A veteran of local food and wine is still at it.
“Taste this,” John Ross says, holding out a spoonful of thick tomato paste. “It’s intense. It easily counts as one of my all-time best culinary experiences.”
The paste is made from 10 pounds of very ripe tomatoes plus two red peppers, cooked all day, down to a scant few pints of paste. It’s rich and bright, the essence of tomatoes. Ross stirs it into some large shrimp and cherry tomatoes sizzling in an iron skillet and gives the lot a few practiced flips.
“Look at this, look how big the leaves are,” he says, picking from a bouquet of basil standing in a glass jar, and crushing the leaves with his fingers. “Mmmmm,” he says, taking a big sniff. He deftly chiffonades a handful and flings the herbs into the pan, and the fragrance of summer fills the air.
We are in the kitchen in Ross’s Southold home; Ross has just spent a busy day up-island as a guest on fellow Long Island chef Tom Schaudel’s radio show, and now he’s throwing together a light supper, whirling about the kitchen, chopping and tossing, chatting and smiling his ready smile. It’s hard to believe he’s nearly 70 years old.
Imagine four decades of this passion, creativity and physical energy, expressed most memorably through his acclaimed Ross’ North Fork Restaurant in Southold. Note that he also took an MBA at Dowling, became an associate professor and taught restaurant management to a generation of students at Suffolk County Community College. And Ross has always been an unwavering champion of local, in-season fare, and of Long Island wine, way before it was trendy, back when he actually got laughed at for it. “People sometimes made fun of me, but I have always enjoyed promoting the local wine and our amazing bounty of local food, and I’ve made good friends along the way,” he says. “The East End is not an easy place to make a living. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now. But I’ve loved every minute of it, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
This is why John Ross already has a place in history as the father of North Fork cuisine. He’s aware of this, but it doesn’t seem to have gone to his head. Anyway, he originally wanted to be a poet.
Ross spoons shrimp and tomatoes onto whole wheat fettucine and grates Asiago cheese on top. He has also made large, fresh tomatoes stuffed with crabmeat and drizzled with vinaigrette. It’s a beautiful evening, and we bring the food out onto the deck. His Labrador retrievers, Blackjack, Ginger and Dixie, happily race around the wooded backyard, slobbering on a ball and tormenting a rubber sheep.
“I’ve always had dogs,” Ross says, throwing the ball into a scrum of fur. “They’ve gotten me through some tough times.” He’ll tell you his life story in a matter-of-fact way, with detours into interesting anecdotes—he’s got the long view on everything and everyone in wine and food over the last 40 years—but it’s only afterward, when one ponders the punishing 18-hour days and family time sacrificed, that one realizes there must have been some tough times indeed.
Ross has Long Island reds of recent vintage on hand, but they are judged too heavy for this summer evening. He also shows us a bottle of Hargrave Vineyard merlot from 1980. “The first vintage that was really good,” he says. “That merlot was delicious.” And, he says, he recently enjoyed a prized magnum of 1988 Bedell Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon.
He brings out Cuvée Spezi, a lively red made from the Portugieser grape, that sells for about $6 a bottle in Germany. The quality for that price point is amazing. This is possible, in part, because about two-thirds of the bottles are reused—literally collected from customers, washed, sterilized and refilled. Ross knows this, because he frequently visits the winery, Schlossgut Janson in the Pfalz region. It has been in his son-in-law Kurt Janson’s family for nearly 200 years, but dates from long before that. Ross’s wife, Lois, is not dining with us because she is over there, helping their daughter Sarah with the new baby, Henry, a little brother for two-year-old Vivian. The wine, by the way, is named after the Janson’s coddled pet horse, Spezi, whose goofy cartoon visage decorates the label.
These days, Ross is just as happy to talk about his family as he is food and wine, but it seems the topics are inseparable anyway. He tells of a recent culinary adventure in Pfalz, when he created a sitdown dinner for 16 friends and family. Ross sourced local trout: “The fishmonger took the trout out of the water and hit them on the head with a mallet,” he remembers. “It was definitely fresh!” He served it with roasted hazelnuts and white asparagus. It was followed by an Argentine filet mignon, for which he made a classic Bordelaise sauce.
Back on Ross’s deck, the shrimp and tomato pasta is delicious, and the wine pairs perfectly. The light is doing its golden evening thing, and the dogs are still having a blast.
Here or abroad, Ross takes from the nearby fields and waters to create his cuisine, an art that enjoys high esteem today. But this was not always the case. Ross explains: He was a “normal, mixed-up kid” from Ontario, who dropped out of University of Michigan in 1965. This was before the rise of American cuisine and the celebrity chef. “Being a chef was considered a very low-end job in those days,” he says. “It was not something your parents would be proud of at all.”
Instead, he had a head full of poems, inspired by readings by the likes of Frost and Bly. The poet plan didn’t thrill his parents either, but, hey, this was the ’60s. In Omaha, Nebraska, Ross sensibly decided that starving need not be part of the job description, and took up cooking at an Italian restaurant. When the Vietnam War loomed, the Coast Guard decreed that Ross would serve his country by attending Coast Guard cooking school on Governor’s Island.
“I know people want to hear that you’ve cooked in France and Italy and all that crap, but I didn’t,” he says. “I cooked in the Coast Guard. It was an incredible experience. I was on a 300-foot cutter, on these huge waves all over the North Atlantic, and we baked bread and served hot meals every day. We cooked real food back then; these days, unfortunately, the military has gone too far with the fast-food model. They just open packages.”
After discharge, Ross continued his bachelor’s degree at Cornell Hotel School in Ithaca. A summer job brought him to East Hampton, to a fine French-inspired restaurant called Squires. It was Ross’s first trip to the East End, and he loved it, so, after he graduated, he moved his family to Southold and took over fellow Cornellian Steve Mutkoski’s restaurant, the Carriage House. Ross’ North Fork Restaurant opened in the winter of early 1974. He donned his trademark garb: “When I opened that restaurant, I was pretty naive, but I knew I wanted to be a chef. So I put on a chef’s hat and coat because I wanted to look like a chef, too.”
He cranked out daily menus on a mimeo machine: six entrées, four apps; flounder was $4.95, a steak dinner, $7.95. Bonnie Hoffner baked bread, desserts, even made pasta, and kept all the recipes in looseleaf notebooks.
Then, Ross came to, what else? A fork in the road. Preprocessed food for the restaurant industry was taking off, and for many, it seemed like the best thing since sliced bread. Why not dramatically cut prep time, and offer a consistent product? Why not expand the menu? Remember, the idea of “fresh and local” didn’t even exist. In a stroke of genius that became his legacy, Ross took the road less traveled.
“We were surrounded by the most incredible produce and seafood on the North Fork, and this is what I wanted to explore,” he says. “I decided that, no, I’m going to cook fresh-as-fresh-can-be.”
In 1984, Ross moved his restaurant to Route 48, where O’Mally’s is now. And in 1996, Ross’s Rotisserie opened nearby, offering real-food takeout, a godsend for those working the grape harvest. But by 2000, the years on his feet in a hot kitchen, every weekend, every holiday, plus teaching, had taken their toll.
“I was physically showing signs of wear,” says Ross, with a twinkle in his eye. He retired and, returning to his early interest, started writing. He chronicled the incarnations of every restaurant from Riverhead to Orient in stories and anecdotes, and paired them with recipes from his own collection. The Food and Wine of the North Fork was published in 2005.
After a brief stint at Old Vine Golf Club in Riverhead, and another book, The Story of North Fork Wine, published in 2009, Ross decided to properly retire. It was time to play some serious golf at the North Fork Country Club in Cutchogue, where he had long been a member. But the club president asked if he’d like to be the club manager, in charge of the kitchen, bar, dining room and 25 employees. It’s an active job, but it comes with a quiet office and a comfy chair. So Ross unretired again.
The Cuvée Spezi is long gone, and we’re on to an LI red wine now, as tuna steaks have magically appeared. The dogs are lying down at last. There’s one more tale, a lesson on channeling creative energy during the long ago North Fork winters, when people were actually scarce and the restaurant days a mere 12 hours long. An artist creates new and pleasing things from what is found in his or her surroundings. But after the food was fashioned and the pink napkins folded into fans, what else in Ross’s restaurant wanted messing with?
Corks. Tens of thousands of corks pulled over the decades. Servers dutifully tossed them into a large glass bowl, and Ross transformed them into cork horses, wreaths, wine chillers, a huge tabletop that is still on his deck, and a nine-foot map of the North Fork showing the wineries of the time.
“I may be a failed poet, but I have my cork art,” Ross says, laughing.
Gwendolen Groocock is the editor of the Greenport Guide, and writes about food, wine, travel and mommyhood from her home in Greenport.