Balancing Act

Balance, critical to Filipino cooking where sweet coconut milk often tempers acidic vinegar, is something Jeff Uguil has to face both in and out of the kitchen. And he’s learning to focus on that everyday—his life depends on it. His is a story of hard work rewarded, made sweeter by Uguil’s roots as a first generation American born to Filipino parents.

Uguil worked his way from prepper to sous chef to chef de cuisine. He even paid his dues making strawberry shortcakes for Starr Boggs, which “Adam [Lovett], my business partner likes to tell everyone since that was my first job cooking and he got me my start because he was the general manager there at the time.” Like many chefs, venturing out on his own followed the natural progression of his career. Today, he captains the kitchen at A Lure, where the menu is seafood heavy, reflecting both its location within the Port of Egypt Marina and Uguil’s interest in the cuisine. And the chef is balancing both the front and back of the house as well as being an employee and a partner in the operation.

It wasn’t a straight line east for the Long Island native, though. After the East Flatbush kid finished the CUNY hospitality management program, he held a variety of positions in the kitchen, from the pastry chef at Piccola Venezia Ristorante in Astoria to the sous chef position at the Buccaneer Hotel in the US Virgin Islands. Along the way there were stops at Fire Island, Manhattan and Westhampton. The latter is where he met Adam who, along with Long Island chef and restaurateur Tom Schaudel, later became partners with Uguil at A Lure.

While none of the dishes at his restaurant alludes to his Filipino background, he tries to incorporate some of it behind-the-scenes: “Part of our everyday routine is doing a family meal for the staff,” Uguil said. “I’ll do a stew or a chicken or pork adobo with onions and coconut milk with some vinegar—it’s something the staff doesn’t get to eat too often.” For customers left out of the staff meal, there is a grilled swordfish with a spicy Thai green curry topped with a pineapple mango salsa and black rice.

But the pressure of managing the books, hiring and training staff and all the responsibilities that take a chef’s attention away from the stove had their way with Uguil: He suffered a heart attack last summer at the age of 36. “Both my parents have heart conditions so I knew it was coming but I didn’t expect it so young,” Uguil said. “I should probably take it easy now…but I really want to be in the kitchen.”

Because the menu changes about every two months during the season new additions are constantly being worked on. If you’re dining on a special, chances are that’s the chef’s way of testing a new concept on you. “We did the crab and avocado salad with passion fruit soup and it was received so well it became a menu staple.” Coming into his third season manning the kitchen, Uguil, health concerns and all, isn’t leaving anytime soon. “I want to be in the kitchen, it just feels right.”

Mussels in Red Thai curry broth:
2 large onions diced
1tbsp minced garlic
1tbsp minced fresh ginger
1tbsp minced lemongrass
2oz. Sesame oil
1 small can Red Thai curry paste
1 can Coco Lopez
2cans Coconut milk
1cup Soy sauce
3cups Vegetable or chicken stock
5lbs. Fresh pei mussels

In a large pot, sweat onions with the sesame oil
Add minced garlic, ginger, lemongrass along with the curry paste and continue to sweat another 5 mins.
Add all the liquid ingredients and bring to a boil.
Let simmer at least 30mins.
Add mussels,cover with lid and cook just slightly after mussels have opened.
Garnish with freshly chopped basil, cilantro and parsley.