"Is it you?" Sheila Lukins asked, smiling hugely, as she trotted into Bal Harbour Beach House's Nantucket-style screened-in porch for an interview. "It's me," I acknowledged, standing up somewhat uncertainly to greet her. "Is it you?" In truth I didn't know what the cookbook author and chef at the Beach House's restaurant atlantic looked like, given that I had accidentally burned her picture off my copy of one of her most well-known works, The New Basics Cookbook, when I left it on the stove for too long. But her forthright friendliness dissolved any concerns I had about her identity. Although she's much shorter than I would have supposed this giant in the culinary field to be, Lukins otherwise appears just as her recipes and writing might indicate: eyes wide and direct behind funky tinted glasses; upswept hair constantly threatening to escape its confines; chunky ethnic jewelry decorating her neck and ears. Her hands move constantly as she talks, and her whole body bristles with intensity.
That energy has always served her well, it seems. Sheer pluck propelled the former art teacher into catering when her two daughters, Annabel and Molly, were babies; a friend in her New York apartment building was entertaining but had no time to cook. Did Lukins know someone who could help? She did -- herself -- and whipped up a Greek meal because tzatziki and moussaka "were fashionable then." Charging fifty bucks plus expenses, Lukins sent the food over in her own dishes. At the time she had no idea the reward would be greater than mere pocket change: Gail Greene, critic for the New York Times, happened to be a guest at the table that night. Lukins and her company, The Silver Palate, a catering service for single men, were launched.
Lukins never really formally trained as a chef. She graduated from New York University with an art degree, then wound up in Paris. Eventually she journeyed to London, where she "took the dilettante course rather than the diploma course" at Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute. Nevertheless a couple of decades later, Lukins is the author of five cookbooks, three of which she coauthored with her erstwhile Silver Palate partner Julee Rosso. She's been the food editor of Parade magazine since 1986. Lukins has traveled the world, teaching, lecturing, and contracting stomach ailments for which she had to barter cigarettes (she's since quit) for medicine.
In fact she's considered something of a medical miracle. A few years ago she suffered a brain hemorrhage that almost killed her, and rendered her left side completely paralyzed. Her marriage and her partnership dissolved as a result of the illness, but Lukins and her career survived intact, overcoming both physical and emotional paralysis with extensive therapy. Still she now faces the biggest challenge of her life: running a hotel restaurant in Miami. Girl, it's a tough town.
For one thing Miamians don't much like New Yorkers who infiltrate the scene. Take the example of Larry Forgione. Credited (along with Alice Waters) with starting the New American regional movement, New York restaurateur Forgione had a fabulous failure of a restaurant at the Jockey Club in North Miami. His name just didn't mean as much down here as, say, Allen Susser's, and snooty club members turned up their noses at his fancy fusion fare. She should look, too, at the example of chef Kerry Simon, who rode a press wave down from New York only to bounce around from eatery to eatery. He eventually became disillusioned and abandoned the area completely like Larry Forgione, who is successful once again in his beloved NYC.
Couple the innate distrust of New Yorkers with the visibility problem. Hotel restaurants, no matter how good, just don't attract foot traffic, especially in an area like the north beaches, where most people drive. The publicity machine has been churning, but even so, when it comes to hotel eateries that are hidden away from the road the way atlantic is, even the finest heavy cream doesn't necessarily turn into a luscious dessert.
But Lukins isn't one to shrink from hard work. After all, operating a catering business is no picnic. "I'm used to cooking in quantity," the chef says. There's this prevailing myth, however, that catering affairs and writing cookbooks are easy gigs if you can get them. "I have friends in the restaurant business who used to tell me: 'You don't know what work is.' Everybody moans about what they do. But they should try writing a 600-page book." And her "clean American" dishes, which she labels "East Coast, jazzy mom stuff" is a welcome change from tropically oriented fusion cuisine. "Fusion?" she cringes. "I don't do that."
For all her culinary achievements, atlantic, located in the Rubell family's newly renovated property, is Lukins's first restaurant. Why Miami? "Jennifer Rubell wrote me a letter -- a very complimentary letter. I'm embarrassed how complimentary it was. But she asked me if I wanted to run her new restaurant. I was considering writing my next book at the time with Brian Miller, so I called him and told him I'd changed my mind."
"It was a fan letter," Rubell confirms later. "I grew up cooking Sheila's recipes, and I don't know, I just thought she was incredible. But I never really expected her to call me. I mean, I've talked to celebrities before, but when I heard she was on the phone, I was just amazed."
Get Lukins and Rubell together, and the superlatives really begin to fly: Lukins is "terrific." Rubell is "great." The restaurant and hotel are "gorgeous," and the architect and interior designer, both of whom work for Calvin Klein, are "wonderfully talented." Sometimes, though, it's difficult to trust all that love and goodwill.
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Hyperbolics aside, Lukins and Rubell do seem to have a mutual respect, which is important for the ultimate success of atlantic. While Rubell handles the on-site management, Lukins remains in New York, where she attends to her other businesses, and will visit Miami periodically in the future. But as menu designer and consulting chef, it's Lukins's apron on the line. She can be as detailed and obsessive in her recipe testing as she wants (and she is, spending an entire afternoon perfecting croutons for the caesar salad), but ultimately, if her kitchen fails, she fails. "What is scary is not overseeing it every day." she admits. "It's my reputation."
Aside from the "very good vibes from the top," Lukins has another "fated" reason for sticking with the project in Miami, which is located at 9449 Collins Ave. "My grandparents lived on 96th and Collins," she reveals. "Who would've thought I'd wind up around the corner from Granny and Pappy? I could just weep."
Hold that thought: atlantic has yet to be reviewed. Depending on how Lukins's kitchen performs in either her presence or her absence, she may smile hugely or do a lot of weeping and pull a Larry Forgione double quick.