The food-and-wine circus that is the East End in the heat of the summer is actually a little like old-home week. Pull into the back parking lot of any restaurant around 3 p.m. and you will see just about everybody who has been working through the long winter months, whether pruning vines, feeding cattle or dreaming of a blinding dinner rush, delivering their goods for the hungry tourists, locals and, ahem, food and wine writers.
During the last week of June, chef Gerry Hayden was whizzing his motorized wheelchair just outside the kitchen door of his restaurant, the North Fork Table and Inn. Cooks were working the screen door pretty hard, going in and going out to fetch things from the storage shed and accept deliveries while shouldering a full side of beef.
Hayden was there to meet Russell McCall, who had just returned from a slaughterhouse in Rhode Island where two head of his Charolais steers had just been broken down to Hayden’
s exact specifications. “I’m going to take these ribs and dry age them,” said Hayden, who uses the wheelchair because of ALS, which he was diagnosed with in January 2011. The back of his chef’s coat reads “Hayden’s Heroes” a nonprofit started by friends after he fell ill, which has raised more than $100,000 to help Hayden and his wife, Claudia Fleming, the restaurant’s pastry chef, with medical bills and help fund research for the disease, which has no cure.
He then points out the full short loin and the strip loin as McCall and he discussed the improvement from the last slaughterhouse they used. “Would you want someone using your grapes after they’d been processed by people who didn’t know your grapes,” asked Hayden while McCall showed him the ground meat also given up by the steer. The sides had been hung for 10 days after slaughter to relax the meat and make it more tender. Charolais beef, the kind McCall raises, is known for being very lean: the fat is on the outside rather than marbled within. The animals are raised on grass and hay grown on the property not corn, which also makes them leaner. The extra dry aging will only add to the flavor and texture.
McCall had taken the steer on the Cross Sound Ferry up to Rhode Island and had paid 85 cents per pound to slaughter and butcher them. Unfortunately the butcher had forgotten to include the bones in the delivery. “Next time,” said Hayden, adding, “No one else gets McCall. I helped him figure out how to raise them. And we finally got it cut the way I want it cut. It’s going to be phenomenal.”
Standing around getting this quick course in butchering was Colin Ambrose, of Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor. He had stopped by in his pristine creamy white vintage pickup truck to say hi. The men discussed Big Ag’s control over slaughterhouses and the need for one on Long Island, while Hayden contemplated the chili and meatballs he could make from the ground chuck.
A little earlier Rosamund Baiz of the Old Field Vineyards hauled three cases of wine and an invoice into the kitchen while her granddaughter, Rozzy, sat in her car seat stained with mulberry juice. The baby was stained, not the car seat. If you want to know what a farm baby looks like, look up Rozzy.
The parade of deliveries continued through staff meal when Chelsea, a departing server-slash-social media-er, was toasted with Champagne for her last night. She was moving back to Rochester and got the familiar “We’ll miss you, you were a pain in the ass,” toasts.
A young man in a baseball hat showed up waving a piece of paper. “That’s our herb boy,” said Hayden. “He makes the pots of herbs we use to decorate the tables.” Line cook Ethan Crook sipped his wine, jumped up and left saying, “I got to go make butter sauce.”
Back in the kitchen, Fleming was trying out a new toy, popsicle molds, into which she was pouring a puree of cantaloupe, lime and ginger. “I’ve never done this before,” she said. “But on a hot day like this, don’t you just want a popsicle?” Hayden, in front of the pastry station, tossed back a sample of a new cold soup made with shrimp, shrimp stock and cannellini beans. It got the thumbs up. “You can taste the total essence of the shrimp,” he said.
Hayden is challenged by ALS, there is no doubt about it. He recently had a kind of pacemaker installed to regulate his breathing and is watching his diet like a hawk, because everything he puts in his body affects him, he says. “It gives my cells a fighting chance, because they are always under attack.”
The din and the heat of the kitchen instantly melt away once one departs for the front of the house. There is the domain of husband and wife team Mary and Mike Mraz. Not that they’re not sweating. The phone is ringing constantly and the bar needs setting up for the cocktails cooked up by Mike. The two couples have been running the restaurant and inn since 2006. There are 58 seats and on a good night they can serve as many as 212 people. Four years ago, the restaurant changed its menu from a la carte to fixed price. Now all who sit down choose three courses for $75, which says Mike will probably always include the fluke crudo, the hamachi and foie gras and a duck entrée. Wine pairings are always available and many are local wines.
Menu changes haven’t been the only happenings at NoFoTI, as they like to call it. In 2010 they opened the Lunch Truck in the back parking lot, a stationary hot dog truck that serves really good hot dogs as well as pulled pork, lobster rolls, chili and Fleming’s baked good. The dining room expanded in 2009 to accommodate about 20 more diners. Their four-room inn is usually booked, and the off-season has proved to be better than they expected, says Mike.
As has the whole experience, he adds. He and Mary were considering moving back west to where they met in college, but opportunity with Fleming and Hayden took them to the North Fork, where Mike says his three children have a yard, can ride their bikes, not to mention that he can ride his bike to work. “I love it,” he says.
And as the scene in the parking lot shows, North Fork Table has turned into the heart of the food community. In July, Hayden started a small farmers market on Friday mornings from 8:00 to 11:00 a.m. featuring the purveyors that supply his menu. Regular customers show up and have the chance to get one of Browder’s Birds to cook at home and maybe some tomatoes from Stephanie Gaylor of Invincible Summer Farm.
Running a restaurant is a complicated operation, like theater, says Mike. All these things go on behind the scenes. Every ingredient must be ordered, checked in and paid for. A downed phone line or an overflowing cesspool can ruin your night. Planning sometimes seems useless. It’s learning only after you’ve burnt your hand on a sauté pan. And someone can get sick. Watching that is heartbreaking, says Mike. “But he’s in here menu planning and paying bills, so it’s inspirational, too.” But who has time for that when the curtain goes up, and it’s time to serve dinner?