Meet Lucas Harrell: Executive Chef at NYC hotspots La Rubia and Her Name Was Carmen
Lucas Harrell, a San Francisco native of Cuban heritage, was inspired by his talented Cuban immigrant mother who regularly prepared classic Cuban dishes for their family of six. He embarked on his culinary journey working under renowned chefs at Petit Crenn and the two Michelin-starred Coi restaurant. Later, in New York City, he worked at the Michelin-starred Musket Room under Chef Matt Lambert, eventually becoming the sous chef at Chef Chris Cipollone's acclaimed restaurant, Francie. Francie quickly earned a coveted Michelin star within its first few months of opening. Now, Lucas is the Executive Chef at NYC hotspots La Rubia and Her Name Was Carmen helmed by restaurateur Andres Diaz.
An Interview with the Cuban Star Chef Behind Manhattan Hot Spots Her Name Was Carmen and La Rubia in 11 Howard Hotel
Growing up in San Francisco, Lucas was exposed to the bounty that northern California produce has to offer at an early age. His mother, an excellent cook in her own right, and an immigrant from Cuba served as an early inspiration as she prepared classic Cuban dishes for his family of six regularly. After high school, he began his culinary career in Portland, Oregon starting as a dishwasher and prep cook. After a few years in Oregon, he decided to move home to San Francisco where he had the privilege of working under talented chefs at Petit Crenn, as well as two Michelin-starred Coi restaurant. In the summer of 2018, he moved to New York City where he worked with Chef Matt Lambert at Michelin-starred Musket Room, which later led to his opening as Sous Chef at Francie in Brooklyn helmed by Chef Chris Cipollone. Francie quickly earned a Michelin star in the first few months of opening. Lucas is now the Executive Chef at the recently opened La Rubia in 11 Howard Hotel and Her Name Was Carmen restaurant in Soho, Manhattan.
Can you tell us about your culinary background and experience?
My culinary background started when I was 18 years old in Portland, Oregon, where I had moved to attend college. I needed a job and restaurants were some of the only jobs that would consider hiring me with zero experience. I started as a dishwasher/ prep-cook and worked my way up through the ranks. Eventually, after 3 years I decided to make a career out of it and moved home to San Francisco to try and work at some of the prestigious Michelin-rated kitchens. My career then led me to New York City. Having grown up in San Francisco, I was looking for a new challenge, and I had always been curious about living in NYC– even as a child.
What inspired you to become a chef, and how did your passion for cooking develop?
I fell in love with restaurants almost immediately after my first job. The tight-knit community within each restaurant has given me some of my best friends. Working actively with my hands has always been more engaging for me personally, and I loved the fast-paced environment as well. My passion for cooking developed through making my guests happy through food and the experience we provided at a fine-dining level. Hearing feedback from guests, such as “that's one of the best meals I've ever had” is a feeling that you constantly chase as a Chef.
Can you tell us a bit more about the two restaurants where you are Executive Chef: Her Name Was Carmen and La Rubia at 11 Howard. How do they differ?
La Rubia is located in Soho on the corner of Lafayette and Howard street on the bottom floor of the 11 Howard Hotel. We are an intimate 40-seat restaurant specializing in classic cocktails, seafood, and raw preparations. Her name Was Carmen, also in Soho, just a short walk away, is a slightly larger operation with a two floor dining room and cocktail lounge. We offer a full service dinner that ideally leads you downstairs to the lounge to dance the night away. Both restaurants lean towards Latin flavors as our owner Andres Diaz is from Colombia, and my heritage on my mothers side is Cuban. While Her Name Was Carmen is seafood leaning, there are still plenty of non-seafood options.
What are the signature dishes at Her Name Was Carmen and La Rubia. What makes them unique?
Her Name Was Carmen’s signature dishes include the daily grilled fish options. When I first started, the Binchotan Coal Burning Grill in the kitchen wasn't being used as much as I would have like, and grilling is easily my favorite way to prepare fish. You just can't beat the charred smokey flavor. Currently, we are grilling a whole Branzino served with a bright, acidic beurre blanc and a radish and citrus salad served atop the fish. Additionally, we are grilling our Arctic Char, and serving it with blistered and marinated sungold tomatoes, shaved summer squash, and a warm tomato water broth infused with basil and lemon verbena. At La Rubia, our signature is the Grand Rubia Seafood Tower. It showcases what we do best– three layers of our freshest shellfish, which always includes oysters, and occasionally razor clams, lobster tail, ocktail blue crystal prawns from New Zealand, and more; as well as fresh sashimi, and a bowl of our Dungeness Crab.
How do you approach seasonal menu planning and creating new dishes?
At both restaurants, we change our dishes with the passing seasons as soon as new and exciting products become available. Some changes may be minor while most are complete reworks with new proteins that accompany those ingredients more cohesively. I draw inspiration for new dishes from seasonality, a style of cooking that was drilled into me from earlier in my career cooking in San Francisco. If there are new, delicious, exciting products to work with we are always trying to find a way to incorporate them into the menu.
How does your Cuban background influence your cooking? Did you learn from your mother/grandmother?
My mother was and still is an excellent cook. While I wasn't necessarily cooking side by side with my mother growing up, I certainly inherited a knack for it through her dedication to serving us home-cooked meals from scratch, which were often classic Cuban dishes like picadillo, ropa vieja, etc. Walking into my grandmother's home, even if you just came from a 6-course meal, she would sit you down and fill up a plate with black beans, rice, plantains, and whatever else she had cooking. She always had something ready to nourish her family and guests, and ultimately, that is what true hospitality is all about.
Tell us about La Rubia and Her Name Was Carmen’s signature dessert dish, Terely’s Flan.
I wish I felt comfortable calling it MY signature dessert, but this flan recipe has been passed down from my grandmother's family, to my mother (Terely), and now to me. We actually do not know how many previous generations had this exact recipe prior to my grandmother. It's an incredible recipe– very simple to make, but the ratios are just spot on, and it has an incredible creamy texture. Growing up, we ate this flan for special occasions. In the last 5 years, my mother has started her own business in San Francisco called What the Flan SF. Her creativity and work ethic are something I constantly look up to. La Rubia and Her Name Was Carmen serve the classic vanilla flavor; however, my mother’s flan business has developed 10 different flavors, and can even be bought in select grocery stores in San Francisco and privately catered in the Bay Area. To say I'm proud to serve this dessert is an understatement, and it offers a glimpse into my childhood.
What’s next for Her Name Was Carmen and La Rubia at 11 Howard?
We want to develop La Rubia into a restaurant that becomes a mainstay in Soho. When people think of where to get refreshing raw bar bites and delicious cocktails we want them to think of La Rubia. New Yorkers have so many options when it comes to dining out, so for us becoming one of the first names that comes to mind when the mood strikes for seafood is a challenge we are excited to take on.
At Her Name Was Carmen, we are fortunate enough to already have a very strong reputation. Everyone knows that a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night spent having dinner upstairs followed by dancing downstairs at Carmen is a super fun time that often creates lasting memories with friends. Our goal is to continue to push the cuisine in a direction that evens the playing field with our famous cocktail lounge downstairs. We want people to think of Her name was Carmen as an excellent place to have dinner, dance, and create lasting memories from the second our guests walk through the door.
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