By David Ansel
Photography by Marc Brown
When conjuring a mental image of a chef’s home kitchen, one might envision small pots of fresh herbs sunbathing on a windowsill, a pegboard rack lined with naughty pans facing a wall or a magnetic knife strip stocked with varied shapes, sizes and patinas of blade. A peek in the refrigerator might reveal a cornucopia of fresh produce and proteins, rare condiments, preserved lemons, homemade Worcestershire sauce, perhaps a bit of hazelnut confiture picked up on a recent research trip to the South of France.
But upon entering the home kitchen of Larry McGuire—the boy genius behind the monumentally successful Lamberts Downtown Barbecue and Perla’s Seafood and Oyster Bar—none of these things are present. Rather, one is confronted with an austere sort of Dwell-magazine-meets-Travis-Heights sense of low-fidelity minimalism—no hint of any recent activity; no pots, no pans; the refrigerator is empty save for some butter and fizzy water. In fact, the most commanding element of the kitchen—the open shelving that lines the entire north wall, where most home cooks would place some dishware, maybe a small sampling of cookbooks or even a few tchotchkes—cradles only numerous, neatly stacked ranks of manila accordion files.
“Those are my end-of-month financial statements,” McGuire says proudly when asked if the files are full of recipes.
It takes a bit of background to understand why a chef’s home would be quite so…foodless. First, McGuire, at 28, is every bit a bachelor, yet without the usual pitiable gastronomic detritus of bachelorhood: the coffee grounds on the floor, the forlorn take-out containers in the fridge, the bag of limp carrots solitarily confined to the crisper. Why? McGuire simply doesn’t eat at home.
“I wake up and go to Jo’s for coffee,” he says. “Then there’s usually eggs going on at one of the restaurants. I’m in the restaurant all day, and then, since my friends are chefs, I eat out at a great restaurant every night…Parkside, Uchi, Vespaio.”
What might sound like an extravagant lifestyle is really, in a sense, just work. McGuire has graduated from the ranks of the struggling chef to the echelon of restaurateur and creator—one who travels to New York and Los Angeles just to eat and stay current; one who voraciously reads cookbooks and the New York Times food section. His immersion into restaurant culture—both locally and nationally—is part and parcel of his career.
“A lot of people ask me,” McGuire says with a genuinely humble pause, “‘How do you do things that people…like so much?’ My answer is that I just grew up here; I am the customer. I see what holes there are in the offerings here.”
He also credits much of his success to what he refers to as the “Lambert aesthetic,” a distinctive mix of smart, comfortable design choices that include, for example, modern curves or postmodern minimalism with rough-hewn or aged elements like rusted metal, weathered wood or decomposed granite—elements that have become the hallmark of Lou and Liz Lambert’s hospitality projects.
“Everything I’ve done is their design, their aesthetic,” he says. “Working with Lamberts, doing Steak Night at the [Hotel] San Jose and having contact with this whole up-and-coming creative crowd and seeing South Congress really evolve was a lucky break for me.”
Breaks aside, McGuire worked hard to acquire his business degree from the University of Texas while pulling night shifts on the line at the old Lamberts. From both experiences, he was able to craft the business plans and investor packages for the new Lamberts, Perla’s and his two current projects—a new Vietnamese restaurant in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood and another that’s, as yet, top secret. Now, firmly ensconced on the other side, McGuire’s bootstrapping, dues-paying days may be over.
“I started cooking around town when I was 16, and I’m 28 now, so holidays and weekends for that big chunk of my early life are gone,” he says. “I have weekends off for the first time in ten years.”
To fill some of this newfound free time, McGuire has taken to hosting infrequent, small outdoor gatherings at his home, around the oversize grill that once served as the centerpiece of so many of those Steak Nights at the San Jose. Guests are usually chefs and their friends, and the rib eyes are, of course, impeccably seasoned and expertly grilled.
Still, the image of the financial statements lining the walls of his home kitchen seems most telling. At the end of the day it’s still the food service business, after all, and McGuire is as proud of those spreadsheets as he is his rib eyes. Truth be told, the spreadsheets may even hold more promise as they describe a near future when McGuire can reliably take weekends, holidays and nights off; where he can settle down . . . maybe even cook a meal inside.
LARRY MCGUIRE'S D'ESPELLETE PEPPER RUBBED RIB-EYES WITH TOMATO, QUESO FRESCO, CUCUMBER AND MINT
Espellete is one of my favorite chili powders. From the Basque region of Spain and France, it has a great sweet spice, texture and earthy, red color. The salad of cherry tomato, queso fresco, cucumber and mint is a fresh, cool and light counterpunch to the richness of the rib eyes.
For the steaks:
2 16 oz. thick-cut ribeye steaks
2 T. olive oil
2 T. Espellete pepper powder
1 T. chili powder
2 T. kosher salt
1 T. brown sugar
1 T. coarsely ground black
Prepare a hot wood or charcoal fire on your grill.
Let the steaks reach room temperature, then brush each side with olive oil. Mix all of the dry ingredients together, then sprinkle on both sides of the steaks. Grill the steaks until your desired doneness. (I prefer rib eyes medium over medium rare because the extra cooking time renders the fat a little more.) Let the steaks rest on a rack at room temperature while you prepare the salad.
For the salads:
1 c. cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and
cut into ½-in. chunks
¼ c. diced red onion
6 big mint leaves, chopped
3 T. olive oil
1 T. sherry vinegar
1 t. kosher salt
½ t. freshly ground black pepper
¼ c. queso fresco, crumbled
Combine the first four ingredients in a mixing bowl. Sprinkle with the olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and sugar. Add the queso fresco and toss lightly to combine.
Quickly heat the rested steaks over the hottest part of the grill. When sizzling, remove the steaks and slice each one into 5 or 6 thick slices. Arrange the slices on 4 serving plates, and spoon the salad over the middle of each plate. Serve with sliced lemon.