Lucas Manteca's culinary travels have taken him from his native city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, to the beaches of Costa Rica and southern New Jersey.
Recently named the executive chef at The Ebbitt Room, located inside The Virginia Hotel in Cape May, Manteca made his mark on area cuisine with his former restaurant, Sea Salt in Stone Harbor. The 32-year-old Cape May Court House resident still owns Quahog's Seafood Shack in Stone Harbor with his wife, Deanna Ebner. The couple have an 11-month-old daughter, Catalina.
Manteca took some time out to speak with us recently.
Question: How did your move to The Ebbitt Room come about?
Answer: I received a call from Curtis Bashaw, the owner of Cape Resorts Group, during the winter and we talked about the possibility of doing something at The Ebbitt Room during the summer. We started talking and by March we settled on an arrangement.
Q: What goes into the planning and execution of, as a chef, making a menu your own?
A: I'm still pretty much doing what I did at Sea Salt. The menu is very spontaneous. It's hard of me to stick with the menu for a long time. I get tired of cooking it. When I go the farmers' market and I see a new product is available, I might add it as a special then eventually add it to the menu. Everything is market driven. There were a few dishes that I put on the menu at The Ebbitt Room that were so popular, that I took them off the menu so I could move other products and give the customers the experience of trying something new.
Q: What are some of the staples of a Manteca-driven menu?
A: There's a lot of grilling involved. We have a ribeye dish, grilled sausage ... we do french fries that go through a three-step process with water, oil and deep frying to order and use olive oil, garlic and parsley. That's very Argentinean. I have some sweet breads on the menu. We dress up dishes with a tomato-and-onion relish. We do homemade pastas every day. We use lots of vegetables. We have a wonderful salad where we use 20 to 25 ingredients - radishes, four to five different lettuces, apples, strawberries, sprouts, four different types of beets. We're at the shore, so we use a lot of fish and shellfish. Surf and turf. I try to play with traditional dishes that The Ebbitt Room used to have. I do it lighter and more contemporary.
Q: Dining in Europe is dependent upon fresh, local ingredients and market buys made that day. Was it the same way growing up in Buenos Aires?
A: Yes, absolutely, and here it's a bit of a struggle because there's a lot of research to be done every day because you're really trying to get a product you are used to working with. You might ask yourself, 'Where is this coming from, and how long has it been in a refrigerator?' 'When has it been butchered, or how long has it been out of the ground?' My food might not be for everybody. It might not be for the traditional palate, but one thing I can say is that my food is honest. I always try to get the top-notch ingredients, the best available. We work with organic farmers in the area, and the owner of the Ebbitt Room has purchased a 62-acre farm - Beach Plum Farm - in West Cape May. I would say 50 percent of our products are coming from there.
Q: Food has become really mainstream. There are all the shows on television, and even the most-obscure celebrities seem to come out with a cookbook. Do you find that people are more demanding when they come in to eat now?
A: They are. South Jersey is growing with its culinary awareness. The are more fine restaurants opening locally and The Press is writing more about food and educating people more.
Q: Is that a good thing for you as a chef, or does it present more of a challenge?
A: I think it's great. I think it's great that people start to understand what dining is, that it's not just, you know, sitting or a way of surviving. It's a joy. It's an experience. It's fun. I think that mindset is growing a lot in the area and it's very, very exciting. I think, little by little, there's going to be a lot to offer around here. I think a lot of chefs are migrating out of the cities, and coming to places like here. I saw it this summer with a lot of restaurants opening up in Stone Harbor. Competition makes you better and it just inspires you to keep on improving.
Q: How long have you been a chef?
A: I opened my first restaurant when I was 21 in Costa Rica. It was called Natural Mystic. It was right on the beach. We baked from scratch every morning, with no machines. It was lots of work, because we were doing everything with rolling pins. But it was a great experience. We were young, and it was amazing.
Q: What are some of the hardest parts about what you do for a living?
A: I take what I do very personally. Somebody asked me a while ago, 'What's the difference between working for yourself and working for somebody else?' For me, there's no difference if I'm working for myself or running the restaurant for someone else.
Q: How do you keep yourself challenged?
A: I don't fall into a routine. I'm trying to gain the trust of my customers. That's my first goal - I'm new in town. When I get that, no matter how often I change the menu they will trust me and chances are that they're going to enjoy the food. Cooking for my guests at the restaurant is like cooking for my family. My goal is to have the type of regulars who come three times a week and I have great dishes to offer them.
Q: How does cuisine in Argentina distinguish itself from that in other countries?
A: There's a lot grilling, a lot of salads and fresh vegetables involved ... every dish I make I try to make sure there's some kind of lettuce or greens. Even if it's just a garnish, but I try to do a little bit more than a micro-green on top. Also, not heavy on butter. We use a lot of olive oil instead. I try to use every sort of ethnic cuisine, but my cooking is not Spanish, it's not Italian - it's American, a mix of different cultures. It's applying a lot of different products and techniques together.
Q: As a chef and a parent, do you look forward to teaching your daughter how to cook?
A: I hope that she gets to appreciate food the way that I do. I'm already trying to feed her all different types of food and help her experience them. I hope she gets to know the health benefits of good food. It will be her decision, but if she gets involved in the industry, I'll get to spend a lot more time with her.
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The Ebbitt Room, celebrating its 20th anniversary, is known as one of Cape May's finest dining establishments. It's located at 25 Jackson St. inside the Virginia Hotel. Dinner is served daily from 5:30 to about 10:30 p.m. Last reservation is at 9 p.m. The raw bar ranges from $14 to $18; appetizers, $12 to $16; entrees, $29 to $48; dessert $8 to $15; four-course tasting dinner is $75. Looking for something different? Try Executive Chef Lucas Manteca's Grilled Spanish Rock Octopus and Crab Salad. The restaurant has a liquor license. Call 609-884-5700 or go online to