Chef Bill Valentine is at the stove stirring a pot of aromatic soup and looks to his boss, Cheryl Stair, for approval. She reaches in with a spoon, tastes and tells the chef, “I wouldn’t go anymore.” But he nudges her to taste a second batch on another burner and after reevaluating, she happily tells him, “OK, go in between the two.”
Stair is in her kitchen at the Art of Eating, housed in the former Honest Diner on Highway 27 in Amagansett. Before she can head out of the kitchen, past her husband’s office to the front of the house, she notices a woman sitting at a table holding her head in pain.
The top chef acts more like a mother toward the kitchen worker than her boss. “They are my children,” she says later sitting in a red leather booth.
Stair and her business partner/husband John Kowalenko met at Club Pierre’s in Hampton Bays when both were working there in the early 1980s. Two years later they were married, and in 1988 Art of Eating was conceived.
Today, they arrange other people’s weddings. Just don’t call them caterers. Stair is quick to point out that Art of Eating is much more. “We do everything from booking hotels for out-of-town guests to tenting, music, flowers, design themes, valet service and bathrooms,” she says of her company that produces 150 parties per year—five a week in summer—some with more than 1000 guests, making Art of Eating one of the largest event firms based on the East End.
Stair seems most proud that Art of Eating is an integral part of a family milestone, whether it is Grandma’s 90th birthday party, a child’s first Holy Communion, high school graduation or a carefully planned wedding. “They trust us with every tiny detail,” she says, “Maybe Aunt May needs help to the clam bar.” Long time charitable clients also include several local food pantries, The Nature Conservancy, Mashomack Nature Preserve, Ladles of Love and Guild Hall.
Their most recent wedding took place at Harry Ludlow’s Ocean View Farm in Bridgehampton. Ludlow’s wife baked the pies for the event, and the bride made the pottery used for table arrangements.
On the other hand, Art of Eating is not afraid to travel for a corporate event. “We’ll go anywhere,” Stair says. Every April, for example, they travel to Augusta, Georgia, to cater the Masters Golf Tournament. “It takes a lot of people to do that,” she says, “Thank God, we have a great support team.”
By all accounts Stair and Kowalenko, who runs the business side of Art of Eating, get along famously. When asked how they manage to work together so harmoniously, Stair notes, “Right now, John is in Montauk staying at the East Deck Motel. He brought his books and surfboards with him. Every year, he does his little thing.”
Aside from a needed break, now and again, Stair’s recipe is simple. “If you work together, it’s just like marriage. It’s important to let go. Certain battles, you know you’re not going to win.”
Together, they won a bid to serve as the exclusive caterer to the new Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, which includes the on-site café. The 49-seat museum café will be open six days a week during the winter and seven in summer, with an additional outdoor area.
“Potentially we’re going to do a blackboard menu, motivated by what’s growing,” Stair says. “Local food has always been our thing. People come to us for that.” (For one early-fall event they dished sautéed local black fish topped with a fritto of orange, lemon and garden herbs—local sorrel, sage and parsley dipped in buttermilk from Goodale Farms and flour, fried, and then sprinkled on top of the fish.) The Parrish food will be familiar to the museum-café genre; soups, salad, sandwiches, hot items and desserts, but Stair promises, “Those soups and sandwiches will not be typical. We don’t want it to be boring. We’re thinking, people coming out from the city on Friday night will stop and relax with a cappuccino until the traffic dissipates. There’s plenty of parking, and you don’t have to pay to enter the museum to eat at the café,” she says.
With luck, they’ll be serving Art of Eating’s potato chips, bags of which are piled on the former diner’s countertop. “They are expensive,” Stair says with a slight wince, “Nine dollars a bag, but people love them. They are just that good.”
The labor-intensive and mouthwatering chips on the counter are going to the Milk Pail. “We used potatoes from Halsey’s farm their cousin Adam grew. The garlic and parsley are my favorite. We might do a spicy one next, with all these chilies we have.”
All summer long, the Art of Eating staff pickle, can, freeze and dehydrate so they have access to local food during the winter. “We just did Swiss chard stems and figs and peaches.” Stair, who grew up in Cutchogue, calls herself “bi-forkal” and has just completed her weekly loop around the two forks, stopping at her favorite, mostly organic, farms. “I hit the berry guy in Orient, who has beautiful figs right now,” she gushes.
Then a rapid-fire list of names: Sang Lee, Krupski’s, Latham’s, Catapano’s, Goodale, the Southold Fish Market, Green Thumb, Milk Pail, Country Garden, Ludlow, Halsey and Balsam Farms.
“You need an arsenal of farmers.”