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May 7, 2009 at 6:49 AM

More chef changes at the Herbfarm: Luce on the loose?

Early this week I shared news about the appointment of the Herbfarm’s new sous-chef, Lisa Nakamura. And that’s when one of the city’s notorious foodie-fiends dropped a gossip-bomb: He told me executive chef Keith Luce was leaving the high-profile restaurant. Which, if it turned out to be true, makes Luce’s tenure far shorter than that of Jerry Traunfeld’s — who famously left the Herbfarm after 17 years to open Poppy.

When Luce arrived in Woodinville he carried four-star credentials. As a young up-and-comer he was one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs” 1997 and later named a James Beard “Rising Star Chef.” He won praise for his San Francisco restaurant, Merenda, sold it, worked in California’s wine country and by the time he took the helm at the Herbfarm in October 2007, his resume resounded with impressive addresses here and abroad — including 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Luce certainly had the proper pedigree for the Herbfarm, a fantasy land of fine foodstuffs — offering 9-course themed dinners paired with first-rate wines from a cellar 25,000-bottles strong. The job warranted a culinarian with a creative eye, a love for the Northwest’s cornucopia of seasonal wonders and the ability to run a large staff. Luce fit the profile. What’s more, he grew up on a farm on Long Island, New York — a place that may well be beckoning him home.

Keith Luce at the Herbfarm, photo: John Granen

When I called the chef for confirmation on that front, however, our conversation was less than fruitful. Luce did invoke the word “changes,” told me how important family was to him, and said, “The Herbfarm is a place I’ve always considered an incredible model, in line with my ideals.” Ideals that — given what I’ve since read on his public Twitter feed — may soon find root elsewhere:

“I am looking east, hoping and hustling,” he wrote on the social-networking site in March. A month later, “Trying to raise $150 big ones. Anyone for a business plan!?” And this, from last week: “Taking the high road can be exhausting. Oh, and frustrating!” So can trying to get a straight answer, buster!

Which is exactly what I was hoping to get when I contacted Herbfarm owner Ron Zimmerman and asked him to spill the heirloom beans. “Have you talked to Keith?” he inquired. Indeed I had, I said, though the chef apparently felt the story of his reported departure wasn’t his to tell. So. . .?

“Lisa’s here as a sous-chef. We didn’t hire her to take his place,” Zimmerman said when I asked, adding that Nakamura, late of Bin Vivant, took a job vacated by Jonathan Julia — now working for former Herbfarm cook Jeremy Faber at Foraged & Found Edibles. And Luce? “There’s no termination date of his tenure here at the Herbfarm,” he said.

But then he told me this, which jibed with the deets gleaned from Luce’s tweets: There’s a farm on Long Island that’s been in the chef’s family 300 years. His father is of retirement age, the property’s in an agricultural trust, and Luce’s dad wants to make sure the farm stays in the family. Luce agrees. He’s been back east to suss out the situation and is planning another visit, soon. “Keith’s taking a trip to New York in June,” Zimmerman said. “He’s looking to open a burger joint in a strip mall.” (A burger joint? Bet those’ll be some burgers.) In the meantime, “He’s the chef till we get a new chef. That may be forever, or in a few months from now.”

Regarding a successor, “It’s a matter of finding the right match,” said Zimmerman who was the Herbfarm’s chef when the original restaurant opened on his parents’ Fall City farm in 1986. “We’re not looking for some 20-something with a huge ego who thinks they’re on `Iron Chef.'” If and when Luce does leave, Zimmerman and his wife and partner Carrie Van Dyck hope to find “someone with talent, creativity and groundedness.” Any takers?

So what’s with the hush-hush? “We’re in a recession,” notes Zimmerman, who’s been feeling the pinch given that restaurants like his are considered a luxury. Pocketbooks are closing left and right: “We had a Microsoft party scheduled next Thursday but they canceled in the face of recent layoffs. A lunch like that just became politically untenable.” Throw a “High-profile chef flying coop!” headline into the mix and that’s adding insult to bottom-line injury. Understood.

Last Sunday, the country cottage across from Willows Lodge played host to more Europeans — who know the Herbfarm from its international reputation — than locals. That’s a shame, said Zimmerman, rightfully concerned (as so many restaurateurs are today) that when the recession ends, it will have taken with it too many of our beloved dining places.

One can only hope that end would never befall the iconic Herbfarm, where they grow their own herbs, maintain farm acreage for the table, churn their own butter, make their own cheese, bake bread in their wood-fired oven and raise pigs for pets (and cure others for the table):

Carrie Van Dyck with her “boys” Basil and Borage

Long before the words “local,”seasonal” and “sustainable” graced menus everywhere, the Herbfarm sought to bring the best of the region’s bounty to the table, and continues to do so today. “We’ve really upped the ante on the farm stuff,” said Zimmerman. “I think it’s the best product that we’ve ever put out.” So, where are you taking mom for Mother’s Day? How’s this for an idea:

“M” is for the many things she gaaaaaaaaave me”: photo courtesy the Herbfarm

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