2014 Great Chefs Dinner: Q&A with Founder Toni Ross

Chef Jason Weiner of Almond restaurant garnishes at a tasting

Almond chef Jason Weiner.

The Great Chefs Dinner, a fund-raiser for Hayground School in Bridgehampton, has become a signature culinary event on the East End each summer. This year marks the 10th anniversary, and the lineup is already nothing short of spectacular. Elite chefs, including Alfred Portale (Gotham Bar & Grill), Jason Weiner (Almond), Joe Realmuto (Nick & Toni’s) and Christian Mir (Stone Creek Inn), will be cooking to raise money for Jeff’s Kitchen at the school. The kitchen was built in memory of restaurateur Jeff Salaway to honor his goal of educating children about the importance of growing, harvesting and preparing food.

The benefit will be Sunday, August 3, and tickets are $1,000. The event is honoring four-star top chef Tom Colicchio and his wife, filmmaker Lori Silverbush. Salaway’s wife, Toni Ross, and Le Bernardin chef, Eric Ripert, are hosting the dinner. Edible East End sat down with Ross at her Wainscott art studio to talk about the history of the event and the importance of food education.

Event founder Toni Ross and chef Joe Realmuto

Toni Ross with Nick & Toni’s chef Joe Realmuto

EEE: How did the first Great Chefs Dinner happen 10 years ago?

TR: Oh my God, was it 10 years ago? Oh wow…. My husband had died in 2001 and he was one of the founders of the school, and since its inception he had envisioned a culinary program that incorporated all kinds of things, cultural exchange, cooking, math, geopolitical issues, a way of communities coming together. And so he died in 2001 and the community, along with Jeff’s sister, Lizz Salaway, decided to do this fund-raiser bringing together all of Jeff’s chef friends to cook a meal. That first chefs dinner, we raised something like $310,000. People were really generous; it was really emotional and it was enough to get us started to frugally build a building, that’s how Jeff’s Kitchen was built. The first one was in New York City, and we did several in New York City the first years. On the occasion of Nick and Toni’s 20th anniversary, we made a big celebration out here. By then, the following year, we were able to host the dinner at Jeff’s Kitchen. That was the first year we were able to bring people to the kitchen and they could see what they had built.


EEE: What cause is the dinner raising money for?

TR: The dinner raises money both to support the culinary and garden program as well as to raise money for scholarships. Early on Slow Food East End underwrote an initial greenhouse for us, which was also part of my husband’s vision that the kids would be growing their own things and eventually selling their own foods and eating all together lunch every day with things they had grown in the garden. Now we have just built a second greenhouse, a larger greenhouse, and we are really supplying everything for ourselves. And then we add in some things from other local growers, but the kids make their own meal four days a week and serve it to each other. It’s incredible. The food is fantastically good.


EEE: Why was your husband so passionate about children learning about food and making food part of the educational process?

TR: He was passionate about food, period. He was passionate about what it does when people come together at a table. And he wanted our kids and kids in the community where he lived to have a better academic and educational experience than he had had as a child, and he felt that cooking, being in the kitchen, sitting down together was an opportunity — and particularly for this school where we have such a diversity of kids — it was an opportunity to share with each other and kind of let your guard down, and you could share stories about your family’s own cooking and how it differs from someone else’s. You could get into all kinds of conversations about the geopolitical implications of food. Why do some countries have this, and others have that, and who’s holding the salt. Where does the fish come from? He really saw it as a learning tool for many disciplines in a hands-on, fully experiential program.


EEE: I have always felt that there is more room for coverage of food from a geopolitical and societal angle, not just what the latest trend is.

TR: I’ve told this little anecdote before, but my husband always had a big stack of books on the night table and two of the books sitting on top of each other were The History of God and The History of Cod. The History of Cod is really about the development of a social strata throughout the world and salt cod and trading cod. There have been books simply written about salt, or other really important commodities. It can really inform how you see the world, if you really look at who’s holding what.


EEE: How do local food events like the Great Chefs Dinner and local farmers markets play a role in the health of a community?

TR: Supporting your community is something that we at Hayground are deeply committed to. It’s really the essence of the school. It’s a school where we would love to have any family that wants to send their child be able to do that. For that reason we support a lot of assistance for kids to come to the school. In order to have a healthy community, it’s important to support your neighbors. I think over the past 10 to 15 years there has been a dramatic increase in the interest in farms and sustainable eating and trying new things. Farms are growing a bunch of new things that haven’t been grown here previously. It relieves you of trucking things from God-only-knows where and putting tons of gas and fuel in the air; I really think there is a sense of pride in eating local and supporting your neighbors.

The Great Chefs dinner's great chefs

EEE: What are your day-to-day eating habits like?

TR: I’m naturally a healthy eater. As a kid I would be the one at the birthday party who asked for an apple instead of birthday cake. I eat a pretty good variety of food. There are not a lot of things I don’t eat — except I’m famous for not eating celery. But I’m a big fan of carbs. I’ll often go to the farm stand, buy a bunch of asparagus and eat half of it raw before I get home. I’ve been inspired by Hayground’s garden, as many of us have been, and I’ve been growing my own things here at home. My kale is coming up, and my garlic has sprouted and I’m waiting for the peas. My dog eats the snap peas off the vine and cherry tomatoes. It’s the funniest thing; she loves them.


EEE: How important is the local farming community to the social fabric of the Hamptons, and what needs to be done to preserve it?

TR: I think that’s a bigger question than I can answer. I think every community needs its farmers and needs its butchers and poultry farmers. It’s complex out here because of the land value. Actually, we as a community here have bought some development rights for the farm down the street, so they can continue to do what they do. Hayground has really played a significant role in working with other schools. There’s a consortium of all the schools, public and private schools, that come together to talk about food issues, farming issues, culinary programs. It can be hard to push through these gardening and culinary programs; they require time, effort and passion, and we’ve established such a strong presence and have really worked with the Department of Health and other political community organizations to change how they perceive kids in the kitchen with food.


EEE: How did Tom Colicchio and Eric Ripert get involved with the Great Chefs Dinner?

TR: ’Cause they’re angels. Tom was a friend of my husband’s, so I’ve known him for quite a while. And Eric, he came to do one of the dinners about six or seven years ago and just out of the goodness of his heart. Sandra (Ripert) and Eric have a son at Hayground camp; he’s madly in love with the camp, and he’s a great asset there. He loves the kitchen program at the camp, and I think Eric and Sandra have felt very close to the organization and have been really so supportive. So, Eric, since the first year he participated, has either cooked or been a guest or been a co-host with me. We honored him last year, and much to my complete shock he told me he had never been honored before. We did it first, and I couldn’t even believe it.


EEE: That’s mind-boggling.

TR: Yeah, that is mind-boggling. If you ask Tom why he does it, it’s because I ask. Jeff was a good friend, and there’s a real bond between restaurant people. This is what happens when chefs come together for something they really believe in. They put everything they have into it.


EEE: What is the dinner itself like?

TR: The dinner is really fun. One of the great things about the dinner — aside from the fact that you’re supporting an extraordinary program — is the Hamptons is a community that a lot of people don’t really know. This is a different Hamptons, what is being supported here. Aside from the fact that you’re supporting this extraordinary program, you’re having the opportunity to watch these chefs prepare the food. It’s an intimate setting, and all the chefs chip in to help each other. You’ll suddenly have Eric Ripert and Tom Colicchio, Josh Capon and Alfred Portale all plating food together and having fun. They’re really having fun, that, in and of itself, is just a blast. The food is obviously amazing. It’s a five-course dinner, and there’s a live auction, limited to six fantastic items exclusively food- and travel-related.


EEE: I think Hayground covers most of the food gamut for students.

TR: Yeah, I think Hayground makes this kind of opportunity available because of the nature of the program itself. Kids have the time to delve deep into topics. So whether it’s food, culinary arts, fine arts, math, the school isn’t broken up into 40-minute increments. Kids will spend several hours on a given day preparing the food and planning the menu for the next day. They’re responsible for serving the meal and cleaning up.


EEE: That’s the way it should be; you can’t get much done in 40 minutes.

TR: They’re learning extraordinary life skills, and also the conversations are then moving into the families about what they’ve been eating. What’s interesting, which was not purposeful necessarily, was the majority of the meals that the kids eat at lunch are vegetarian. It’s not purposefully vegetarian for any obvious reason, its vegetarian because there is a commitment to knowing where the products come from. We know where our vegetables and produce comes from. We eat our own produce. We buy from organic local farmers. And if there’s an opportunity where somebody has shot venison let’s say, or has brought in some lamb, and we know the source, then the kids have actually learned about that. They’ve butchered the meat, they’ve cooked it and they serve it. But it’s rare that there’s meat involved, and so you can imagine there was some resistance from kids early on, “Oh I don’t eat salad” or “I don’t eat beets.” Eventually that really turns around. Eventually they try things. It is true that if kids are given the opportunity to grow food, they will eat it. There’s a curiosity and a pride in what they’re doing.


EEE: Do you think because it is a learning environment, and the kids are learning to cook in a technique-oriented way and sourcing their own ingredients, that it changes their perception of vegetables?

TR: Yes, absolutely. There is a connection to what is happening. They plant the seeds; they see the plants grow; they take care of them; they harvest them, and they cook them. And here’s the other really wonderful thing about the program: there’s an immediate cause and effect, which often does not happen in a classroom setting, while learning about history or math. These are things you will need, but for a child to say I just picked this thing — I cooked it, and now I’m serving it to my friends, and I’m going to eat it now — it’s so gratifying because it makes sense. It’s practical. Here it is. I did this. There is so much pride and so much respect between the kids about the food that it really changes the way they think about food in general.


EEE: I think for a kid to be able to see the whole process and to be able to go through it themselves and to create something from start to finish is something that children often don’t get to do in school.

TR: Having expanded the kitchen this past year, we are now able to seat all the kids and all the staff all together at lunch. We had just outgrown the space really quickly. It’s just so exciting to watch them sit down together. Also, if you’re dealing with a lunch box situation — we didn’t have the kitchen program when my kids were at Hayground — the lunch box gets opened, the kids eat in five minutes then they’re gone. There is no conversation, calming down, and apparently, I’ve heard from the teachers, the kids’ energy level is more even keeled because of the kinds of food they are eating for lunch. They’re not getting that big rush of carbs and sugar and then dropping an hour later.


EEE: From a social standpoint, there is so much about how kids are always on their phones and not interacting as much. What role does cooking and eating play in getting them out of that cyber world and back to interacting with each other?

TR: Well, that’s also a very big question. There’s no doubt the Hayground culinary program causes and allows kids and faculty to interact in a really intimate and meaningful way. They’re sharing ideas, planning together, developing recipes. They’ve even planted all different kinds of garlic one year and had tastings to pick the kind of garlic they wanted to use for their cooking. They feel ownership of what they’re doing, and they’re sharing ideas. I don’t think you can ask for more than that. You are developing critical thinking, teamwork, and respect; there’s a lot of mentoring that goes on between small kids and older kids.