By Lanier Laney
Most people have met the owner of Plums and the Saltus River Grill, Lantz Price, but they may be surprised to find out that he was an American Literature major at the University of New Hampshire, spent his last semester at Cambridge University in England, then traveled around Europe and later sailed to New Zealand and lived there for a year before sailing back.
He also met the love of his life, Jen, at college, but they broke up after dating for four years, only to get back together 10 years later after accidentally running into each other in Boston. They fell deeply in love again and got married in 1999. They have two children, daughter Hayden, 12, and son Grayson, 10.
Lantz’s parents Warren and Babs were both Southerners, and Lantz was born in Virginia, but was raised in Rye, New Hampshire, when Lantz’s dad, a Delta Air Lines pilot, was based in nearby Boston. When his parents retired, they wanted to get back to the South, so they moved to Beaufort, which is how Lantz first came to know the Lowcountry.
Says Lantz, “As I visited them on school breaks, I fell in love with the peace and tranquility and openness of the marshes and outer islands then, in turn, the whole culture of the South. After all that travel to remote places, I longed to return to Beaufort.”
Lantz moved to Beaufort 20 years ago (in 1992) and joined his mother in the restaurant business. She had bought Plums on the waterfront in Beaufort in 1987; it had been started by Terry Murray and Dale Fairbanks a year earlier.
Says Lantz, “I starting working in restaurants when I was 14. My first job was as a dishwasher at a place called Abercrombie and Finch in Rye, N.H. My Dad said, ‘go get a job and don’t cross the highway,’ so I went out to Route 1 and walked into the first kitchen I came to on our side of the highway. They hired me on the spot and I got home late and they were all wondering what happened to me. I said, ‘you told me to go get a job?! Right?’ ”
Lantz continues, “And the kitchen culture of the 70’s and 80’s shaped my entire young adult life. It was a “Kitchen Confidential” world and I lived in New England which, at the time, was a thriving epicenter of American seafood restaurants with raw bars and Jazz. Classic methods of cooking hadn’t really been dismantled yet so the chefs were mostly still old school with French methods. Picture fresh New England fish — smothered with heavy buttery sauces.”
By expanding Plums from a breakfast and lunch place to dinner (which he cooked) and putting the emphasis on top quality local seafood, Lantz helped make Plums a hit with both locals and tourists. Today he is executive chef and owner of both the Beaufort and Bluffton Plums. He says of all the jobs that come with running three restaurants — he opened Saltus River Grill eight years ago — he loves “working the line” the best, which means working as a line cook during those challenging dinner “rush hours.”
Says Lantz,” That’s where my love of cooking started — in the insular culture of the slightly insane world of the back of the house in restaurants. It was a blend of art and creativity with hard, hard work and the never ending desire to cook great food and have fun. I love to be creative and work really hard. I believe that you must really love what you do and you must passionate about it, even if it is not the career of you’re choosing. You spend so much time working that you need to find the parts about it that make you happy and build something of your life around it. I’m just lucky I love my career. I even enjoy washing dishes. I love the order of the final result and sense of accomplishment.”
Regarding his customers at the two restaurants, Saltus and Plums, which are only a block away from each other in Beaufort, Lantz said, “My customers are different in the two different restaurants. They range from true locals to seasonal locals to tourists. Most love food. Some know a great deal about food and it can be a challenge to please them. Sometimes pleasing them is the most rewarding. When a local loves your shrimp and grits, you know you’re on the right path.”
Learning the local ways of doing things has been a 20-year learning experience for Lantz. “I love the pride of the locals and especially the way they keep their knowledge of all the things special about this place to themselves,” he said. “When you are allowed through that door, you can still only experience it slowly, layer upon layer. First it may be an oyster roast, then a trip to a fish camp, then a hunt with hours of stories into the night with brown liquor and half lies. Cooking Southern food is very much the same. It seems easy at first, until you learn the right way to do it, and that it’s not about the final result, it’s about the many layers needed to get there.”
Lantz, who spends a lot of time in Bluffton these days at the new Plums that he opened earlier this year in Belfair Towne Village, still enjoys overseeing Saltus and the original Plums on Bay Street. Says Lantz, “The best thing about the restaurant business is being able to please people with something you created using ingredients that are special, local or supportive of your community. When the restaurant is going full tilt, and the concept is working from thought to the table, it can be like a song that just works perfectly with melody, lyrics and rhythm. It’s fun to watch and it’s even more fun to be in the middle of it.”
And Lantz’s approach has been working. His restaurants have won all kinds of awards over the years, from multiple “Best of” Readers Choice Awards in different publications to a Civitas Award from the Chamber of Commerce. But Lantz says, “The best award I can get is a compliment from a customer about an experience they had at one of my restaurants.”
Lantz credits much of his success to the fine staff at each of his restaurants. “Each group is very much like a family. They work hard together and play hard together; they are creative people and are fiercely loyal.”
As far as the future is concerned, Lantz plans to keep serving up the best he can at his restaurants while taking time to enjoy the hunting, fishing, surfing and all the activities that his adopted Lowcountry has to offer.