From France, with Love

It’s a busy Friday night at the Three Village Inn’s Restaurant Mirabelle. A face very familiar to the Mirabelle name, Maria Reuge greets each and every customer as they approach her hostess table. She tells me they are preparing a special table for us if we don’t mind waiting, which we don’t mind at all. One could get lost in the coziness of the space, the cushioned love seats and living-room feel of their lobby, adorned with stacked bookshelves and curio cabinets displaying mementos from over the years. My husband and I take a seat beside the burning fireplace and are quickly greeted by Guy Reuge, in his chef whites, with a snack for us: brandade de morue, a traditional French appetizer dip composed of salted cod and pureed potato served with toast points. If this is any indication of the meal we are about to experience, we’d wait for hours. We are quickly shown to our table.

From there we are taken on a four-course culinary adventure, each dish prepared with the remarkable flavors that exemplify Reuge’s New American flare combined with the traditional French cuisine he is so well known for from his days at Mirabelle in Saint James.

I had met with Reuge a few days earlier to discuss his own culinary adventures; a journey that began in France’s Loire Valley, took him through New York City and landed him on Long Island’s North Shore. And through the many stops along the way he was proud to talk about the few things that always remained consistent: his passion for local, seasonal food; his love for his craft and his family; and his devotion to foie gras, duck confit and ginger almond tarts. Luckily, I was able to experience all of these at dinner this particular Friday night. But it was during our previous meeting that I got to know the man behind the chef whites.

“Food always had a priority in my young life.” Reuge begins. “My mother could hold herself quite well on the front of the stove. She always made sure that Sunday lunch was made into a special meal, and by age 10 I started to be interested in helping her to bake a special pie or dessert. I loved the smell and the activity in the kitchen when my siblings were still asleep on those early Sunday mornings. My hand in the flour about to become dough made me feel good.”

Also by age 10, Reuge had developed a youthful fascination with American culture, an allure inspired by the numerous Americans that lived in his neighborhood, home to the largest U.S. Army Base in France in the 1960s. “I became friendly with an American family that moved in across the street. They used to have barbecues outside,” his eyes light up. “It was there that I discovered marshmallows on a stick and Wonder Bread. Their lifestyle was fascinating to me! I said to myself, ‘One day I will go.’”

And in 1973, Reuge left his home front in France on a one-way ticket to the United States. He was flown out compliments of notable Swiss restaurateur Georges Rey, who had opened a namesake restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, an opportunity Guy had read about in the Swiss classified ads. He arrived at JFK with nothing more than a one-month tourist visa, a suitcase with little more than an apron and some knives, and not a lick of English in his vocabulary.

Thirty-eight years later, he relates the moment that the French-speaking immigration agent approached him. He feared the occupation (chef) listed on his passport would inspire a search of his bags and thus send him on the next plane home. “She looked me over and read my papers. I thought I was headed back to France,” Reuge says with a smile. “And then, she whispered to me in French ‘I’ve been looking for a really great recipe for an apple tart.’ A little shocked, I wrote the recipe down as fast as I could and gave it to her. She walked me through the lines, and there I was, in the United States!”

The stint at Georges Rey lasted a year. He admits, “At age 21, I was more interested in discovering the world, and rediscovering food at its roots.” Which he proceeded to do for the next year or so, leaving America behind to tour Spain, Morocco and Mexico.

But New York City had plans for him, and Reuge’s first day back in 1975 found him at P. J. Clarke’s, where, among a group of chatty girls and a few beers with his buddies, he met his future wife, Maria, then an administrative assistant at Gourmet, where she would eventually become an editor. This connection not only led to a wedding in 1980, but was the catalyst that sparked Guy’s culinary career in New York. While working at the acclaimed Le Cygne, Reuge became acquainted with the folks at Gourmet, having rubbed elbows when he would pick his girlfriend up after work. “Gourmet magazine was amazing! It would do these food centerfolds, like Playboy, but instead of beautiful women, they featured beautiful food!” One such centerfold featured Sally Darr, a chef and Gourmet recipe editor who at the time was traveling France collecting recipes for a collaborative cookbook with Gourmet. Reuge was hired to test these recipes, and each day off he had from Le Cygne was spent doing so, until the 1978 publication of Gourmet France. “It was great fun!” recalls Reuge, “And it created great connections for me.”

1978 also saw Guy’s first opportunity to work as head chef at a restaurant that was opening on the border of France and Germany. Eager to advance his career, Reuge took the job, though six months later left the prestigious position behind.

Coincidentally, Sally Darr, now a friend, sent Guy a letter inviting him to join forces in the opening of a new restaurant, and together they opened La Tulipe in 1979. The West Village hotspot became what Reuge describes as “the new wave of New York,” and within three months received a three-star review from the New York Times. “It was one of the highest points of my career!”

While chef de cuisine at La Tulipe, Reuge hobnobbed with some of the biggest names in the culinary field, diners like James Beard and Julia Child. He counted Woody Allen and Robert DeNiro as regulars. “It was a great, fun time. I look at it as inspiration for me to succeed as a chef and restaurateur, no more, no less.”

After a two-and-a-half-year run, Reuge left La Tulipe behind for a chance as executive chef at Le Plaisir. The successful and long-running French restaurant on Lexington Avenue was under new ownership, which later regretted keeping the name—it lended itself to strong comparison and even stronger criticism. Reuge recalls Julia Beard’s poor review of Le Plaisir in W magazine as one of the lowest points of his career and the very worst review of his life. Within nine months Le Plaisir closed its doors.

Reuge landed as a chef at Tavern on the Green, where he and his wife’s uncle began discussing the idea of opening a restaurant in the country, on Long Island, where Maria’s family was living.

In December 1983 Guy and his family opened Mirabelle on Old Country Road in Saint James. “Long Island was deserted,” recalls Reuge. “I was the first New York City chef to leave the big city and make an attempt to open a restaurant on Long Island.” It didn’t take long before they were welcomed. In February 1984, Newsday ran a two-part spread that notably featured Mirabelle. “Within three days we were booked! It was huge, huge exposure. We were the talk of the town. It was amazing! Opening Mirabelle was another one of the highest points of my career.”

Mirabelle became a landmark restaurant, with diners driving from far and wide to sample the traditionally French cuisine of Reuge and to take part in the history it was making along the way. “It was a dream,” Reuge admits reminiscently. “My oldest daughter took her first steps in the dining room of Mirabelle. It was a place I was very proud of, I still am.”

Reuge still had big aspirations and considered another run at a Manhattan restaurant. But his family, now comprised of wife Maria and their two daughters, Maria and Cecile, remained his main support system. “One could write a book about the balancing act of being a chef-restaurateur and a family man. It is hard for you and everybody around you. At the end you feel like you have to apologize to your family,” Reuge confesses.

So the next big thing would have to be closer to home. Fortunately, Reuge heard of the Lessing’s Group’s purchase of the Three Village Inn. He made an offer on the long-coveted space, only to be quickly denied. Though within four months, he was contacted by the Lessing’s Group with a proposal to merge businesses.

Now Guy sits comfortably in a corner banquette table in the formal dining room at the Three Village Inn. The airy bright-peach space with fireplace and simple garden whimsy decor is the place, since 2009, he and Mirabelle call home.

Brought in to revamp their catering operation as well as create new dining spaces within the Stony Brook historical landmark, Reuge has incorporated his culinary craft on a finer scale at Restaurant Mirabelle and as a more casual concept at Mirabelle Tavern, which is a darker, more rustic space with a cozy, homey feel that serves up everything from burgers and fries to a daily foie gras.

Restaurant Mirabelle offers a seasonally relevant menu as well as the acclaimed nine-course Mirabelle Grand Tasting Menu, which is available nightly, and may be accompanied by paired wines if desired. They boast an extensive wine list and beer program, which has included a Blue Point Brewery BBQ this past summer, featuring live music from acclaimed Blue Grasser Buddy Merriam and pints of Blue Point’s limited release Imperial Black Cherry Stout. Previous beer dinners have included a well-received Brooklyn Brewery pairing event and an IPA dinner that paired Guy’s fare with the likes of Racer 5 IPA from Bear Republic, Nugget Nectar Imperial Amber from Troegs, Sam Smith’s India Ale and Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel. Upcoming events include the restaurant’s Summer Truffle Festival, starting June 15, which will allow enthusiasts to add the high-end delicacy to already existing dishes.

And the work doesn’t seem to end. In the next few months, Reuge will create a separate guest entrance to the restaurant, a Champagne bar where guests and diners can sip cocktails and chat, sit beside the burning fireplace and enjoy a small plate. The main goal is primarily to separate the dining entities, the hotel operation and the catering department of the Three Village Inn, so that each can run seamlessly without unnecessary interaction.

He admits to facing challenges in no longer being his own boss, as he was for 25 years before Mirabelle of Saint James closed its doors in 2009. “The only difficult part when working for someone else is not being able to necessarily make the final decision. I miss that of course, but the stress is less as well.”

Not to say his job is a walk in the park just yet, though he does make it his business to take a walk through the local farm stands before arriving to work each morning. Locally grown, fresh and seasonal items are a huge component of Reuge’s food philosophy, and as the evolution of food has embraced local, sustainable cooking, he finds himself very comfy within those terms. With the vast agricultural plenty Long Island has to offer, Reuge is a regular at many local farms and purveyors, with ingredients particular to each stop, including mache, frisée, radishes, braising greens and mesclun from Cutchogue’s Satur Farms, tomatoes and herbs from KK’s biodynamic Farm in Southold, miniature greens, salads and herbs from Sang Lee Organic Farm in Peconic, and a surprise basket filled with seasonal items he picks up every Wednesday from Golden Earthworm Organic Farm in Jamesport. And while he hasn’t yet hung up his apron, admitting to having worked behind the line only the night before our meeting, he also admits to remembering where he started and embracing it. “Every morning when I come in I clean the lettuce. It’s quiet and mindless work, and it gives me time to think. In that time I create specials. And when it’s done I know it’s perfect.”

Reuge has his hand in other pots as well, with Lessings and Jim Simons he has created the Simons Center Café within the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics on the grounds of Stony Brook University. Handing over the chef reins to former Mirabelle employee Paolo Fontana, Reuge has less to do with the food and more to do with the initial creation and design of the space, a modern take on cafeteria-style dining with five-star cuisine available to students, faculty and the public.

Reuge also hosts cooking classes, as well as guided culinary tours and vacations, one of which he just returned from prior to our meeting: a 10-day gastronomy tour of the Loire Valley of France where he grew up, which included a two-day stop in Paris. He has written Le Petit Mirabelle, a cookbook that was published in 2000, and is currently contributing to a new cookbook as well.

When he does have time to eat out he enjoys dining at Per Se in the Time Warner Center in NYC’s Columbus Circle. “This place is very special to me; because it’s good, because it’s so good! Chef Thomas Keller is more French than any French cook in New York. I love his style.” And if he could choose a last meal, “Probably something like a great roasted chicken from a farm like Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania, served with fingerling potatoes roasted in duck fat and, of course, a great wine to go with it.”

Declared a member of the Académie Culinaire de France (1990), named Maître Cuisinier de France and a member of the Commanderie des Cordons Bleus (1991), named Secretary of the Maîtres Cuisiniers de France in the USA (1996), named Commandeur du Mérite Agricole (2001) by Minister of French Agriculture Francois Glaviany, recipient of the Silver Toque and named Chef of the Year (2006), and nominated by the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef of the Northeast (2009, 2010), chef Guy Reuge has had quite a profound career.

He himself says it best, “Only 50 years ago, a French teenager not too good in school was sent to the hard work in a kitchen, underpaid, ruffled, and neglected by the rest of the world. What a change!”

Courtney MacGinley has a passion for good food and great films. She writes from her home in Coram.