Eating Fresh At North Fork Table

When people think about eastern Long Island, it's always Hamptons, Hamptons, Hamptons. But for the past five years, a cute little building on the other fork of Long Island has become a worthy competitor in itself for the glitz and glamour. The North Fork Table & Inn, headed up by former Gramercy Park pastry chef Claudia Fleming and ex-Aureole chef Gerry Hayden, features the best of farm-to-table cuisine in a simple, unpretentious setting.

The chefs, a husband-wife team, have been drawing from local farms since Day 1 of North Fork Table, and daytrippers visiting the area's numerous wineries and in-the-know food obsessives regularly pack the dining room to sample Hayden's clever treatments of fish and meats — his fluke crudo is my favorite appetizer that I've eaten this year — and Fleming's award-winning desserts. Another couple, Mike and Mary Mraz, run the wine program and hospitality, making this a family affair. But the most important thing to know about this place is that food comes first; you can almost literally taste the care that goes into each dish, and when was the last time you said that about a restaurant?

My interview back in June as a late-to-arrive summer was just getting started began with Fleming, in her calm, intelligent demeanor, discussing the restaurant's philosophy, as well as her signature dish, coconut tapioca (and those who dare to try to better it!). It grew more spirited as Hayden emerged from prep duties to riff on various topics, especially when he and Fleming seemed to grow weary of their reps as locavore chefs. Hayden's particularly opinionated about food politics too, but we'll leave that for another post; for now, let's focus on the serious food going on at North Fork Table, and why fresh and local aren't always synonymous.

Claudia, it could be said that you were seasonal before seasonal was cool. What do you make of it as a trend?

CF: Yeah, it's funny that's it's become a trend. It's odd, you know, when you tell people what you do and they're like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, everybody does that." Okay! But that's what we do. I'm sorry I don't have any other hook for you. I don't know what else to tell you. I don't juggle while I cook, I don't do any of that. We live amongst the farms and wineries and we use them as much as we can.

You know, I worked for Tom (Colicchio) for many years and my philosophy was born and developed while working with him. And he was always a farmer's market advocate and he always did a ton of shopping at the farmer's market. So I got very used to working seasonally and locally in New York City, so coming out here is like a dream come true.

Is it a difficult process? How do you go from that farm to this table?

CF: Everybody doesn't do everything as well as one another. So you choose whoever does this one particular thing best. Like the greens are always from KK [Farms], because she has amazing greens. And obviously all of the stuff on the menu last night was not seasonal or local. You use as much as you possibly can. We are in a unique position in that, you know people come here and expect to see variety and things that are very current, and that's not always possible seasonally. You know, right now we would only be serving peas, and favas and spinach. You need more diversity than that with a destination-type restaurant. And we're not in Southern California, so you do the best you can. You can't claim to be that 100% because then you're just lying, so we always say "as much as we can."

Does it inspire you that things like rhubarb have come back into fashion? It was at the top of the dessert list last night.

CF: Well, it's almost retro. I did not grow up with rhubarb. I grew up in an Italian-American family, and rhubarb was whatever, a stringy, yucky stuff... If you've ever done any farming, you grow rhubarb. Because it's so easy to grow, and it's the first thing that comes up after a long, cold winter. So as soon as you start getting in touch with farmers, which I started doing 15 years ago, there was rhubarb. I was like "what is this stuff?" And you just start playing around with it and it's become like my favorite thing. It's not particularly sweet, it's just interesting.

What about some of the other ingredients you use in your pastry. What are your stand-bys?

CF: You know after doing it for so long, everything seems like a stand-by. It's like you feel so Oh God, when am I going to think of something new and interesting?

[Gerry Hayden emerges from the swinging kitchen doors and enters the dining room.]

CF: I tend to throw in that unusual stuff in tasting-type situations and not put it on the menu as much or serve it as an amuse [-bouche], because you don't want people to have to choose something that's a little weird. I mean if you're giving it away it's one thing, but if you're serving it on the menu and people are required to buy dessert here because it's a three-course menu, you don't want to start putting in odd things in and people go "Ugh, well there's really nothing I want," and then it becomes pretty annoying that you have to have dessert, if there's nothing that just sounds yummy on the menu. So I generally do my experimenting with stuff that I give out and then based on the response, it either does or doesn't go on the menu.

Many, many years ago, tapioca was that. It was like "Ew, tapioca!" People were freaking out. And then with the basil syrup, "Ugh, that's so weird." "Well, just taste it, and if you don't like it then we'll just take it away." And then it became a standard.

GH: It's become a national item that everyone wants to do, but they strain themselves so hard to make it one ingredient that isn't in Claudia's so that they can call it their own.

CF: Someone put mango in it, which is like slime on top of slime! The point is the contrast; you can't just throw in another tropical fruit. So yeah, that's the whole thing about copying versus understanding what you're doing.

I think signature dishes say a lot about a chef. Gerry, is the fluke crudo a signature dish for you?

GH: Well I would have to say yes, because fluke is the local fish and melon is starting to come around. I switched it; the ingredient that makes the dish. I do it in the winter time with Ruby Red Grapefruit because grapefruits are around, with the ginger cracklings, which are poached candied ginger that is then fried, so it gets this hard shell. But I can't do that in the summertime with the humidity. Even with humidity packets, you're still in and out of the box all the time and the humidity melts the sugar and therefore you have this ginger that's not crunchy anymore. So in the summertime, I switched the fruit to melon; I don't fry the ginger, I just leave it poached. I put sunflower seeds on there for texture and the cilantro shoots and the sea salt. But yes, the fluke dish is pretty much all year around.

A signature? I guess so, I've always had a difficulty with that term. It's like "what's your favorite thing to cook?" Everything: I'm a cook! It's like asking an auto mechanic, "What's your favorite engine part?" I'm a cook, I like fixing everything whether it's vegetable or meat. I understand the question, "What's your favorite season?" That's different.

Ok, so what's your favorite season?

GH: It's a tie, spring and fall. It's funny because summer's our busiest season. I love it, I love tomatoes. But honestly, I can't get into prepared food in the summertime. I can't get into heavy sauces. In the wintertime, you can braise and you have these beautiful root vegetables that you can do a lot if things with. You can use heavier ingredients and the sauces are more refined. In the summertime, it's like a piece of fish and I'm done. It's not less creative; the ingredients speak for themselves. But more cooking happens in the fall. And coming right into the spring, what I like is the ability to have the first things that are around like morels and asparagus and snap peas and things like that. Again, I don't do a lot of heavy doctoring to those either, but I do love risotto and I do make a good asparagus risotto and that's always one of my favorite dishes to cook.

Were those local mussels I had last night?

GH: No they're Bouchot mussels from Maine. They're really plump and meaty. The bass is local, they're catching them out there right now. We try to focus on that one main ingredient. Now, King Salmon is on because it's in season. I like to cook in season when things are coming around. I had some ivory salmon last night which is unusual, where the flesh is completely white. They're ivory King salmon and it's because of the diet of what the salmon eats. They actually all start off white, but then they'll eat shrimp and algae with a lot of carotene in it, but mostly a lot of little shrimp and that's what causes their flesh to turn orange. These [ivory King salmon] happened to take a different migratory route, and so weren't in a path where they can eat the same things that the other salmon do.

We do as much as we possibly can locally and then at the end of the day, we're also chefs and we want to cook too, I mean there are things out there we want to use.

I wasn't reprimanding you about the mussels not being local. It was great that they were from Maine because usually you get mussels in a dish like that and they're flimsy and don't add anything to the dish, whereas those really soaked up and worked well with the sauce.

GH: And you see, that's how I cook. I don't want to put something on a dish just because. And I take them out of the shell because I don't want anyone fussing around with the shell. I don't want you to have to splatter that on your blouse. Those are the things that I think about. I mean, yeah it's really cool seeing mussel shells like that, but what am I feeding: my ego, or am I feeding you?

We go out of our way to get better stuff, whether it's local or not. The reason I bring that up is because we have people come in and ask "Is this local, is that local?" You know, I have rabbit on the menu and they ask, "Where's the rabbit from?" A farm in South Carolina. "Oh, it's not local?" I'm like, "No, do you see any rabbit farms around here?" I never say that, but we try as much as possible to have local products.

It's an honest struggle to try to create a menu, year around, in this small town. There's plenty of agriculture, but we don't have large, large farms growing snap peas. So when I get two pounds of snap peas and the next week, she's out, I'm done. Done! Time to think of a new dish. And it's frustrating as hell, because it's so hard to keep things on the menu when they're so short-lived.

It's exhausting how much we search out local ingredients. For the first three years, [Claudia] and I were driving every single day, every other day, picking up my fish, until I finally found a guy a mile away who could deliver it to me.

CF: Yeah, we had to do it for years: [It was like] "Yeah, the city kids, they're not going to come back, they're not going to buy our stuff." So after years of doing it, we finally got people to deliver it.

GH: Because we started doing business with them, and real business. And real business to the point that [it was like], "Really, that's all you got?"

Well there's not an infinite amount of land out here.

GH: Right, so there's not one farm that's just growing snap peas, not one farm just growing asparagus.

CF: And everything doesn't grow here. If the menu was just based on the things that grew here, he'd have three things on the menu and I'd have two or three things on the [dessert] menu. That's it.

GH: It's tough to sell the clientele on that coming all the way from the City.

CF: And all they do is read about local, seasonal, local, seasonal, local, seasonal — it's just so buzzy and I wonder what's going to come next. I'm curious to find out.

OK, let's go back to Claudia: Is sugar an issue for you, for someone who works in the trade? Should people be concerned about sugar intake as some news reports suggest?

CF: You know what, all that stuff for me is people just trying to sell newspapers and people just trying to come up with something else to read. No it's not an issue for me. Eat it moderately, you'll be fine. Obviously you can't eat five pounds of sugar a day and be healthy, but you can have a small portion of dessert and you're going to be fine.

Anything else you want to add?

CF: Yes, as to the the local/seasonal thing, if you can get this product done better somewhere else, it's OK. It might be local, but it sucks and I don't want to use it. At the end of the day, you want it to be as good as it can be. You can't handcuff yourselves, and you want the best possible product.