On a sunny spring afternoon, Leslie Lampert greets me with a bright smile at her restaurant, Café of Love, and we sit by the window of the très Français bistro on East Main Street in Mount Kisco. Lampert, the owner and executive chef, has a lot going on these days. In addition to her award winning farm-to-fork takeout shop, Ladle of Love, around the corner on South Moger Avenue, The Love Group includes Love on the Run, a catering business; Leslie Lampert Affairs, on-site catering at the Hammond Museum & Japanese Stroll Garden in North Salem; and a plan for a new venue in Chappaqua at the historic train station, Love@10514 Commuter Bistro, which was approved by the Town of New Castle board in May.
“I am over the moon and honored. We know Chappaqua and I are uniquely suited,” she says, referring to Ladle of Love’s presence at the Chappaqua Farmers Market. “I am extremely careful where I bring the ‘love’ brand. I lived there for 24 years, raised a family there and commuted from that station.”
Lampert says the commuter bistro will be unique in that it will serve commuters and welcome residents. She has given much thought to what would be the best thing for the town. She calls Love@10514 Commuter Bistro a variation on Ladle that will be a healthful “grab and go,” and “grab and stay” for commuters, and at the same time, the rest of the town is invited as it seats 45 people. Her ultimate goal is to make the commuter experience excellent while she merges and cares for both the commuters and the community.
“We’re really excited for Love@10514 to open this summer,” says Rob Greenstein, supervisor for the Town of New Castle. “Leslie is a class act and we knew it would be a pleasure to work with her.”
How did Lampert become the force behind a successful culinary brand? The answer is simply her humanity, a deep facet of Lampert’s character, an instinctive desire to nurture and care for others.
First, though, she was an accomplished journalist, writing for Us and House Beautiful, reporting for The Boston Globe and serving as senior editor of Ladies’ Home Journal. Lampert had started to work from home in 1997 when her husband was diagnosed with cancer.
“Soups and stews were the only thing he could eat and cooking was cathartic and relaxing for me,” she says. “When I could do nothing, I was nourishing my children. Little did I know I was setting the stage for my next career.”
Then she began to share her culinary creations with friends.
“After September 11th in 2001 I was driving over to a friend with food and in a spontaneous random act of kindness I saw some 9/11 first responders outside the Millwood Fire House and gave them some soup.”
Word about her soups and stews spread and she started getting orders.
“I’d be on the ‘Today’ show in the morning talking about food and in the afternoon driving around with my hair in a ponytail delivering soup.”
Lampert decided that when she got up to 10 orders a week, she would open a shop. “Mount Kisco was being reimagined at that time and branches off South Moger were being developed. I found a small spot that I could afford and opened Ladle of Love 11 years ago.”
Two days before the opening, her husband of some 20 years left her. But despite his departure, Lampert did not give up and Ladle thrived. It started with soups and stews and is now offers full gourmet takeout. Soups and stews are still popular and her signature soup, Harvest Celebration, continues to be a best seller, Lampert says.
“It’s a mélange of butternut squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, Granny Smith apples, water and a touch of butter. It’s finished with a bit of cream, maple syrup and a lot of love.”
Five years later it seemed the right time to open Café of Love which developed organically, pun intended, from the success of Ladle. The casual, charmingly decorated restaurant with its antiques and mismatched tables has understated European elegance, a testament to Lampert’s good taste and loving touches. But as with Ladle, Café opened under something of a dark cloud: The recession had just hit. But again, Lampert endured and she is proud that she could keep 30 people employed.
Lampert writes all the recipes and menus herself.
“My kitchen turns it into a symphony. I’m not a line cook. The guys in the kitchen, chef de cuisine Hector Coronel and kitchen manager Mike Donnelly, are masterful at creating the dishes from the recipes and work with my dedicated staff, most of whom have been with me since I first opened.”
Menus change seasonally.
“We take local ingredients on a global adventure supporting local and extended local merchants. I’ve traveled a great deal and have a great respect for ethnic cuisines.” The dishes reflect a microcosm of life and Lampert’s travels and take the café’s patrons to many places – the Far East, Mediterranean, India, France and Latin America. At the end of your meal you receive your check in a passport, a nod to a transporting culinary experience.
“The party was always at my house,” Lampert says. And when she explains why she has a luxuriously wide marble bar at the restaurant, she adds with a twinkle in her caramel-colored eyes that she is a “bar chick” and likes to encourage patrons to mingle with one another.
“I wanted to have a cool, excellent place you can come to locally in your jeans and feel like you are home.” She fondly refers to Justin Poltrack, bar manager, as “the gatekeeper of the night.”
The vivacious blonde doesn’t appear to take herself too seriously, but Lampert says people would be surprised at how serious she and her team take the business of spreading the love.
“It looks like a party but we work countless hours of strategic planning meetings to make sure we’re doing business the best we can. When it’s Christmas and New Year’s Eve, we’re not with our families. And we’re there (at the café) on a Saturday night making sure someone else’s Saturday night is as perfect as it can be.”
Everyone is made to feel special by Lampert, from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to 9-year-old “foodie” Jordan Lubinsky, who wrote about Café of Love on her food blog, “Jordan’s Lunch Box,” during Restaurant Week this spring.
While you might think it’s only about love, honesty is another word that resonates with Lampert.
“Love stems from honesty. I’m not a saint, but I do believe in honest relationships.” Lampert values honesty in the food business.
“I care who is growing the food – where and how. I want to know the story behind the food and the people.”
And she adds, “I hope I’m known for dependability.”
Lampert appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2008 to talk about her transition from journalist to restaurateur. She doesn’t see her life now as reinvention.
“It’s another chapter. Each experience is a ferry to the next chapter,” Lampert says about her new career and the skills she has acquired throughout her life.
Her greatest inspirations are her children Elizabeth, 31; Amanda, 30; and Alex, 28. “They are remarkable and I am happy to report they’ve thrived.”
Lampert is most proud of what she has done for others.
“I’ve had an impactful life, starting with my children.”
She did this as a journalist and now she takes it to another plane, to the community and her employees.
“We all have to take care of each other. I have never said no to anyone who asked me for anything. Every month I’m asked for gift certificates for fundraisers; I’ve donated a cocktail party, a class. I support the Little League, synagogues and churches because I believe we’re all in this together.”
Her philosophy is simple: “Nourish everyone and make a place where everyone who comes here feels they are important. Then you know you’ve made a difference. That’s my raison d’être.”
Café of Love is at 38 E. Main St. in Mount Kisco. Call 914-242-1002 or visit caféofloveny.com. Love on the Run can be reached at 914-242-9449. Ladle of Love is at 11B S. Moger Ave. in Mount Kisco. Call 914-242-9661 or visit ladleoflove.com.
Café of Love Lobster-Corn Fritters with Tarragon Aioli
1 1-pound lobster
1/3 cup fresh tarragon
½ cup mayonnaise
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup buttermilk
1 large egg, separated
1 ear of corn, kernels cut off cob
2 tablespoons minced chives
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
In a large pot of boiling water, plunge lobster and cook until bright red, 5-6 minutes. Cool, remove meat, coarsely chop and refrigerate.
Chop tarragon and fold into mayo. Season with salt and pepper. Chill until ready to serve with fritters.
In large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients.
In separate bowl, whisk buttermilk with egg yolk.
Add wet ingredients to dry, stir gently and fold in lobster, corn, chives and melted butter.
In another bowl, whisk egg whites to soft peaks and fold into batter.
Heat 2 inches of oil to 350 degrees in a shallow frying pan. Drop heaping tablespoon of batter into pan and fry, turning once, about 2 minutes.
Transfer golden fritters to paper towel-lined baking sheet and season with salt. Serve with tarragon mayonnaise (and lemon wedges).