Ones to watch: Chase Lovecky

Ones to watch: Chase Lovecky

by Pete Dreyer 01 November 2018

Having worked alongside American luminaries David Chang and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Chase Lovecky is bringing a unique taste of America to London with his new restaurant Two Lights.

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Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

It’s fair to say Chase Lovecky’s entire life has mostly revolved around food. He grew up in Maine, New England – a fish-and-seafood-obsessed part of the USA – and was a young and able sous chef to his mother and grandparents long before he started working in professional kitchens.

Chase got his start courtesy of his brother – also a chef – who got him a job scrubbing dishes in an oyster shack. It’s the most humble of humble beginnings for a chef, but great things often come from such places. Chase’s career has since spanned some of the best restaurants in the world, most recently of which was The Clove Club in London, where he was head chef before leaving to start his own venture – Two Lights in Hoxton.

After a stint at culinary school in his late teens, Chase’s career started in earnest at Hugo’s in Portland – ‘Portland, Maine, not Portland, Oregon!’ he laughs, spotting the confusion in my face. ‘Yeah, sorry, people get confused by that one a lot.’ Hugo’s was, at the time, one of the best restaurants in the country, and not a restaurant that a budding young chef simply walked into. ‘I asked the chef if I could have a job, and he was like, ‘Sorry, no paying jobs.’ So I worked for free, two days a week for a year.’

Two Lights is a reference to Chase's upbringing near the Two Lights State Park in Maine, USA
The restaurant sits on Kingsland Road in Dalston – right in the heart of foodie east London

The hard work paid off. Chase spent another three years at Hugo’s, and it provided the foundation for the rest of his career. ‘Rob Evans [the head chef at Hugo’s] made me a good cook,’ he says. ‘This guy worked at the French Laundry, so you’re calling the same suppliers that work with chefs like Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. The kitchen was myself, Rob, a sous chef and a pastry chef – it was a huge, huge break for my career working in that kitchen.’

Not only that, but three years at Hugo’s opened doors for Chase afterwards too. He left Maine for the bright lights and towering skyscrapers of New York, and walked straight into a job at Jean-Georges – Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s legendary three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. ‘I was there for a year,’ says Chase, ‘but before I even started at Jean-Georges, the goal was always to work at Momofuku Ko (David Chang’s tiny, ultra-popular restaurant in the East Village). They were very particular – if you didn’t have experience working in New York, they didn’t want you.’ Chase had already been rebuffed by Momofuku Ko when he first arrived in New York – ‘I went in with a handwritten letter for David Chang,’ he laughs – but with a year’s worth of experience at Jean-Georges on his résumé, he got a job at the second time of asking.

With just twelve seats, two Michelin stars and reservations only taken thirty days in advance, Momofuku Ko remains one of the hardest tables to book in New York. In 2010 when Chase was there, David Chang’s hype-meter was off the charts – he was arguably the hottest property in American food in the early 2010s – and reservations at Ko were so impossible to get they were practically a thing of myth. ‘It was a tiny restaurant – there were two cooks, a sous chef and two servers, so there wasn’t much room,’ Chase explains. ‘David was still very involved in things though – he’d often pop in and shake people’s hands. That’s something I really like about him – he has that touch, he’s still very personally connected to everyone.’

The interior is bright and airy, with solid wooden tables. 'I'm ready for a bit of a ruckus,' says Chase
The window counter makes for a fantastic view of daily Kingsland Road life

After almost a year at Ko, Chase headed to Australia to help open Momofuku Seiōbo – David’s first ever Momofuku outpost outside of the USA – where he worked as sous chef under Ben Greeno. Ben was the third member of The Young Turks – a trio of London-based chefs who were turning the London restaurant scene upside-down with inventive supper clubs and residencies. Ben left the Turks to work at Seiōbo, whilst the other two members – Isaac McHale and James Lowe – carried on with their own projects.

Chase spent the next four years at Seiōbo, working alongside Ben and another chef, Clayton Wells, during which time the restaurant became another gleaming jewel in David Chang’s crown. In October 2014, Isaac McHale came to Seiōbo to host a one-off dinner, and Ben introduced the pair to each other, leaving them to handle the dinner together. Little did Chase know at the time, that dinner would be a trial of sorts for his next job. ‘I was really fighting to move to Europe,’ he continues. ‘I did a stage at Septime in Paris, and then Ben said that Isaac was looking for a sous chef at his new restaurant. I didn’t even have to apply – I just took the job and we moved to London.’

That restaurant was The Clove Club – at the time just two years old and in its relative infancy. When Chase arrived at the restaurant in 2015, Clove Club had just placed at fifty-two in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and received its first Michelin star. A year later, head chef Tim Spedding left to join Tom Adams at Coombeshead Farm in Cornwall, and Chase took the reins in the kitchen, on the same weekend that the restaurant was voted into The World's 50 Best at number twenty-six. ‘Tim’s last weekend was literally the same weekend as the 50 Best awards,’ says Chase. ‘So it was like, ‘sweet – I’m the head chef of the twenty-sixth best restaurant in the world. Awesome.’’

Over the next three years, the Clove Club went from strength to strength with Chase at the helm, retaining its Michelin star (it remains an annual mystery as to why it has not received a second) and its place in the 50 Best list, where it currently ranks at number thirty-three. At the beginning of this year, Chase decided it was time to put his own plans into action. ‘I’ve worked in fine dining a lot, but I’ve always wanted to have a more casual restaurant,’ he explains. ‘I wanted to go to Momofuku to see how that mix of high-end and casual dining came together, especially at Ko. I think that’s where food is going, and that's what people want to do. They want to eat the same food, but they don't want to dress up – they want to let loose.’

Chase approached Isaac with his idea for a new modern American restaurant in the heart of London, and received a challenge from the chef. ‘He told me to put my money where my mouth is and cook a menu,’ says Chase. ‘I went out and picked a few wines in the shops, put together a playlist, and called on a couple of friends to help cook a menu.’

‘I take it it went well?’ I ask.

‘Yeah, we sold them,’ he grins. ‘We started looking for sites the next day.’

Crab on beef fat chips
Roast artichoke and sunflower seed miso

Two Lights is the culmination of Chase’s whole career, from Hugo’s to Momofuku to The Clove Club – it is intelligent, purposeful food in a casual setting. The name itself harks back to Chase’s upbringing in New England – specifically to the Two Lights State Park on Maine’s Cape Elizabeth, where two lighthouses used to beam out warning signals to passing ships (only one remains these days, the other has been decommissioned). The food takes lots of cues from his homeland also, although not in the way you might think – this is a long way from your average American diner. ‘I would say it’s familiar ingredients with interesting touches,’ says Chase, as he delves into the concept of modern American food. ‘In the US, you have chefs from all over the world – whether it’s Wolfgang Puck, Jean-Georges and Daniel Boulud, or Roy Choi and David Chang – who have poured their culture into our food and created these amazing restaurants. People who cook at these restaurants come from all sorts of different backgrounds too. Say you have a chef who comes from an Italian family and they’re cooking at Kogi with Roy Choi – they start thinking of all these cool Korean-Italian dishes. Maybe they open a restaurant selling kimchi pasta. That’s how food evolves.’

The restaurant takes up a site on Dalston's Kingsland Road – formerly the site of pizza joint Amici Miei. ‘We just heard through the grapevine that this place was closing down, so we got an offer in quick. It took us six months to get in, but that gave me six months to work out how to use this thing,’ Chase says as he gestures to the good-as-new pizza oven in the kitchen. ‘We only have a four-hob burner so it really makes us think about how to use the oven more. If I want to do pan-fried skate, I do oven-roasted skate, you know?’

Working with a proper wood-fired oven has massively shaped the menu at Two Lights – Chase and his team use it to toast nuts and seeds, bake breads, roast meat and fish, and a whole lot more. A dish of roasted artichoke with sunflower seed miso – caressed by the flames of the pizza oven until charred and smoking – is utterly beautiful, perhaps one of the best sharing dishes in the whole of London. ‘It’s a total play on artichokes with aioli,’ he explains. ‘We take a ripping hot pan and get the artichoke all blistered and black in the oven, then baste it with butter and lemon so it all seeps in. We make our own miso with sunflower seeds and blend that with water and lemon – it tastes like a vegan ranch dressing! It’s a bit playful, a bit different, but still absolutely delicious.

‘A lot of it is pride,’ he adds. ‘I think people in London care about going to a restaurant and knowing there’s skill in the kitchen – instead of just serving with miso mayonnaise, we can say that we make our own sunflower seed miso emulsion.’

Hereford beef tartare and togarashi
Roasted ray wing with dill pickle butter
Brown butter ice cream, hazelnut and pear
Custard tart and smoked caramel

There’s plenty more that ticks all the same boxes – playful, interesting, delicious. Potato rolls with luxurious bottarga butter are so light and fluffy they threaten to float out of the door and down to Liverpool Street. The grouse sausage with coco beans and figs has a reminiscence of The Clove Club about it, where Isaac loves to celebrate quintessentially British ingredients, particularly game in the autumn and winter. Desserts are also spectacular, and absolutely not to be missed. Brown butter ice cream with hazelnut and pear is an odyssey of sweet, salty, earthy flavours – it arrives with a biscuity, hazelnut base, which softens into a cake as the ice cream melts and soaks into it. And then there’s the custard tart – a five-inch thick, deep-dish number that really hammers home the familiar flavours and interesting touches comment that Chase made earlier. ‘We toast the buckwheat until it’s almost burnt, then use that to make a pâté sucrée (sweet pastry),’ says Chase. ‘The smoked butter caramel is a totally American thing, and the chopped salted seaweed goes on top. When you eat it, you get the creamy custard, then caramel that’s smoky, then this umami seaweed. It’s a big combo!’

Looking back at that fateful moment when Chase landed his dream job at Momofuku Ko and it’s interesting to see how things have panned out. At The Clove Club and Lyle’s respectively, Isaac McHale and James Lowe have grown from rebellious upstarts to industry leaders – both ranked in the World’s 50 Best list, with Michelin stars to boot. Chase’s other colleague at Momofuku Seiōbo, Clayton Wells, was also recognised by World’s 50 Best this year for his elegant, clean cooking at Automata in Sydney. The awards don’t matter much to Chase and his team – ‘they’re not something to strive for, but they’re nice to have!’ he admits – but all the signs suggest that Two Lights could follow in those footsteps, and become something very special indeed.

All photography by Anton Rodriguez.