Chef Spotlight: Into the Fire with LuLu Kitchen's Philippe Corbet
After seven years at LuLu Kitchen & Bar mastering the art of cooking proteins on an open flame, Chef Philippe Corbet isn’t looking back.
“The first year it was really hard. First of all, we burned two to three cords of wood per week, and the heat in the summer is intense, but I will never go back to normal cooking,” said Corbet, chef-partner at the popular upscale eatery on Sag Harbor’s Main Street. “Cooking this way is a pleasure … the heat is stronger, the flavor is different. You can play with temperatures in a way you can’t with a gas stove.”
The wood-burning, open-flame grill is the “soul” of the experience at LuLu. Popular wood-fired entrees, like the 40oz cowboy ribeye (dry-aged in-house, ask for it!), the perfectly charred Branzino and the flame-grilled burger (an 8oz house mix of short rib and chuck) are etched into the menu in stone.
“Using the fire is very complex, and every time I have a new chef and I put him on the grill, it takes a few months to get used to,” he said. “But for the past years [the open fire] has been something that chefs want to go back to. The heat just keeps the flavor inside.”
The grill, along with the mirrored walls and dark wood paneling, create a bubbly dining experience at LuLu, where you can watch from leather-clad booths the controlled chaos of the staff at work, dancing around the fire and marble-clad finishing table in the open kitchen, playing off the lively atmosphere and sleek decor.
“It’s sometimes not controlled,” he said of the impression. “It looks controlled because it’s a show. We cook everything out here so you can see the flames, the smells. Every dish is finished right out in the open. The customers know exactly what I’m doing, they see what’s happening. I am who I am and I don’t change because my kitchen is open.”
Corbet, 46, was born and raised in the French alps. Though he’s been cooking in French restaurants all his adult life, LuLu’s menu was largely inspired by a trip he took to Israel shortly after the eatery first opened, when it was, Corbet said, styled after more of a French brasserie.
“The second year we had a chance to travel to Tel Aviv and we did 20 restaurants in five nights — the food there is exceptional. The owner [of Alchemy Hospitality] does a lot of business there and he told us, ‘You guys should go see what’s going on over there, the food is amazing and it’s what we want to do.’”
Ever since that trip, Corbet said he’s leaned into a French-Israeli-Mediterranean culinary mood that’s largely ingredient-driven.
“In the Meditteranean, the produce is exceptional,” said Corbet. “It’s so simple, tasty, so driven by the product, and that’s what I try to do here.”
On his tour of Tel Aviv’s culinary scene, he said he was most impressed by the quality of the fresh hummus. “It was very simple and I never had hummus like this in my life. It was fluffy. It was light,” he says. “Very simple stuff I knew I could make and when I came back I already had a good idea of where I was pushing the menu.”
Corbet lives in Noyac now. He arrived in the Hamptons in 2001, working as a cook at the Stone Creek Inn. He then did a stint at a high-end French restaurant in the city before co-founding an eatery in West Islip. He eventually joined Alchemy as a consultant and he now oversees the food operations at LuLu, as well as Duryea’s MTK and Dureya’s Orient Point.
Of the three restaurants, only LuLu is open year-round. It’s the kind of truly ‘local’ restaurant we love to see, with an off-season full of suprises, like duck he dry-ages downstairs and serves “Peking” style with grilled flat bread, Muhamarra, Garlic-yogurt and green tahina.
“The past two or three years, winter has been really good, and this year it has been better than ever,” he said of table-counts at LuLu during the off-season. “We push a little more in the winter, so it’s a win-win for me … it’s very hard to make it. It’s not been easy. I’m lucky to have a great team also after all this that I can leave alone, but I like to be on the open grill – I drive my partner nuts. I tell him, ‘I’m a chef, what do you want me to do?'”
Working six to seven days a week during the high season is demanding, he says, so going out to eat when he does have the time is a rare occurrence. “In the winter, I like to be home. I cook, I paint … I’m a good chef and I can cook at home, so I’m like, ‘Let’s stay home and have a good bottle of wine’ … I keep it simple.”
LuLu Kitchen and Bar is located at 126 Main Street, Sag Harbor, lulusagharbor.com