By Paulette Safdieh
It’s that time of year when we New Yorkers decide we’ve had enough of the hustle and bustle of the city and start to pack up for weekends in The Hamptons. Although mainly recognized as the playground of the rich and famous, the core of the community there lies within the land. It’s not just the urge to see some grass and trees that sends city folk running east, but what’s growing from the ground as well. The Hamptons is the hot spot for the latest food trend—garden-to-plate dining. The fertile land on the east end of Long Island is a farmer’s heaven and the water is a national fishing capital, leaving the restaurants with access to none other than the freshest, crispest summer produce and locally-caught seafood. The farmers, fishermen, restaurant owners and chefs make up a community within a community, supporting each other’s local businesses and working together to give us all even more incentive to get traveling this summer.
Although places in our own backyard support the garden-to-plate mentality, like the Upper East Side’s Candle 79, the restaurants in The Hamptons are the ultimate. “In July and August, it’s likely that our produce doesn’t even hit the refrigerator,” says Joseph Realmuto, the chef at Nick & Toni’s, a Mediterranean-Italian restaurant with its own ¾ acre garden. “Vegetables are picked, sliced and served that very night.” The simplicity of the food and access to seasonal, local product is what originally drew the Queens native to the area. When Nick & Toni’s first opened back in 1993, there was only one other garden-to-plate restaurant, Estia’s Little Kitchen. Now, The Hamptons is booming with endless options. “The fishermen and farmers come right to the back door of the restaurant. The quality is tremendous,” he said. Thinking he was just spending one summer in The Hamptons, Realmuto ended up staying for 19 years, acting as a strong advocate for local farming and culinary education in his community (he’s co-chair of the Springs School Seedlings Project, which uses its own school garden for classroom activities).
Jason Weiner, chef at Almond Restaurant and Bar, agrees the Hamptons is the perfect place to experience a garden-to-plate meal. Like the other chefs in the area, Weiner changes his menu almost weekly depending on what produce is at its best. When Weiner visits Almond’s Murray Hill location, he stuffs his Prius with fruits and vegetables from Bridgehampton to the point that the car starts to sag. Although he has a strong relationship with the Union Square Farmer’s Market, he acknowledges that it’s less direct and more of a challenge than in the Hamptons, where 90% of his produce in summer months comes from within a 7-mile radius. Like Realmuto, Weiner encourages local farming, supporting students at the Bridgehampton School Greenhouse by sourcing their beans.
Although the garden-to-plate community is tight-knit, the shortage of tillable land in the area and limited amount of product stirs some competition among farmers and restaurant owners alike. Alex Balsam, the owner of Balsam Farms and supplier for 18 local restaurants (including Nick & Toni’s and Almond) says that despite the madness, the farmers are a close bunch. “We’re generally eager to help another farmer in any manner possible, with a few exceptions of course.” At the end of the day, everyone is in the same boat with meeting public demands for high-quality food. “With each passing year, people are certainly more interested in eating fresh, local product,” he said. It’s preferable for the chefs as well, to know exactly where their ingredients are coming from and to be supporting the local economy in the process. Restaurant owners and chefs make sure to distinguish themselves with varying menu themes and wine lists so no two are the same.
Deborah Pittorino of Cuvée Bistro and Bar in the Greenporter Hotel focuses on international influences from years of culinary-focused travel in Paris and Vietnam. In the summer, about half of her produce comes from her garden across the street and the rest is sourced from local farms. Her eco-conscious philosophy is a key influence in her kitchen, where she uses energy-efficient appliances, organic cleaning products and recycled paper products. Pittorino also participates in an oil recycling program, where the cooking oil is refined and sold as biofuel instead of dumped in a landmine. “Our cooking oil is picked up once a month, so we do our part in reducing our carbon footprint,” says the chef. As a wine enthusiast, Pittorino is a strong supporter of local wineries despite her love for those overseas. “I love the Cabernet Sauvignon from Laurel Lakes. The owners are from Chile, and their wines—although made on the North Fork—have a Chilean-style elegance to them,” she said.
Cuvée isn’t the only restaurant to support local wineries as well as farmers and fishermen. A Lure, a seafood chowder house on the water, has a Long Island-only wine list, with 50 whites and 50 reds to choose from. Newly opened in May, the restaurant uses the wines in local dishes, like tomatoes from Satur Farms with local Chardonnay vinaigrette. Fresno, a restaurant recognized for its value-driven, New American menu, takes pride in local wines as well, holding monthly tastings for bottles hailing from North Fork all the way to Madrid. “This gives confidence as we know how the product has been raised, handled and distributed,” says chef Gretchen Menser of their garden-to-plate ideology. “Having a face and name attached to the product we use completes the story.”
Turtle Crossing American Bistro, its southwestern menu dubbed “best BBQ in Long Island” by The New York Times, recently added several lighter, wine-friendly dishes to its menu to meet growing demands for nutritious, healthy fare. Executive chef Arthur Wolf calls the menu change and restaurant renovation a “rebirth”, bringing in new wines from Lenze and Wollfer Estates and produce from the local farms. One highlight is the sweet corn on the cob from Balsam cooked with chiles, lime and cheese. “The boys from Balsam come in for lunch and dinner from time to time, so it’s good to keep the money local,” says Wolf of his relationship with the nearby farmers. While talking to Wolf, Ian Calder-Piedmonte from Balsam Farms walks in the restaurant door to drop off some strawberries. “They look nice, bigger than last week,” says Wolf. “Can’t get better than that!” Calder-Piedmonte agrees. “That’s right, nothing’s perfect. Except for you, Ian!” jokes Wolf. The two of them laugh before going back to work. “That right there is another reason I like working with the farmers,” said Wolf. “I support them and they support me, it’s a mutual support system.”
So whether you’re craving light, Mediterranean seafood or saucy barbecued ribs, a full-bodied Merlot or a bottle of beer, classic Italian gnocchi or a unique, international fusion, the garden-to-plate Hamptons dining scene has something for everyone. “It really is a burgeoning food center” says Fresno owner Michael Nolan. “The local wines are growing up as well. People are coming to the Hamptons just for that alone.” With everyone from middle school students to the top chefs playing their part in the process, it’s your turn to start eating. Pack your bags and go hungry!
Nick & Toni’s
136 N. Main St.
Almond Restaurant & Bar
1 Ocean Rd.
Cuvee Bistro & Bar
326 Front St.
8 Fresno Pl.
221 Pantigo Rd.
Port of Egypt Marina
62300 Main Rd.