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Chef Greg Lutes wants to make you feel like family at 3rd Cousin

Cover Image for Chef Greg Lutes wants to make you feel like family at 3rd Cousin
By Sophie Brochu
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The chef/owner of San Francisco’s  3rd Cousin shares his wisdom on taking criticism, happy accidents, and being approachable.

Tock: First, I’m curious where the name 3rd Cousin comes from?

Lutes: The name 3rd Cousin came about in the spirit of welcoming guests into the restaurant, like a distant relative. I had a name prior to 3rd Cousin. I was doing a pop-up called Kin Folk, but Kin Folk had a trademark problem.

Photo by Molly DeCoudreaux.

Tock: And the logo?

Lutes: The logo is an image of a woman who I call the 3rd Cousin. She was created by a local artist here in Bernal Heights named Toby Klayman. In the spirit of community and getting some local people involved, I wanted to utilize her artwork. She’s lived in Bernal Heights for 40 years.

Tock: You grew up in Malden, Illinois?

Lutes: Yeah, I grew up in a very small town outside of Chicago in a rural part of Illinois called Malden. You have 350 people.

Tock: How did your upbringing fuel your desire for cooking?

Lutes: My parents would buy a half a cow from a farmer or a half a pig. We weren’t really eating local vegetables. I mean, we did have a garden, my mom would grow radishes and sweet corn, but I also grew up on canned vegetables. This was the seventies and eighties, with the advent of the microwave and TV dinners and all that stuff. But I grew up with a mom who cooked, so that’s how I got started, helping my mom. 

“Lots of restaurants can do the mechanics of service…We want people to feel like they’re family.”

Tock: What would you say is the biggest source of inspiration?

Lutes: For the menu, the inspiration is from the ingredients that I work with. The seasons, of course. I go to the farmers market every week, so that helps to drive inspiration. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, being exposed to a lot of Asian ingredients, or walking through an Asian grocery store looking at all the interesting ingredients. The first job that I ever had was at a Chinese restaurant in a town near Malden. And it was owned by Thai people. Thai restaurants really weren’t a thing here in the early eighties, but Chinese restaurants were kind of coming around. And so this Thai couple opened up a Chinese restaurant. I got exposed to Chinese ingredients, but I also got exposed to Thai food. So, at an early age I became very fascinated with Asian ingredients.

Tock: They were cooking Chinese because it was more familiar?

Lutes: Yeah, and then they would cook a Thai family meal utilizing a lot of fresh chilies, hot chilies. I got to see both of those things and it really just kind of opened my eyes up to a whole realm of possibilities. Because there wasn’t any Chinese food in the grocery stores where I grew up. I think chop suey in a can, comes to mind. Fried chop suey noodles, the crispy noodles. But not like baby corn and Hoisin sauce and things like that.

Photo by Molly DeCoudreaux.

Tock: How did you end up in San Francisco?

Lutes: I moved to California kind of by a lark in 2006. I was looking to make a move from the Chicago area, and I had lived in Seattle for a couple years. And so the West Coast was something that I enjoyed. I knew San Francisco had a lot of great farm-to-table stuff going on, so I landed here in 2010.

Tock: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Lutes: The best advice? Don’t take anything personally. In the restaurant business, we deal with a lot of ‘experts’ and you open yourself up to a lot of critiques as a restaurant owner.

Tock: How do you know what criticism to pay attention to?

Lutes: We definitely look at online reviews objectively and see if there’s maybe some truth to them. One of the things that’s driven the success of 3rd Cousin has been always looking to be better. But that said, we don’t need to take it personally. It’s like, okay, you found a flaw. We can acknowledge the flaw and try to fix it. But then sometimes, you’ll see a review that’s just a couple of words, like ‘it was underwhelming’ and, well, we can;t take anything out of that.

The signature uni crème brûlée.

Tock: Tell me about the uni crème brûlée. What was the inspiration behind it?

Lutes: That’s definitely a signature dish of mine. It’s the thing that people come in and take the most pictures of. I actually created that dish at a different restaurant, when I was working as a chef before I owned my own business. At the time, I was trying to come up with something special for a woman that I was dating. I wanted to make something special for her. Uni was something I had been experimenting with. And so I made an uni flan the night she was coming in with friends. Unfortunately, it didn’t come out right. It wasn’t able to stand up on a plate like a flan should, and I didn’t have any time to make anything new. I was under pressure at the moment, so I burnt some sugar on top of that flan and called it a crème brûlée.

Tock: Wow, what a great story.

Lutes: Yeah, it was a complete mistake, but I’ve perfected it over the years. We tweaked it and played with it and got it to where it is today. So yeah, it’s kind of life changing for some people. That’s what I do is, I take something familiar, like crème brûlée, and then I tweak it into something unknown and I play off of that riff with other things. The uni crème brûlée has also created the ‘animal–style’ lobster risotto, which is something of a secret menu item. So we have a lobster risotto on the menu, and then I take all the toppings that are on the uni crème brûlée— raw uni, caviar, trout roe, and yuzu tobiko—and I put all that onto a lobster risotto.

Order the lobster risotto “animal-style.”

Tock: When guests leave 3rd Cousin, what do you hope that they walk away with? 

Lutes: The goal is to make people feel special. To make them feel like they’ve had a special experience. That’s what I train my front of the house on. Lots of restaurants can do the mechanics of service. They can time your food out right. They can serve from the left, clear from the right, make sure your water’s full. What I think is really distinguishing is when people make you feel something. And with the name 3rd Cousin, we want people to feel like they’re family. Or at least to feel welcomed like a family member. I talk to a lot of people myself, to try and help elevate their experience.

Tock: That’s a really nice touch. 

Lutes: I mean, I eat out a lot when I’m not working. I don’t think I’ve ever had an owner come over and say hi to me. I don’t know how many restaurants do that. I just think that it shows a level of appreciation. think that’s been one of the keys to my success is that I’m approachable. 

“The goal is to make people feel special.”

Tock: What’s next for 3rd Cousin? Where do you see yourself in the future? What are you working on that you’re excited about?

Lutes: What’s next? Well, we’re just grateful that we made it through the pandemic, though it still feels like we’re in it. The government’s not locking us down, but we’re still having people cancel and employees getting COVID. Supply chain issues, inflation. I would encourage everyone to support local restaurants, buy their wine, show up on time, honor your reservation, and don’t bash restaurants with negative reviews. You know, we want you to be happy. As far as the future of 3rd Cousin, there might be an opportunity to expand the brand to a different location. I’m definitely not in any hurry, that’s down the road, but it’s something that I’m looking at. We just want to continue to do what we do and grow what we have.

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