Lucy Ann Vallera Luhan, (Lucia) a first-generation Italian-American, was born in Connecticut and raised in a European household where traditional values and customs prevailed. Making fresh pasta was a daily activity. With an extended family of relatives from Italy, traditional food habits predominated. Fruits and vegetables grown in the family gardens were canned every summer and wine made every fall.
Lucy left the East Coast for the Midwest to attend college, earning a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Sciences from the University of Minnesota, followed by a return to the East Coast to complete her studies for a Master’s of Science in Boston. She has studied in Italy and Mexico on scholarships and has lived abroad in England, Spain, France, Italy and Argentina. A graduate of the Yale University Summer Language Institute in New Haven, Connecticut, Lucy was also honored as a Pavanna debutant in Connecticut.
Shortly after her marriage in 1965, she moved to California with her husband, Dr. Jorge Luhan. Finding a void in the availability of quality cuisine-to-go, in 1976 Lucia took the initiative to establish What’s Cooking Bistro, a food business concentrating on quality meals to go. But she was ten years too early and the public was not yet receptive to the concept of cuisine-to-go, What’s Cooking Bistro became a restaurant. In 1976, it was the first restaurant in the U.S. to serve 12 kinds of homemade fresh pasta, and 52 sauces, a new one each week, as well as being the first restaurant that published caloric and nutritional information for each menu item. At that time the word “pasta” was not familiar to her customers and it remained so until the pasta craze of the 80s when marathon runners would line up at the door for good carbohydrates before their race. Guests from San Francisco to San Diego would come because What’s Cooking was the only establishment with fresh, homemade pasta and daily freshly-made sauces.
Lucy soon became a successful restaurateur with an active catering service. As president of Luhan Corporation, she ran three restaurants with the addition of What’s Cooking Express Cuisine in Costa Mesa and Luciana’s Ristorante, a dinner house in Dana Point, offering a catering service and cuisine-to-go at all three locations. What’s Cooking Bistro, noted in the Zagat Restaurant Guide of Orange County, was described as the “Cheers Bar” of Newport Beach. It was also honored yearly, as was Luciana’s, with the gold and/or silver award for food and service by the Restaurant Writer’s Association.
In 1985 Lucia began to restore a 500-year-old abandoned farmhouse in the Tuscany hills and there she began to make Madonna dell’Oliva, a superb extra-virgin olive oil. The farmhouse, built in the 1400s, soon became a home away from home for her wonderful American friends and customers who were seeking an intercultural experience. Thus the B&B of Tuscany unintentionally, was established.
Besides conducting business across the seas, Lucy managed to keep active in various local California community organizations prior to her permanent move overseas in 1994. She was a board member of the Opera Pacific, Orange County Opera Board, and co-founder of “Women in Business.” She had been involved in various culinary societies while chef, caterer and manager of her restaurants in California. She is a member of the International Society of Culinary Professionals and Oldways, an organization promoting healthy food choices while preserving traditional foodways, as well as a member of the Slow Food Organization.
Following several requests, Lucy began giving cooking classes for food and wine lovers interested in experiencing farm life in Tuscany while enjoying a region where modern gastronomy had its start in the 1300s. In 1985, when the word “pasta” was little known, she produced a video of 100 years of pasta making by her family, called, “Pass the Pasta Please.” It shows her mother, Mary Vallera, at age 72 making pasta by hand, and Lucy demonstrating with a manual machine and her children demonstrating with an electric pasta maker how the skill has evolved. Lucy wanted to capture her mother, who had made pasta daily since the age of 8, on film to show the speed and dexterity of such elders as they engage in what will soon become a lost art. The video has been used nationally as an educational tool.
While in Europe Lucy was invited often to go out dancing, and she also enjoyed conviviality in the piazza. She felt the need to initiate a meeting place in Newport Beach for families and all age groups, such as she had experienced in the piazza in Europe. In 1990 she opened Orange County’s first eatery and dance club for families and friends to enjoy an evening out. Ellis Island International Eatery opened with great success, featuring live music and foods representing different countries. The name Ellis Island was suggested to her beacuse most families have relatives who came through Ellis Island when immigrating to the U.S. and it was the 100th anniversary of the founding of Ellis Island. It represented liberty, new life, new frontiers, opportunity and freedom. Articles were written in various publications on how Lucy suggested it was more fun to dance with friends at night than to jog alone in the morning. One publication even suggested that she might be competing with Jay Leno.
But this time she misread her Newport Beach public, which was not accustomed to dancing venues where eating and dancing with friends was a common custom, as it was in Europe. Her concept was again 10 years ahead of the public’s acceptance. At the same time, the video market was reaching its all time high, encouraging the public to stay home, and officials in the city who misunderstood the concept discouraged the success of the location in light of the reputation of dance clubs catering to the younger generation. After two years she converted the location to a dance club to meet the needs of the younger generation who had been complaining that they had no place to go in town. Medical colleagues of her husband suggested they would welcome such an establishment rather than having their children drive miles on the freeway to Los Angeles for night activities.
The new concept was met with even greater success until unforeseen factors led to the family’s decision to close the location. The timing was not right. To complicate matters, the recession hit and Orange County, one of the most successful counties in the U.S., was on its way to bankruptcy. The closing meant that their home on the water that they had put up for collateral had to be sold. This unforeseen disappointment led to Lucy’s move to Italy in 1994 to run her B&B, where she could return to her love of enjoying guests who linger at the dinner table and enjoy an evening of dancing..
Luciana’s Ristorante, in Dana Point, California, established in 1982, is the only remaining family restaurant in America. The restaurant has catered to celebrities such as Placido Domingo, Cher, Madonna, Jessica Tawny, Frankie Avalon and David Letterman to name a few. Luciana’s is where Lucy’s extra-virgin olive oil can be purchased. Most farm guests in Italy come via Luciana’s Ristorante, which continues to send a stream of customers to Tuscany to learn the art of living the Italian style.
When closing Newport Beach’s first and only remaining family bistro, What’s Cooking, in 2003, the City of Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce presented the Luhan family with a proclamation, thanking them for having “set the standards for Orange County’s ever evolving culinary landscape through their family owned and operated neighborhood bistro,” the first bistro in Orange County, California. The proclamation also noted that the Luhan family “has been actively involved in the Newport Beach community for decades,” and Lucy Luhan,“a well-known philanthropist after 27 years in business is sadly closing the Bistro’s doors.” The mayor, Steven Bromberg, congratulated the Luhan family for “their many years of serving the public,” and stated that “they will be sorely missed.” The presentation of the proclamation by the NCC was televised.
In 2005, Lucy produced her second video, this time demonstrating Villa Lucia’s activities in Italy: cooking school, olive oil seminar, cultural visits, truffle hunts, artisan visits and weddings held on the farm. Her mother can be seen now at age 92, still making her pasta by hand. Lucy’s daughter, Michelle, now a mother, dietician and nutritionist, is viewed giving her class on the Mediterranean diet, teaching how to eat nutritiously, while enjoying the art of living Italian style. Her son Jorge is seen relishing his first experience tasting 25-year-old balsamic condiment.
In 2010 Villa Lucia’s olive oil was featured on the Today Show, as was her B&B, by Dede Wilson of Bon Appetit Magazine. Numerous articles have been written about the Villa, appearing in such periodicals as the Los Anglos Times, Bon Appetit Magazine, Travel Magazine, Newport Register, as well as numerous European publications.
Dr. Jorge E. Luhan, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon for 30 years in Orange County, joined Lucy in Italy in 2001. They have three children: Michelle Luhan Nordberg, a nutritionist and dietician, as well as a real estate agent in New York City. She has been noted publicly in the press for her effort to modify school cafeteria menus in the New York school system to provide more nutritious meals and initiated at her children’s school the development of a roof garden. Jorge, with a master’s degree in business and finance, has taken over the family restaurant, Luciana’s in Dana Point, California. Jason left the restaurant and wine business after 27 years to attend law school and currently practices law in Orange County.
Lucy and the doctor are the proud grandparents of Laila Ann and Robert Barron (Bo), children of Michelle and Peter Nordberg; Luca Scot and Dante Eric, sons of Jason and Jenn Luhan; and Kara Anne, Kai Andrew and Kaden Anders, children of Jorge II and Dr. Anne Luhan.