Long before plump heirloom tomatoes, succulently sweet local corn and briny Peconic Bay oysters became hallmarks for summer menus across the East End, restaurateur Jeff Salaway had tapped into the bounty of farm and sea at East Hampton’s Nick & Toni’s, creating a culinary destination dedicated to showcasing the fruits of local fisherman and farmers’ labor in its Mediterranean and rustic Italian-inspired menu.
“We started our own organic garden 17 years ago,” remembered Nick & Toni’s executive chef Joe Realmuto, who had just begun his career at the restaurant that very year under then-executive chef Paul Del Favero, who is now at the helm of Bobby Flay’s Las Vegas outpost of Mesa Grill. “We were already using local farmers, reaching out to fishermen. The concept from day one was it was all about the ingredients, not the presentation. Jeff would say we didn’t need more than three items on a plate, and Paul was trained in France, so using local, seasonal food was a part of his culinary training.”
Salaway perished in a car accident in 2001, but not before he had already begun to cultivate his dream of a culinary curriculum, complete with a state-od-the-art kitchen, garden and greenhouse, at The Hayground School in Bridgehampton– the educational institution he helped found.
Salaway’s philosophy — that food was an intrinsic part of family and community — is one shared by a number of chefs, locally and around the world, who will come together this weekend to honor his mission at the 2010 Great Chefs Dinner at the Hayground School, which will benefit both Jeff’s Kitchen and Salaway’s scholarship foundation.
For anyone with even a faint pulse on the culinary world, the lineup of world class chefs at Sunday evening’s event is proof enough that Salaway’s mission is supported far and wide.
The event will begin with a cocktail party featuring Tom Colicchio, the founder of Craft restaurants, who serves as the head judge on the popular Bravo television show, “Top Chef.” Colicchio, who was named the nation’s top chef by the James Beard Foundation in 2010, will be joined by some of the East End’s most talented and well known culinary talents including Realmuto, The North Fork Table & Inn’s Gerry Hayden and Claudia Flemming, Jason Weiner of Almond in Bridgehampton, Cheryl Stair of Amagansett’s Art of Eating, Sam Talbot of Montauk’s Surf Lodge, and Christian Mir of the Stone Creek Inn, to name a few.
For Weiner, cooking for a benefit in Salaway’s honor is coming full circle.
In 1997, Weiner forged a relationship with Salaway and Realmuto in Nick & Toni’s kitchen, before working in Las Vegas for three years after which he returned to the East End to open Almond with Eric Lemonides.
“Out here, especially this time of year, it’s a great time to be a chef and a great place to do it,” said Weiner. “The Hamptons, to outsiders, is a playground for people to come and hang out on the weekends, but for us, especially those in the restaurant business, it continues to be an amazing farming and fishing community and chefs out here are lucky enough to cut out the middle man and go right to the source. And that was a passion of Jeff’s before it was fashionable.”
At the cocktail party, Weiner will present Taylor Bay Scallop Ceviche with a Gazpacho Gelee.
“I am calling it a gazpacho gelee, but basically it is taking cucumbers and tomatoes and pureeing them, drawing out the moisture until you have a beautiful, clear water with the flavors of tomatoes and cucumber,” said Weiner. “Of course, I will be getting them from the Pike Farmstand in Sagaponack. You add gelatin to that water and end up with a cool, refreshing, slightly viscous texture.”
Weiner said he will marinate his ceviche simply, with lime, olive oil and a little jalepeno.
“At the end of the day, I am talking about highlighting three great ingredients,” said Weiner.
While Realmuto has traditionally had his cuisine featured in the VIP Wine Dinner, which follows the cocktail party, this year he will feature his Baja Style Fish Tacos from La Fondita — one of several restaurants he serves as executive chef for the Honest Management Company — during the cocktail hour.
“It’s fun and simple,” he said of the tacos, made with a fresh corn tortilla, local cod, a chipotle mayonnaise and shredded local cabbage, which is in abundance this time of year.
“It’s about the simplicity of having three ingredients on the dish — fresh local cabbage, local cod fish and chipotle mayo on a really good tortilla,” he continued. “The tang of the lime coupled with the smokey, rich, creaminess of the chipotle cuts into the fried fish making it so much more balanced.”
Other dishes sure to delight palates on Sunday evening include Foody’s Bryan Futterman’s Roasted locally raised pork sliders with BBQ sauce and coleslaw, to The 1770 House’s Kevin Penner’s Spanish Mackerel tartare with cilantro and lime and Hayden’s Long Island duck garlic sausage crostini with black olives and heirloom tomatoes. Colicchio will serve Colicchio & Sons pork carnitas Shawarma style, spit-roasted pork belly served in a warm tortilla with a spicy eggplant caponata.
For those not satiated by the cocktail party alone, some of the world’s greatest chefs will honor Salaway with a VIP Wine Dinner, giving supporters the opportunity to taste the cuisine of a handful of celebrated chefs in Jeff’s Kitchen.
Cookshop executive Chef Marc Meyer will open that dinner with a fresh buffalo mozzarella summer salad of roasted corn, chanterelles, baby tomatoes, pistachios, vejus and olive oil, accompanied by marinated pickled vegetables and Carolina white shrimp and cheese from Cavaniola’s Gourmet Cheese Shop in Sag Harbor.
For a second course, Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert will present a cold crab salad with a gazpacho sauce, that he said this week would resemble an heirloom tomato vinaigrette, although “I am still playing with it,” he acknowledged.
The third course will boast Meyer’s tasting of Virginia pork, BLT Restaurant’s Laurent Tourondel’s local, grilled stripped bass in a gingered lime scallion broth with jalapeno mashed potatoes and Ripert’s warm Romaine “Caesar” salad. Miche Bacher of Sacred Sweets and Emily Wallendjack will end the evening with a variety of desserts.
Ripert, also a judge on Top Chef, is more notably considered by many to be the foremost expert on cooking seafood in the world, and has earned a four star rating from the New York Times for Le Bernardin, a restaurant that continues to top the Zagat Guide as having the “Best Food” in New York City.
Ripert has been involved with the Great Chefs Dinner at the Hayground School for four years now, after experiencing what Hayground had to offer children when his own son attended camp there.
“I don’t know too many schools where there is such a beautiful facility for that,” he said of the culinary program at Hayground, adding being a part of the event is both rewarding in that he knows it supports education, but is also fun.”And, it is also nice to pay homage to our friend from Nick & Toni’s.”
For his dishes, Ripert said he intends to use local vegetables and seafood, a practice he also uses when shopping for the kitchen in his Noyac home.
“We buy everything in the farm stands and we try to support the locals including drinking local wines, so I am obviously thinking of my dear friend at Wolffer,” he said referring to the Christian Wolffer who died in early 2009. “Not only do we use produce, but a lot of local fish at home. It is saving the Hamptons from becoming a suburb of New York.”
“You won’t see restauarnts represented here who dont think in that philosophy,” said Realmuto. “The fact of the matter is, that Jeff’s Kitchen is what this is all about. I would have a hard time getting the same caliber of chef’s without it being for Jeff.”
Tickets for the 2010 Great Chefs Cocktail and Tasting under the Tent cost $150 with cocktails and dinner in Jeff’s Kitchen available for $750. For tickets, call 537-7068 and for more information, call 327-0573.