In a city where opening a restaurant is a Herculean feat, Chef Greg Lutes of 3rd Cousin has an innovative and cozy dining destination in Bernal Heights.
His style is California cuisine with a creative twist. This includes mouthwatering dishes like his uni creme brûlée, which is his savory take on the popular dessert. The daily changing menu focuses on ingredients from local markets, farms, and producers.
He shared the backstory about making his dream of owning his own restaurant a reality.
I came in 2010 to work in a restaurant. My first two jobs were at the Waterfront on the Embarcadero and Skates on the Bay in Berkeley.
After working in those popular restaurants, I helped open Lot 7 on Valencia and 21st. That was a pivotal moment for me as a chef and entrepreneur. I worked with an owner who didn’t have a lot of experience or money. So I ended up running the restaurant while it was open for a very short time. He wasn’t prepared to run a restaurant and I learned how tough the business is.
That was a turning point for me because it demystified the whole process of owning your own place. Until that point, the story I told myself was that I didn’t have the money or any investors. I believed it was too difficult and I couldn’t do it.
Then I watched the owner of Lot 7 do it and the story shifted. It became, if he can do it, I can do it. And I’m going to start acting like I can.
So I started looking at places, talking to landlords and putting in letters of intent. I learned about real estate and learned what it would take to remodel a space for a restaurant.
It was 2013 and I lived in Bernal at the time. After 6 months of looking at spaces, I decided to start where I could. I started doing pop-ups at 903 Cortland Ave. At the time it was owned by Mutsumi Takehara, who owned Sandbox Bakery.
At first, they were on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.
Once word of mouth spread, I expanded to Tuesdays and weekend brunch. I did that for a year.
Lester, who owns the Good Life Grocery Store on Cortland Ave, also owns the building I’m in now. He liked my concept at 903, so I put in an offer for his space. We signed the lease in 2014, and I had no money to remodel it.
I did a Kickstarter to raise the money. I got a few investors and worked like hell to pull it all together. Eventually, I was able to raise enough money to build it out completely and get the doors open in November of 2015.
That we are the story we tell ourselves. I see myself as the little guy that could.
For the longest time, I told myself I couldn’t do this because I didn’t come from money. And I shifted that story. Working at Lot 7 was the catalyst.
Once I started telling myself that I could open a restaurant and acted that way, it gave me an unwavering belief that I could.
So now I’m living my dream. It’s definitely not all perfect. In your dream, you don’t think about the trade-offs. And there are always trade-offs.
We’ve been open for almost four years. And it’s taken everything I have to provide people with the kind of food and atmosphere that makes them keep coming back.
I was curious about cooking from an early age. I used to cook with my Mom and experiment with all the spices in her kitchen.
I grew up in a tiny town called Malden, Illinois. It had a population of 350 people. And I went to school in Princeton, Illinois, which had 7000 people.
Princeton had one Chinese restaurant and it was owned by a Thai family. Back then Thai food wasn’t a thing and definitely not in small-town Illinois. In high school, I worked for this family as a dishwasher. I paid attention to how they were cooking and they taught me a few things.
Eventually, I moved to Florida, took a job as a waiter and ended up back in the kitchen. That was when I decided to go to Culinary School. I worked in a little tavern in my home town for about eight months before I started school at Kendall Culinary School in Chicago. In one year, I went from cooking in a tiny tavern to working at Everest, in Chicago, under Chef J. Joho
I took my first Executive Chef position when I was 25 and moved to Goshen, Indiana.
The highlight of being in Goshen was that I had my own garden and bought ducks from the people down the street. I worked at an Inn and Restaurant in Amish country, so I was able to get fresh ingredients from the Amish community. I had a lot of creative freedom to work on my own style at 25.
Living in the Bay Area I have access to all kinds of local ingredients. The markets are great for inspiration and I feel like my menu reflects a modern California sensibility. I work with local farms and producers to use fresh and flavorful ingredients and support their businesses.
I think my menu pushes some boundaries.
I would call it California cuisine with a creative twist. I try not to go too far out so people still understand.
One of my hallmarks is taking foods that are known and mixing them with foods that are unknown.
I make a uni creme brûlée that sounds weird but it’s the #1 selling dish on the menu.
Most people understand a creme brûlée, but then I turn it into something savory by adding uni and caviar. It’s an appetizer rather than a desert. And it’s become my signature dish.
We also have a seven to ten course tasting menu, that’s offered with wine pairing.
And it was nice to be mentioned in a recent Washington Post, By the Way article, A Guide to Local Favorites in Bernal Heights.
You can find 3rd Cousin at:
919 Cortland Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Everest Restaurant – 425 South Financial Place, Chicago, IL
A Guide To Local Favorites in Bernal Heights