Why a conservationist must take time for food.
By Eileen M. Duffy
photographs by randee daddona
Bob DeLuca, executive director of the conservation nonprofit the Group for the East End, is a busy man. If you want 15 minutes of his time for a phone call, it’s best to schedule it; he’s probably being interviewed for a front-page article in a Long Island paper or visiting a congressman in Washington or traveling to Albany or editing conservation reports or writing them. “It’s a juggling act,” he says.
This act extends into his East Marion kitchen, where he is the chief cook and on weekends becomes a version of Iron Chef mixed in with Slow Food. Like many who live on the East End, DeLuca is decidedly a local eater, and for a recent dinner at his home he stopped by Sang Lee, for fingerling potatoes and salad ingredients including Easter egg radishes; the Southold Fish Market, for bluefish; Braun, for mussels; Sep’s, his local farm stand, for asparagus and strawberries; and Wickham’s, for the donuts.
That’s five stops for three courses. Then the preparations started.
“He loves to chop,” says his wife, Lisa, an admitted non-foodie. “It releases tension,” DeLuca replies, as onions, red peppers and butter go into a frying pan for the first course of mussels, sweet and small in their shining blue-black shells.
He spins around to pour lemon juice and white wine over the bluefish—“Don’t cook with anything you wouldn’t drink”—so much DeLuca’s favorite that he asked for it on his birthday as a child.
“It cost 59 cents a pound,” he says, “how could my father say no?”
Considering the idea that bluefish, which turns many people off with its oily texture and strong smell, might be an odd birthday dinner choice for a kid, DeLuca shrugs.
“It’s greatly underappreciated,” he says, adding that his method of cooking it, covering it in the acidic citrus and wine, which actually starts cooking the fish before it goes on the grill, mitigates the fish’s oiliness.
His 10-year-old son, Robby, was called on to light the grill. (He passed on the bluefish—as did the DeLucas’ daughter, Marina—but returned for dessert.) “I’ve always been a cook,” DeLuca says. “My mother and father both cooked a lot. He was Italian and she was Polish; there was always fighting over what to cook.”
“They were both very strong willed,” adds Lisa. “And then add him to the mix…”
DeLuca smiles, which he does a lot, and laughs at himself.
“I think cooking probably qualifies as my first or second favorite hobby,” he says. “After bird-watching.”
Thyme was picked from a pot on the back deck and tossed with the potatoes.
The diners had a choice: beer from the Publick House in Southampton, or rosé from Wölffer Estate in Sagaponack (which will host the Group for the East End’s annual benefit on June 25).
DeLuca uncorked the bottle, and then ran outside to check on the fish. Meanwhile guests ate salad, and even though DeLuca wasn’t sitting down most of the time, it kind of felt like he was. Conversation ranged from his son’s new facility with card tricks to public policy on pollution in the bays to kitchen successes and disasters, of which he admits have been very few. “Sometimes the only disaster is the cleanup,” says Lisa.
The bluefish was served with the asparagus and potatoes. Marina, 13, passes through to say she’ll definitely be a cook, adding she’s already developing her own style, evidenced in her pasta sauce.
When he was at Wickham’s, DeLuca had looked at the donuts and had a brainstorm: They would make a good base for a strawberry shortcake. He bought the cinnamons, sliced them like bagels, added unsweetened strawberries, whipped cream and a sprig of mint from the pot out front.
Robby picked his up and ate it like a burger. “These need a name,” says DeLuca.
“How about Wickham’s strawberry sliders?” he suggests. Done.
Eileen M. Duffy, Edible East End’s deputy editor, holds a diploma in wine and spirits from the International Wine Center and writes from her home in Southold.
The Group for the East End’s annual benefit, Barefoot Under the Stars, is Saturday, June 25. eastendgala.org.