the start of service, the chef and his line cooks seemed unfazed. They lasered in on their work as the first orders trickled in, speaking only as needed.
“Silence is priceless. I’ve got to be on my game,” Lucarelli said with a modest smile.
Lucarelli’s professional intensity is partly a product of his elite culinary training, first under Gato Dumas, perhaps Argentina’s most revered chef of all time, then later under Martin Berasategui, the renowned Michelin three-star chef in San Sebastian, Spain, both of whom he called mentors.
But his game face also comes from the demands of putting out more than 300 dinners a night in an Argentinian steakhouse that burns though 50,000 pounds of maple charcoal and 30 cords of oak logs, white or red, each year. Every month, Lucarelli buys $20,000 worth of prime-grade beef and heritage-breed pork from Kinnealey Meats in Boston and Shields Meats & Produce in Kennebunk to cook over the wood fire, an ancient technique that lends the meat smokiness, alluring char and deepens the umami flavor in a way that propane grills simply can’t reproduce.
Open fire obviously lacks the precision and even heat of gas grills and ovens, though. A bed of timber and charcoal will have hot and cool spots that Lucarelli needs to find and follow, since they’ll change or move as the fire burns on.
Lucarelli writes in his cookbook that when customers first see flames dancing in the back of the open kitchen, “The fire tells the customer that they will not be cheated, and it tells the cook, constantly, that they cannot cheat, cannot get away with ingredients that aren’t quite up to snuff, cannot place a two-inch-thick porterhouse over higher heat than they normally would to catch up on a busy night.”
Or, as he put it while raining salt down on one of the night’s first orders, a 12-ounce prime skirt steak with pervasive marbling, “This is open flame, so there’s no room for mistakes.”
A RESTLESS CHEF, HUNGRY FOR EXPERIENCE
Over the course of his nomadic 32-year cooking career, Lucarelli has run kitchens and helped open restaurants on three continents, everywhere from London, Paris and New York to Beirut and Bethesda, Maryland. As a former executive chef with BiCE Restaurant Group and chef-owner of the now-closed Ports of Italy in Kennebunkport, the half-Italian chef could easily have stayed with Italian food, or written an Italian cookbook. He could’ve done the same with Spanish cuisine.
Instead, Lucarelli has devoted himself to sharing the carnivorous pleasures of the South American pampas with his customers here in southern Maine, where his lustrous career arc landed him in 2015. The Lost Fire is Lucarelli’s ode to the food of his native culture, and the work reconnects him daily to the open-flame cooking tradition that made him fall in love with food in the first place.
“After all these years, I go back to my roots,” Lucarelli said.
Lucarelli’s restaurant career started modestly when he was about 18, which he concedes is a little late for the international chef set he moves in. He had stints working at the first McDonald’s in Argentina and washing dishes at a ski resort restaurant in the Andes. In 1994, he moved to London to start work for BiCE, a global chain of Italian restaurants. He opened a BiCE in Buenos Aires, and later took a job as executive chef for Gato Dumas Catering.
Lucarelli won the legendary chef’s trust and respect, and Dumas made him a managing partner in four of his operations. “He taught me how to take risks in the kitchen, and serve dishes and ingredients people weren’t familiar with,” Lucarelli said. “He always gave me the freedom to try new things.”
And Lucarelli loved to try new things. He moved to Spain to run a small restaurant north of Madrid, and became immediately smitten with two traditional Spanish dishes: lechazo, baby lamb, fire-roasted inside terra cotta, and suckling pig prepared similarly. “At the time, they were the best things I’d ever tried,” he recalled.
He moved south to San Sebastian, the coastal Spanish town known for its fabulous restaurants. There, he started work under Martin Berasategui, a chef-restaurateur with 12 total Michelin stars to his name. Lucarelli was cooking ultra-fine dining fare for 35 customers a night, maximum, working alongside cooks who’d travelled from around the world for a chance to work in a Berasategui kitchen.
“Everything was done to perfection. If it was less than perfect, you can not put it out,” Lucarelli said.
After two years with Berasategui, Lucarelli made his move to America for a stint in an Italian restaurant in Palm Beach, Florida. He soon headed up to New York City, where he reconnected with the BiCE for a period before starting work in Da Silvano, the iconic former Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village, and then moving to SoHo House to become head chef.
Though Lucarelli’s professional success was gratifying, his work-life pace was grueling, and it had worn him down by the mid 2010s. “I was burned out, I had to admit it,” he said.
RETURNING TO HIS CULINARY ROOTS
Lucarelli had made a few visits to Maine for a week each year as a volunteer consultant to help make menu changes at Ports of Italy in Boothbay Harbor. “I fell in love with Maine, and I realized how similar it is to Patagonia, the green, the lakes, the ocean – everything,” he said. “I remember seeing a sign on the highway that said, Maine, the way life should be. And that’s a big claim. But I had an epiphany, and I realized it actually is the way life should be.”
So he opened a Ports of Italy location in Kennebunkport in 2015. But he sometimes found himself serving the chain’s authentic Italian dishes to visitors who expected, and preferred, Italian-American dishes. “I remember some customers coming in from Boston asking if I could make them a fettucine alfredo with shrimp,” Lucarelli chuckled. “I was like, okay, here we go…”
When an investor offered him a deal to open a new restaurant, which he would rent from the investor for three years then own outright, he jumped at the chance. He found the location he wanted in on Mills Road in Kennebunkport, the site of the former Lucas on 9 restaurant, and in 2018 The Lost Fire was born.
Lucarelli closed Ports of Italy in Kennebunkport, turning his attention exclusively to The Lost Fire. He has thoroughly renovated the property over the years, adding cabana-style gallery seating adjacent to the main dining room, a large parking lot to replace the tamped dirt field, and a canopied patio area out back with a full bar, fire pit and grills.
The interior design elements are eclectic yet polished, like the vintage Spanish and South American culinary posters and photos of Argentinian race car drivers and soccer stars that hang on the walls of the indoor bar, a 23-seat white marble-topped horseshoe. All in, Lucarelli said the property’s makeover has cost about $3 million over the years.
“The people in Kennebunkport were supportive of The Lost Fire right from the start,” Lucarelli said. “From town officials to neighbors and local customers, everyone has been really welcoming and hospitable.”
“It’s our favorite restaurant in town, said Laura McCullough, owner of the gift store Dannah in Kennebunkport. She and her mother dine at Lost Fire at least once a week. She sells “The Lost Fire Cookbook” at Dannah, and said she hopes to host a book-signing event at her store for Lucarelli later this year.
“For (Lucarelli), it’s not just about putting out good food,” McCullough added. “It’s also making sure guests understand what he’s doing with the food and the culture behind it.”
“The Lost Fire is bringing in foodies from all over New England and New York, and they walk away from that wonderful experience with the same enthusiasm the locals have for it all year long,” said John F. Whalen Jr., founder and publisher of Cider Mill Press Book Publishers. “To me, that restaurant is the culmination of his absolutely amazing career.”
LIVING HIS BEST LIFE IN MAINE
Back in the kitchen, Lucarelli fired another order. He set a 1 3/4-inch prime strip steak toward the back of the grill, horizontally, positioning the creamy white slab of sirloin fat to face the back of the grill so when it renders, the fat can flow down the channel grates, basting the bottom of the meat as it passes. The 12-ounce skirt steak he’d seasoned earlier had finished cooking, after about 3 minutes in the Josper charcoal oven and was now resting to let its juices settle.
He flipped the strip steak, then used a wide basting brush to paint the grill-marked, bubbling-hot top of the meat with salmuera, the indispensable Argentinian flavor booster that he makes by blending canola oil, white vinegar, garlic, fresh oregano and rosemary, and Spanish paprika. He plated the skirt steak, topping it with fresh herbs and an herb-laced finishing salt he makes using Maldon sea salt flakes.
The simple yet plainly appealing presentation demonstrates what the photographers for “The Lost Fire Cookbook” aimed to convey. “We wanted the food to seem natural and approachable, because it is,” said Mag Alvarez of The Apertivo Studio in Buenos Aires. With partner Martin Apelde, Alvarez shot all the food in the cookbook over two weeks last summer. “We didn’t want any extra food styling of the dishes, we just wanted to show the truth.”
The two photographers were in town again to visit Lucarelli. But since the chef has taken only about six days off in four years – as estimated by the restaurant’s general manager, Jeff Fightmaster – it’s uncertain how much time they’ll be able to spend with him.
Lucarelli was also being visited by his teenage son, Nicolas, who was working in the back prep area. Nicolas lives in New Jersey with his mom, but comes up on summer vacations to work in kitchen.
“It’s his choice, he wants to do it,” Lucarelli shrugged, like a proud dad who has nevertheless made it plain to his son that the kitchen life is hard.
Still, it’s a life Lucarelli clearly loves. And he knows it won’t continue forever.
“I used to say, if I’m going to retire, I’m going to Patagonia,” Lucarelli said. “Now I say, if I’m going to retire, it might as well be in Maine.”
New York Strip Steak
From “The Lost Fire Cookbook.”
1 (14 to 16-oz.) New York strip steak (about 1¼ to 1½ inches thick)
Salt, to taste
Salmuera (see recipe)
Season the steak with salt and let it rest at room temperature. Prepare a fire on the grill, setting up one zone for direct heat and another for indirect.
Test the grill to determine the heat in each section. Place the steak over medium heat – a spot you can leave your hand over for approximately five seconds before you need to move it away – with the fatty edge facing toward a hotter part of the grill. Grill until the interior is just about medium-rare, about seven minutes. Brush the steak with salmuera as it cooks, and turn it over just once.
Move the steak closer to higher heat and cook until it develops a lovely crust on both sides and the fatty edge is crispy.
Remove the steak from the grill and let it rest for two minutes. Season with salt, preferably Maldon.
Lucarelli uses vinegar instead of the traditional water in this Argentinian baste because it gives the meat more flavor.
Yield: 4 cups
30 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 cup Spanish paprika
1¼ cups white vinegar
1 cup canola oil
Place all ingredients in a container and stir to combine. The salmuera will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely.