Preparing traditional French cuisine can be intimidating for a cook.
There are years of practice and a honed technique to measure up to, a folkloric aspect involving secret family recipes and stories passed down through generations, narrow debates over specific ingredients and measurements to navigate, and then there's the individual's palate memory of their grandmother's cooking that was always seasoned just so.
The Latz family, who took over 800 Bay in Somers Point in 1918 before owning Knife & Fork Inn in Atlantic City from 1927 to 2005, is a group of people with "discerning palates" and vociferous opinions, says Andrew Latz, who now owns Latz's by the Bay in Somers Point.
"When my mother married into this family, she said she thought 'These people are crazy' because they would go out to eat and sit and analyze everything from the settings and tablecloths, to the service, the food," the third generation restaurateur says. "But she knew she was 'one of us' when she was doing the same thing."
Latz's 10-year-old son, for whom Latz's chowder is named, already is a budding food critic. The boy's palate is unsullied by adult vices such as smoking, which can dull the sense of taste, his father says. But at the same time, his tastes are sophisticated and discerning.
"Some people play music or sing or paint, my son has a very sophisticated palate. He inherited it through DNA," Latz says. "He's very concerned with the balance of seasonings and consistency. He says, 'Dad, if the chowder is going to have my name on it, it has to be right.' So it never goes out without his seal of approval."
When Latz hired Chef Lou Macera in May, the former owner and chef of Gianna's Cafe in Northfield got young Drew's seal of approval. Macera says the well-known restaurateur family's name impressed him, but Latz assured Macera he would have free reign in the kitchen.
"I knew there were certain family dishes they wanted to keep in some way, but we sort of tweaked them for this building," Macera says. "Like with the crab cakes, I took what they had, all lump crab meat, not fillers, and just added a little extra bay seasoning, a little less worcestershire sauce, to make it more Maryland style."
One of those recipes is a French bouillabaisse, or fish stew, Latz's world-traveling aunt brought back from Europe. As the story goes, Aunt Allah was something of a rolling stone, traveling to Japan and China as a Red Cross worker during World War II, working in New York and vacationing in Europe.
In 1953, while on a bicycling tour of France, "she realized about two miles outside Paris that she really, really hated biking," Latz says, laughing at the memory. "So she left the tour and met her husband (Peter Gerlach), who was a German journalist."
The couple was married at the Barcelona Equestrian Club and later established Latz's Ristorante in Palma Majorca, where they entertained the likes of Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Graves and Juan Miro.
"She was married, but it was still called Latz's," Latz recalled, "I guess because my grandmother bankrolled it."
Another thing about Allah Latz Gerlach, and her mother, Evalyn Latz, they often got what they wanted.
"There was this French restaurant where they had the bouillabaisse and they just loved it. They used to go all the time," Latz says of his aunt and grandmother. "My grandmother wanted the recipe and you never could say no to my aunt. So she got it and brought it back to my grandmother."
Even though the traditional recipe was brought from France, Macera made it his own by actually simplifying the recipe and serving it over rice pilaf. The toasted macadamia nuts in the rice pilaf are so popular, people often request more of the side dish while dining at Latz's by the Bay. But they actually were added almost by coincidence, due to an overstock of the nuts when the chef took over.
The thing with traditional French cooking, Macera says, is a lot of complicated steps are just old fashioned and can be simplified without sacrificing quality flavor. For example, this is no three-day stew; the worst thing you can do with the bouillabaisse is overcook the fish, he says. Really, once you have all your ingredients prepped and measured out, you can make it his way in about 20 minutes.
Having the business end of things taken care of so he can focus his talents on the kitchen is the main reason why Macera came to work for Latz in the first place, and even Latz's wife, Adrienne attests to the "great synergy" between the two. Latz says he no longer wakes at 3 a.m. worrying about the produce orders becasue he trusts Macera has it covered, and Macera is pleased and proud to associate his name with Latz's professionally.
"Everybody says they want to have the best restaurant and the best ingredients," Macera says. "But I don't think (Andrew Latz) will settle. He won't be happy until his restaurant really is the best, and as a chef, that's really exciting."
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