An Air Force veteran-turned-chef’s journey from MREs to North Carolina restaurant
WILMINGTON, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — When he was in the Air Force, Luke Kirwan's service buddies called him "chef" for his way with MREs, or the notoriously unappealing meal-ready-to-eat pouches.
"Mostly, I was just a little better at being creative with them," he said.
Kirwan also had some extra help in care packages from his father, who was able to include a few especially delicious items through his work in the food industry.
Since then, Kirwan has turned that nickname into a title. His latest position is at Grand Cru Food & Wine in Lumina Station near Wrightsville Beach.
It's been a busy couple of months for the restaurant owners and managers. Steve West and Russell Snyder have recently opened a sister restaurant, 3315 Cut & Pour, on Masonboro Loop Road. And Kirwan said he's spent the last two months working to put his mark on the kitchen and menu at Grand Cru.
He has lofty goals — including bringing Wilmington its first Michelin star. (Currently, the closest eateries to earn the fine dining honor are in the Washington, D.C. area.)
But it took a while for him to come to the realization that this is what he wanted to do with his life. He remembers being impressed by his father's career growing up, but didn't think he'd follow.
"He was more on the business side of things, but he did well for himself," Kirwan said. "But you never imagine yourself doing the same thing."
After serving in the military, he used the GI Bill to attend culinary school at The Arts Institutes. While there, he competed on the student edition of the Chopped Food Network series, and came in second place. In 2016, he was also part of the James Beard Award-nominated Oveja Negra, a restaurant in San Jose's Hotel Valencia.
"We were doing a lot of high-end, precise cuisine," he said. "We'd do innovative things, use a lot of liquid nitrogen, create deconstructed dishes."
How he ended up in Wilmington, however, is another story.
"I was working at the MGM Grand and finishing something like an 28-hour shift," he said. He found himself at IHOP, but knew he wanted to be somewhere else.
"I put my hand in the middle of a map and spun," he said. "I landed on Wilmington. Three days later, I was here."
And a few days after that, he met the woman who would become his wife. That was three years ago.
"Wilmington is definitely where I was meant to be," Kirwan said.
Since then, he's worked at restaurants like Cape Fear Seafood Company. At Grand Cru, he's focused on using as many local ingredients as possible, preferably those sourced within a 100-mile radius.
And making this new kitchen his home.
"It's true that this isn't a big kitchen," he said. "But the challenge is always to create food that comes from your soul."
Snyder said that Kirwan has been bringing in fun new ingredients and a fresh seasonal sensibility to the restaurant.
"Grand Cru is such a local place. We have to keep things interesting for our regulars," Snyder said. "Chef Luke is definitely the person for that. He's a thinker. He's always working on new dishes."
Among those dishes is adding a Street Corn Skillet to the small plates menu, and the Spanish Iberico Pork Tenderloin to the entrees.
"One of the few things I am excited about that's not local is this Iberico pork, which is practically prehistoric," he said. "I feel like it combines the qualities of two kinds of steak, and adds in some fusion elements, too."
But Kirwan said there's also more he's excited about on this summer menu, from cooling salads to a BLT Flatbread and the Squid Ink Linguine.
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