CHEFS: Ray Luetters
RESTAURANT: Washington St. Bistro
Photography by Christian Schuller
Ray Luetters applies the concept of restaurant-as-theater all the way down to the dinner plate. “When I construct a dish, there’s a leading lady, leading man, supporting cast and chorus,” says Luetters, who left a career in musical theater to become a chef and eventually the chef-owner of Washington St. Bistro in Morristown. “All the elements work together in this performance that is now your food.”
Like many actors, Luetters supplemented his income for years by working a second job—cooking in restaurant and catering kitchens as well as for private clients. There he discovered a natural ability to tie flavors together in ways that make a dish successful. “I don’t know how or why, but it just comes to me, and I make it work,” he says.
“I’m grateful for the gift.”
When designing a dish—like his signature wilted kale and Brussels sprouts salad—Luetters is aiming to please an audience far beyond the patrons of his café. Taking inspiration from the rich history of Morristown, he revisits Colonial times to consider what the Founding Fathers might have enjoyed at the table. “I kind of put myself in the mind-set of Washington, Franklin and Jefferson,” Luetters says. “These guys were the foodies of the day. They would find different things and incorporate them in the meal.” When creating dishes for his menu, he considers what ingredients they might have had available and how those ingredients might have been prepared and combined.
Luetters’ signature salad began with his desire to put a kale salad on the menu. Brussels sprouts, a vegetable that he notes would have been available in New Jersey in Colonial times, were added to create a contrast in texture and to up the nutritional value. “Of course, I go ahead and ruin it,” Luetters laughs. “Because it really needed something to tie it together and I thought bacon would be a good choice.”
“Bacon, pork and ham were heavily used through the Revolutionary period,” he says. “Locals in the Morristown area would get a little irritated that the troops would come and say, ‘Your pig is now property of the Colonial army.’ But it was part of the need.”
Looking for a vinaigrette to tie the dish together, Luetters decided on hazelnut, in part because he had read that Washington liked the flavor of hazelnuts. Finding the dish still lacking, he added maple syrup, which turned out to be the perfect supporting character. “That ended up rounding out the dish. You have some bitterness from the kale, Brussels sprouts add a degree of crunch, bacon adds fat, and the vinaigrette just helps to tie it all together.”
Washington St. Bistro
23 Washington St., Morristown