- Tommy Garcia & Bravo
Chef Brother Luck and I are set to meet at one of his favorite taco trucks in town, La Flor de Jalisco, but by the time he's able to get away from his restaurant downtown, they've left their usual spot on Union Boulevard near Walmart. Such is life as a business owner — the work sets the hours. So we convene instead at El Chapin, a taco truck recommended by friends, parked outside Ranch Food Direct's market and an MMJ dispensary.
"[It's] the true experience of Colorado Springs, the smell of marijuana and the sunset at Pikes Peak," Luck says. "It don't matter which corner you're on. It's a dispensary and Pikes Peak."
If locals don't know San Francisco-born, Phoenix-raised Luck from his prior Brother Luck Street Eats venture (operating first behind the Triple Nickel, then off 10th Street on the Westside) and now his successful Tejon Street restaurant, Four by Brother Luck, they may know him from a string of reality TV appearances. He's competed on Food Network's Beat Bobby Flay (he won), Chopped and, most recently, Bravo's Top Chef. We meet at El Chapin two days before the airing of the episode in which he was eliminated from the main show — at a beer hall-themed event at Elitch Gardens, the judges decided that his Odell 90 Shilling chai tea radler and summer sausage egg roll with bok choy, apple and potato didn't cleave to the German cuisine theme.
After six weeks of competing for a chance to return to the show in the web companion series Last Chance Kitchen, Luck would ultimately be eliminated in the episode that aired on Feb. 15.
"When you're filming a television show of that magnitude, you're very sequestered," he says. The shooting schedule began days after Four first opened in May 2017. Due to a forest of non-disclosure agreements, he told co-workers, customers and members of the press — Indy included — that he was in Japan for two months. He had limited contact with friends and family, including his wife, Tina. But, being one of two Colorado chefs in the competition, along with Carrie Baird of Denver's Bar Dough, he found a lot of people he knew showing up at Top Chef events, expanding the secret. That news he was competing didn't get out before the official announcement still surprises him.
Competitive cooking has been a big part of Luck's professional life. It's the reason he's had most of the opportunities he has.
"Both of my parents were exotic dancers in San Francisco, so I think my childhood was a little more colorful than most," he says. His father, Brother Luck III, passed away when Luck was 10. He and younger brother Slade spent the next six years wayward across California, until a friend of the family came to visit.
"[He] saw how crazy our lifestyle was and what we were doing, and he put us on a plane and sent us to northern Arizona," Luck says. For Slade, it didn't work out so well — "That's his story to tell. That's not my story," he says — but it's where Luck first found himself in the kitchen. He enrolled in the vocational Careers through Culinary Arts Program, CCAP, in order to get a free lunch every day and maybe meet some girls. What he found was a career path and, through competitive culinary arts scholarships, a chance at higher education. But Luck says his instructor was skeptical at first.
"He forced me to work my way into that good grace of his," he says. "I had to take the summer taking hospitality classes and professionalism classes and take my braids out and pull my pants up." He spent almost the entirety of his senior year of high school in the kitchen, graduating in the spring of 2000 with not one, but several competition wins under his belt, adding up to a full ride at the Art Institute of Phoenix, where he would ultimately earn an associate degree in culinary arts.
From there, he worked as a sous chef at the Hyatt Regency Phoenix for five years before transferring to another Hyatt hotel in San Antonio, Texas. He credits the company with giving him not only more culinary training, but a solid background in financial management.
- Paul Trantow & Bravo
In 2007, Luck transferred to Colorado Springs, originally aiming for a gig at The Broadmoor. That didn't happen, but he was hired by Benchmark Hospitality for a job as executive sous chef at Cheyenne Mountain Resort. Aspiring to the executive chef job, he completed the necessary American Culinary Association certification. Benchmark gave him the job in 2010, but at a new property in Chicago. After a year there and another stint in San Antonio, he ultimately returned to Colorado Springs in September 2012.
"It takes leaving Colorado Springs to realize that it's home," he says.
As a competitor on Top Chef, Luck's familiarity with Colorado had some perks. During the first week of competition, the other competitors picked his and Baird's brains for clues about Colorado's culinary identity at all opportunities.
"I think it's really about the chile," he says of Colorado and all Southwestern cuisine. A properly roasted pepper has a balance between acidity and spiciness. He brings up ice cream trucks offering mango-chili lollipops right next to the Bomb Pops, and pineapple, jicama and other fruits served marinated or dusted in chili powder.
Next to Tex-Mex, Southwestern food also tends to be brighter and more vibrant. Tex-Mex, he says, has more stews and dark red sauces — the concept of smothering something in green chile is unique to the Southwest, especially Colorado and New Mexico. Anywhere else, he says, they'd use a red sauce.
Green chile's something simple, anchored to peppers (Hatch or Pueblo) and pork, with minimal interference. For the express purpose of screwing with their competitors a little, he and Baird spread a lie, telling the other chefs that tomatoes are crucial to good green chile.
"Is what it is," he says. "You should've done your homework."
But Luck's been to the heart of chili country, to places like Pueblo where green chilies are a matter of lifestyle and heritage. The rules of conduct for transforming green chilies into a Southwestern staple are myriad, written generations ago and revered as sublime. And, naturally, they vary.
- Casey Bradley Gent
Luck compares it to gumbo, and as a man with both a Cajun grandma and a Creole grandma, he knows how the stew varies.
"[Do you] put sausage in it or not put sausage in it? Is it seafood-based, or is it everything-based? How dark is the roux? Is it a red roux, or is it a black roux? ... Do you put tomato in it, or do you not put tomato in it?" he asks. Those decisions aren't just a matter of taste. They tell stories about who the chef is and where they come from.
He recalls the fourth episode of Top Chef he competed on: The elimination challenge, which determined who would go home at the end of the episode, was to make a dish to represent the chefs' heritage. Luck went all the way back to fifth grade, using his father's recipe for dirty rice, which he was given three weeks before his father's passing. He got it as part of a class project, a book of heirloom recipes.
"I was so embarrassed because it had hearts and livers and gizzards, and everyone else is bringing in, like, Snickerdoodle recipes," he recalls. At first, he didn't plan on presenting it for the show. It's the only recipe of his father's that he has, and until then, he hadn't really shared it with anyone. "But we had such a touching experience at that restaurant [Denver's Comal Heritage Food Incubator], listening to these women who are refugees from Syria and Mexico, hearing their stories and how they've taken their personal recipes and applied them to their space up there. It just felt right." It landed him firmly in the middle of the pack that episode — he says, though, that the judges gave it a lot of love.
Like the recipes he saw at Comal, dirty rice is true peasant food — taking the leftover bits and pieces, mixing them up with spices and gumption so they can feed a family. Peasant food's some of the best comfort food, though with culinary trends going the way they are, it's hard to say how accessible such dishes will remain.
"It trips me out how, like, offal prices are just going through the roof right now," says Luck, citing how a supplier tried to charge him over five bucks a pound for pig heads recently, something he'd have gotten for free a decade ago.
The sun sets as we finish downing delicious lengua tacos, ruminating over cow tongue cooked long, low and slow — another peasant dish turned trendy.
"You find new abundance," he says. "It wasn't that long ago lobsters and crabs were peasant food... I think things go through a cycle, and it's amazing to see how much the success of [cooking TV shows] have really created an excitement within our culture about cooking."