The alchemy of Luckhaus & Brubaker 

The Sweet Life

Larry Brubaker's creations populate the James Island bakery

Jonathan Boncek

Larry Brubaker's creations populate the James Island bakery

Every so often, a couple of ingredients come together to create something impressive. Robyn Luckhaus and Larry Brubaker are two such ingredients. One graduated with a degree in journalism but found a desk job unfulfilling. So, she went to work on a cruise ship and set sail to see the world. From there she narrowed in on a love for baking and hit Johnson & Wales for graduate work. This new career path would land her a sous chef gig at the Sanctuary on Kiawah Island. The other knew from the early age of 12 that being in the kitchen would be his career. Fond childhood food experiences, ranging from mom's tomato sauce to special dinners out, shaped his desire to make memorable food. He found a calling for desserts and, more specifically, sculpted centerpieces. Early career days found him competing internationally, and his skills eventually landed him a job as executive pastry chef at the Sanctuary.

At Kiawah, Robyn and Larry found they made a great team. Robyn offers a tactful sensibility that helps Larry hone his expansive imagination. And Larry provides an artful ability to make Robyn's creative ideas a reality. They are each skillful in the kitchen in their own way, but together they are magic.

Larry is the Willy Wonka to Robyn's Martha Stewart. You'll see it the minute you walk into their James Island shop, Luckhaus & Brubaker Sweets & Treats (LB Sweets for short). Streamlined shelves of varying sizes hold fanciful displays: simple glass jars filled to the brim with colorful candy, freshly made brownies or cookies, a life-size pig named Petey. We're not talking a molded chocolate pig like an Easter bunny either. This is a fully realized reclining pink pig with blue eyes wearing a grin from ear to ear and a bowtie. Today, Petey holds a tray of homemade bacon macaroons with maple creme filling.

Nearby, the glass bakery case brims with the day's confections while a counter display spills over with freshly made cookies, scones, and daily specials. In the window stands a seasonal display of chocolate. Today the scene is a three-foot tall snowman sipping a Piña Colada on a beach of brown sugar.

In order to witness what goes into creating such wondrous and delicious sweets, I meet Robyn at the shop at 8 a.m. as she prepares some tarts. She's already been here two hours getting the bakery prepped and organized. She greets me with a warm smile and an offer of fresh coffee. In the oven is a test run of sticky buns (something they hope to add to the morning lineup).

Christine Capwell, Robyn Luckhaus, and Larry Brubaker were joined by author Ric Sommons for a day of baking - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Christine Capwell, Robyn Luckhaus, and Larry Brubaker were joined by author Ric Sommons for a day of baking

Her work area is efficiently organized with three-ringed binders labeled "Recipes A - K" and "Recipes L - Z." Clipboards, one for each day, hang on the wall with the week's special orders. On the spotless prep table is a long list for Christine, their very versatile employee, who isn't due for another hour. I'm struck by how everything is so accessible. Candied fruits, syrups, colorings, and a full rack of shop-made add-ins like pecan praline, white chocolate shavings, and more surround the bakers. Under the prep area sit tubs of brown sugar, butter, crushed nuts, almond flour, and other baking needs.

click to enlarge Christine Capwell mixes up goodies at L & B Sweets - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Christine Capwell mixes up goodies at L & B Sweets

Standing out from the tidiness are two mixers painted to look like a seven-eyed green alien and the Cookie Monster, respectively. Next to those two oddities, which mix up all the housemade treats, sits a rusty cart outfitted with propane tanks, heavy gloves, and a welding mask. Almost on cue, in walks Larry. He offers a hello and a handshake and sets to work rather silently on making himself a hot tea. Next thing I know, I'm following him outside to watch him weld something. I consider myself a morning person and can usually jump into unknown events rather handily, but welding at 8:30 a.m. in the bitter cold (this is the day after Snowmaggedon), well, that throws me. What does welding have to do with baked goods? Larry enjoys creating unconventional centerpieces and once competed in Germany, making large fanciful displays. Today he is working on the final chocolate sculpture for an "aquarium" under the check-out counter. Within minutes I am staring rather wide-eyed at a nearly complete metal armature of a red snapper. Impressed, I ask him how long a project like this will take. After a quick calculation, he answers: "Oh, I'll have it done by 2 o'clock today." I smile and nod. I've already seen some of his work in the store: a chocolate sea turtle the size of a toaster noshing on a macaroon, a Hercule Poirot-mustached blue crab drizzling chocolate onto a candy bar. No way is this sculpture going to be done by 2 p.m.

Back inside Christine has arrived and is tackling her list. First up: massive Rice Krispies squares, colored pink, drizzled with white chocolate, and dusted with yellow nonpareils. From there Christine knocks out everything from tart shells to black-and-white cookies. I catch up with Robyn as she adds the finishing touches to flourless chocolate cakes, lemon meringue tarts, and individual bread puddings. As she works, we talk about the decision to open on James Island. While Luckhaus and Brubaker would fit in nicely downtown, both Robyn and Larry want a clientele that is more centered in the local community.

"Sure, it would be nice to sell to the tourists, but we really want to have a long-term relationship with our customers," says Robyn.

Their hope, if not business plan, is to start with great-tasting sweets and build from there. "We want regulars to come in and see what's new," says Robyn. "We hope they will enjoy our products enough to share them at events with friends and family."

Willy Wonka whimsy meets Martha Stewart minimalism - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Willy Wonka whimsy meets Martha Stewart minimalism
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And this is exactly what's been happening. The hairdresser two doors down sends in at least three people a day. The mailman stops in to order some sweets for his niece's upcoming bridal shower. The waitstaff at the neighboring restaurant sends customers in all the time.

Larry comes back in with a completed metal skeleton of a red snapper swimming amongst coral. From here he will add layer after layer of soft chocolate (imagine a Tootsie Roll) until he has the shape he's after. Robyn steps over to admire the handiwork and asks a pointed question: "Have you checked to see if it fits in the case?"

Mind you, the cart that Larry builds the models on is already marked for the right size for the case, so he answers quickly: "Yes." But then Robyn gives him a little look, and he says, "Oh yeah, that last case has the pole in the back. I better go check it."

It doesn't fit, but it's an easy fix at this point. On the way out he thanks Robyn for reminding him. This kind of appreciative exchange occurs between them regularly throughout the day.

Another thing you may notice inside Luckhaus and Brubaker is a recurrence of octopuses. One holds a pair of scissors while another shows up in Larry's aquarium display. It's an appropriate mascot for this busy kitchen. By mid-morning, prep work and production has reached its pitch. The smell of coconut macaroons and tart shells wafts from the oven. In the mixer, Larry softens chocolate for the sculpture. On the stove top, a glaze warms. Robyn readies three kinds of cheesecakes for the next oven run, while somehow dashing over to the microwave and mixer to make sure the chocolate glaze and creme filling will be ready for the eclairs that need to be filled. Christine is equally busy processing graham crackers and butter for key lime pies, while getting a pink glaze just right for some heart-shaped shortbread cookies. Larry stays focused on the fish, but even he finds a second to step back and check the progress of some chocolates they hope to perfect before Valentine's Day. One kitchen, with three people and six arms going in a dozen directions — yes, an octopus seems an ideal mascot.

Time to make the chocolate - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Time to make the chocolate

It's 2:01 p.m. Robyn is dealing with the unscheduled breakdown of the receipt printer, Christine is working on coconut scones, and Larry is sweeping up the last of the debris left after installing Sally the Snapper into the aquarium display. Not only did he finish her on time, he also has her installed. And that includes an unexpected debate/brainstorm session on how to make Sally look less threatening.

Every detail at L&B is discussed, debated, and decided. Then, depending on customer response, the whole process may be restarted. Today, the discussion is about mocha caramels. Larry is concerned they are not easily distinguished as mocha. Robyn worries about how they'll look with other chocolates in their Valentine's lineup. Larry cuts the caramels six or seven different ways, Robyn grabs some chocolate-covered espresso beans to amp up the flavor. Within minutes they have reached an agreement, cemented with their signature "high zero." It's like a high five but each hand misses the other in mid-swing. It all seems good, but then there's a snag. Larry notices a thin layer of crystallization on the bottom of the caramels. Unanimously, they decide the flaw is unacceptable. The whole batch gets scrapped, and Larry goes back to the candy books. "For me, food is a celebration," he says. "I want people to have fond memories when they taste our treats. If that means scrapping an element, like caramel, several times until we get it just right, then that is what we will do."

Both Robyn and Larry talk about ideas for the future, including new baked goods like croissants, classes for the public (that's about to happen), and others they prefer to keep secret. Whatever they dream up, their alchemy will transform it into something special. Take peanut butter and jelly for instance. In the hands of Luckhaus and Brubaker, PB&J transcends mere bagged lunch staple. They begin with a peanut butter gianduja (imagine the inside of a peanut butter cup, but dense and chocolatey), which gets topped with a raspberry pâté de fruit (a dense jelly), then cut into tiny squares, and finally coated in dark chocolate. While cooling, crushed peanuts are dusted across the top. The result is a little bite of childhood heaven and evidence of the magical combination of Luckhaus and Brubaker.

Finishing the cakepops - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Finishing the cakepops

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