Culinary Up-and-Comer Zach Blair Is Making A Name For Himself In Lancaster's Food Scene
Ask just about anyone in Lancaster where to find mouth-watering Italian cuisine and they’re likely to tell you one place: Luca.
Once a wholesale warehouse for Lancaster County’s Amish and Mennonite general stores, the increasingly popular eatery provides an atmosphere nearly impossible to replicate. With a wood-burning hearth and Neapolitan oven, the not-so-hidden gem has become a go-to restaurant for local residents. Mingling the culinary traditions of Italy with the heritage of Lancaster County, Luca offers a dining experience rich with well sourced ingredients and handmade pastas. Holding food, drink and family high on its list of business values, the casual restaurant creates an environment you can’t help but want to revisit.
However, Lancaster locals aren’t the only ones heading out to enjoy the one-of-a-kind eatery. In addition to industry heavyweights like chef, author and Food Network host Alton Brown, Luca has also received national press attention, and been profiled in The New York Times. During her visit, writer Kathryn O’Shea raved about her experience at Luca, describing her halved artichoke and smoked paprika aioli as so good she would “like to lick the plate.” But aside from the rustic atmosphere, savory menu and curated beverage offering, one thing helps to set the restaurant apart from its competitors, and that is its culinary team.
Having entered the food industry at just sixteen years old, Luca junior sous chef Zach Blair knew right away he was on the right path. From getting his start as a dishwasher at Fork and Spoon Cafe to cooking on the line with Jenn Thompson, Zach was eager to turn his interests into a career. Under the trusted mentorship of both Jenn and her wife, Beth, Blair worked to receive his associates degree in culinary arts from the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in west Philadelphia. After a year with High Street on Market, he decided it was time to move back to Lancaster. Upon arriving, Jenn helped to facilitate an interview for Zach with chef and celebrated restaurant owner Taylor Mason. From there he kicked off his career at Luca.
Today, the 21-year-old credits his personal cooking style to the skills he acquired at Luca. “My favorite thing about food is the romance around it,” Blair explained. “At its most basic function food gives life and nourishment to the body, and yet it also has the power to bring comfort, show love and create community.” When asked what his current favorites on the menu were, he recommended the Porchetta di Testa, Asian Pear and Autumn Greens and the Brussel Sprout Crostino. And while bright seasonal vegetables and fresh rustic tastes may have diners celebrating his work, Zach is just happy to see people enjoying their meals. “I think the greatest compliment any cook could receive is that their food was enjoyed and appreciated,” he said. “So much goes into the experience of a meal. From the farmer growing the food and the animal that may have given its life, to those who distribute and prepare the menu, it really is a communal experience. So, to me an empty plate and a satisfied diner means more than any award.”
However, that’s not to say Zach hasn’t enjoyed some pretty incredible recognition thus far. In fact, in August, Blair had the opportunity to travel to Manhattan with members of the Luca staff to cook an Italian, family-style dinner of 14 dishes for members and guests at the James Beard Foundation.
The non-for-profit, whose mission is to honor leaders in American cooking, is considered a pillar in the national cuisine community. Continuing in the footsteps of the late James Beard, the foundation is dedicated to helping educate and mentor generations of professional chefs and food enthusiasts through a number of diverse programs that include food industry awards, scholarships, publications, chef advocacy training and thought-leader conventions. The Foundation also maintains the historic James Beard House in New York City’s Greenwich Village as a “performance space” for visiting chefs like Mason and his crew from Luca.
With the help of local Lancaster vendors, purveyors and farmers, team Luca served nearly 80 diners an array of savory meals including wood roasted whole lamb. “To cook for a restaurant that was recognized by the James Beard Foundation was an honor, and to be asked by Taylor to join in the experience was my most significant memory in the kitchen by far.”
So what’s next for one of Lancaster’s youngest culinary stars? For now, continuing to learn from the best. “Taylor is a great chef and an even better man. He has given me so many opportunities, and I plan on paying him back for that. I’m dedicated to Luca and continuing to watch it grow. Down the line I hope to own a successful restaurant of my own with two of my close friends.” He continued: “Preparing a meal for someone with care and thought is one of the most loving things you can do for a person, it’s the simplest way to make an impact on them.”
By: Sam Maracic