Luce & Hawkins owner boils seawater to create his own salt

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Luce & Hawkins owner and executive chef Keith Luce demonstrates how he makes sea salt in the restaurant's kitchen.

What does it take to get a pound of salt?

The easy way is to stroll down any supermarket’s baking goods aisle. But then there’s the less-than-easy way of boiling down about 50 gallons of seawater.

That fact alone is a big deterrent to anyone who might have great dreams of a salt-producing enterprise on the North Fork.

But chef Keith Luce, who owns the Luce & Hawkins restaurant in Jamesport, sees things a little differently.

Mr. Luce, who grew up on a Jamesport farm before a whirlwind culinary career took him around the world and into the kitchen at the Clinton White House, is a master at using local ingredients. He grows many of the vegetables he serves in an on-site garden, and he’s always on the lookout for new ways to keep his food sources as local as possible.

While employed as executive chef at The Herbfarm in Washington State in 2008, he often held 100-mile dinners, meaning that all the food served came from within 100 miles of the restaurant.

Everything at those dinners, from sweeteners to leavening to main ingredients, was local. He decided that salt should be no exception and set out to boil down Pacific Ocean seawater to season his dishes.

While researching the many ways to make salt, Mr. Luce realized that any kind of large-scale operation must be in a dedicated space, preferably outdoors on special racks, where it wouldn’t corrode expensive kitchen hood systems.

“Salt is difficult on metals,” he said. “You have to be careful about where you make it.”

At Luce & Hawkins, he makes very small quantities of what’s known as “finishing salts” added for flavor after the cooking is done.
“We make a few pounds at a time and we treat it like gold,” Mr. Luce said.

The salts are made by boiling down 50-gallon vats of local seawater, sometimes for days at a time, until the salt begins to crystallize.

Once the salt crystallizes, the top layer is scraped off. This is the prized sea salt known by the French as “fleur de sel,” which has a finer crystal structure than salts that settle out lower in the pan, which are also used for seasoning.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Jars of the salt made by Keith Luce.

To make his salt, Mr. Luce uses water from the Atlantic Ocean, Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound, each with its own unique flavor.

“The difference in flavor comes from the mineral content,” he said. “I grew up on the Sound and I could see the mineral content in the sand. Salt from the Sound is more gray. In Peconic Bay there is some mineral, but it’s not as gray as Long Island Sound.”

Salt made from Atlantic water is almost pure white.

“Salt is a major part of the history of the world,” he said. “It was used as currency, and there’s the mineral aspect. Our body needs it. It’s a very basic concept.”

Mr. Luce collects the water from places with a clean tidal flow and no nearby runoff. He then pours it into pots that keep simmering on the restaurant’s kitchen burners.

“It’s really labor intensive,” he said. “In the future I’d like to do this on a larger scale, but then I’d need a dedicated space.”

Mr. Luce sells some packaged flavored local sea salts in the restaurant and at the Love Lane Market in Mattituck. The flavors include lemon ginger, duck wing and sun-dried tomato and balsamic vinegar, as well as plain salts.

“Most people would say, ‘Why are you doing something as stupid as making sea salt?’ ” he said. “But if you’re going to do food from this place, why not season it with salt from this place?”

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