Ben De Vries is the chef-owner of Luella, where he dishes up modern California food. De Vries opened Luella with his wife Rachel Lewis de Vries seven years ago, and the restaurant is celebrating this milestone anniversary with weekly promotions: Tuesday is half price bottles of wine (all bottles, all night) and on Wednesday, Chef De Vries brought back his “seven-year itch” recipes of chicken & ribs with flaky buttermilk biscuits. De Vries and his kitchen crew make their own hot sauce, mayonnaise, mustard, pickles and potato chips, and Luella is launching a takeaway prepared three-course meal that can be picked up curbside—a service that is a potential draw for anyone who has sweated over finding a parking spot anytime in Russian Hill.
De Vries worked locally at Thirsty Bear Brewing Company, LuLu, Scala’s, Vertigo, mc2 and Andalu before opening Luella with his wife Rachel. In 2009, Michael Bauer awarded Luella two and a half stars, and 7x7 and Gayot have served up praise throughout the years. Chef De Vries is age 41, which he claims makes him "age 201 in kitchen years." He lives with his family in the Mission Dolores neighborhood.
Bay Area Bites interviewed Chef De Vries in person and via email. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What’s new at the restaurant?
I’ve been very into Americana and southern cooking: everything from a bone marrow hamburger to fried chicken and ribs. I’ve also been working with packaging a lot and am developing sustainable fresh prepared meals.
Luella in a bag will be a three-course meal with some extra goodies. We take care of the difficult part, and the food is prepped and ready for the customer. The first meal will be short rib lasagna with salad. The feel of the meal is the quality you get in the restaurant and each dish is made to order. You’ll get the technique of restaurant food to your house.
There are a lot of times you don’t feel like going out. I noticed that when my wife was stopping by the restaurant to pick up food for dinner up to three times a week. I thought, “Okay, that’s a good sign.”
You make and bottle a hot sauce called La Venganza but are from the Midwest. How did that come about?
Spicy heat was definitely not a part of my meals growing up. As a gabacho in the kitchen, many of the cooks would make fun of me when I’d go to try the salsa they made for staff meal. It made me want to learn to make and eat salsa, and habañero became my go-to pepper. I knew I was onto something when the Yucatán guys in the kitchen couldn’t even finish or eat my hot sauce. I got to declare: “I win!” with a fist pump and my hands up.
I don’t wear a gloves or mask when we make the sauce, but they do. I guess I’m used to the heat by now. We have to finish making the habañero hot sauce before 2 p.m. Otherwise, the chili and heat stay in the air for too long. If we go past 2 p.m., I have to call my partner Leah Lidsky and tell her because she won’t come in until 4:30, to let the air clear out.
How is producing Luella in a bag similar to cooking at the restaurant?
Our label says “never touched by a machine,” and our prepared foods are still made by hand. I’m a big believer in the idea that the cook does more than just chop and cook. There’s that kitchen joke we use while cooking, and that’s, “It’s all about the love, baby.” Everything we start with is super fresh. We make it easy for people who have less time to grab something real fast on their way home. The menu will change every week and it’s all made to order. We’re not just setting up 30 orders of mac and cheese in the fridge.
As a child in the seventies, I ate a lot of Hungry Man meals, Kraft mac n’ cheese, Chef Boyardee and fast food. One of the main reasons I started cooking was because the only way we could eat a fresh meal was to cook it. My mom was working full time and going to school, and the last thing she had time for was cooking. For a long time, I looked down at the ‘prepared foods’ world, and saw it as a short cut that reduced the quality of our food. Then I had a child and my wife eventually went back to work. Let’s just say it changed my perspective. But the quality of prepared and packaged food is for the most part terrible. Frozen food and food off an assembly line just don’t do it! I’m a big believer that the hands of a cook should infuse the food with love. How can that ever happen when human hands have never touched the food?
How did you and your wife Rachel meet?
My first day in San Francisco, I flew into town on New Years Day to visit a friend who was the chef at Café Marimba. Within an hour of getting off the plane I had a job offer to cook at LuLu, a place to stay and had met my future wife, who was the manager. We’ve been married for sixteen years and have a nine-year old daughter, Gemma.
Does Gemma like to cook?
She likes to do butchery, and helps me break down pigs, and filet salmon. Her personal favorite is making beurre blanc sauce. She spends a lot of time during the summer in the kitchen peeling potatoes, rolling pasta and everything in between!
What are your favorite spots for food & drink in the Bay Area?
PPQ for pho. I usually do the five-spice chicken. It’s a Monday night tradition with the family and makes the world seem a little better.
Pauline’s has the best pizza in town! I’ve been going there since the late 90s. They were doing pizza before it was trendy and it’s a block from my house. I like that they use the freshest ingredients and have the lightest dough.
Pizzeria Picco has decent pizza, great appetizers, and sitting outside in Marin feels very sane.
What is your guiltiest food pleasure?
Cheese steaks! It’s incredibly hard to find a good cheese steak out west. But the Cheese Steak Shop does one that’s just greasy enough to feel like you're back east. Double up on the meat and cheese, add hot peppers and I’m pretty close to heaven! I only go after I’ve worked out for two hours… less then that and I feel too guilty.