On most summer days at Estia’s Little Kitchen on the fringe of Sag Harbor Village, families meander outside under apple, pear and peach trees while waiting for a table at the celebrated café. Children wait hungrily for fresh fruit pancakes while they poke at bright yellow zucchini blossoms, finger cherry-red stalks of Swiss chard and smell mint nestled among a kaleidoscope of native flowers.
For chef and owner Colin Ambrose, the image evokes memories of his own children’s earliest interactions with food, beginning at his first farm on Lorne Michael’s Amagansett property where he created a chefs co-op for local produce. The fruits of that venture made his first restaurant, Estia’s Coffee Shop, the kind of place where locals and visitors alike wouldn’t bat an eyelash at waiting in line down Main Street, Amagansett for a sample of blueberry pancakes or the signature two-hour salad, a seasonal selection of produce plucked warm from the ground just hours before it was artfully presented on a diner’s plate.
That coffee shop’s lease was sold years ago as Ambrose began to focus his culinary energies on Estia’s Little Kitchen after buying the once sleepy Tony’s Coffee Shop in 1998.
Ambrose ceased farming at Michaels’ property in part because of geography but also because of a hungry deer population. However, The Little Kitchen, as it is known to scores of regulars, has retained the devout loyalty of Ambrose’s clientele, and this year, Ambrose has returned to his roots, building a kitchen garden on one-third of an acre behind his restaurant. The garden teems with fruits and vegetables that make their way onto plates at the Little Kitchen, supplemented when needed by the produce of local farmers like Bette Lacina and Dale Haubrich, Marilee Foster, David Falkowski, Alex Balsam, Ian Calder-Piedmonte and longtime friend and mentor Scott Chaskey of Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett.
“I buy from who I can, who I trust and what works for us,” said Ambrose on Monday morning, sitting at a table outside of his restaurant. “I bought Milk Pail peaches for our blueberry peach pancakes while I wait for my peaches to ripen. I just bought a bunch of carrots and potatoes from Bette and Dale for South Fork succotash.”
The Little Kitchen has long supported local farmers, and while Ambrose remains committed to the South Fork farms, he added he is pleased he is now able to bring more of his own food into the Little Kitchen.
The kitchen garden was designed by Susan Meyer and Ambrose, and was established this past fall making this spring and summer The Little Kitchen Garden’s first harvest. The garden is tended to by Ambrose, but also by Jeff Negron who on many days can be seen from the Sag Harbor-Bridgehampton Turnpike pruning the Little Kitchen’s decade-old blueberry bushes or inspecting heads of delicate lettuce nestled under the natural shade of a birch tree.
True to Ambrose’s lifelong culinary commitment to chemical-free, seasonal local produce – something the restaurateur has embraced long before the practice became trendy – the kitchen garden is fertilized by Ambrose’s own compost, turned in three concrete compost bins at the edge of the restaurant property. Bits of eggshell can be seen poking up from soil in the rows of basil.
Ambrose’s career began in 1991 when he bought Estia’s in Amagansett, creating a restaurant focused on local produce, fish with a Mexican influence finding its way into menu items. After befriending Chaskey and becoming enamored with the idea of farming his own crops, Ambrose reached out to regular customer and artist John Alexander and asked him if he knew of any fallow land he could use.
Enter Lorne Michaels. The Saturday Night Live creator allowed Ambrose to create a two-acre garden on his property. A pasture for 50 years, Ambrose nearly drools when describing the “enhanced Bridgehampton loam” that his vegetables took root in. A regular customer, Rhett, agreed to clear the acreage for coffee and eggs at Estia for five months and Ambrose’s first garden was born.
His partners in what would become known as The Basil Brothers Chefs Co-op included famed chefs Charlie Palmer and Rick Moonen, along with local chefs Dennis MacNeil, Gerry Hayden and the late Kevin Henry.
“They were all so influential in the easy days of East Hampton’s culinary development,” said Ambrose of the latter three.
For two years, the chef’s co-op flourished, and while Ambrose still considers many of those men his brothers, the co-op eventually dwindled and after buying The Little Kitchen in 1998, Ambrose eventually stopped gardening on the property.
Ambrose continued to be a member of Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, his daughters Lyman and Mansell and wife Jessica joining him, as they did on the Michaels property, to collect vegetables for the family dinner table.
Now with the garden in place, Ambrose said he is not only thrilled to see the property take on a whole new aura, animals finding their way onto the property that never have before, and families finding their children drawn to the garden, just as his own children were when they were young.
“This is beyond a place to eat,” said Ambrose, slightly tearing. “Children wander through the garden and I tell their parents to let them pick a green bean. That is getting me to the next level.”
Lyman and Mansell, who formed their own company – A. Sisters Food Company — two years ago, selling “lymanade” of various flavors, fresh pasta and pesto, have taken on the family tradition of celebrating fresh, local food.
“We were so connected to the garden,” said Lyman on Tuesday. “It was fun to just be there with my dad, but it also really opened our eyes up about what is right to eat. Friends would tell me I was a picky eater, but that was because I grew up eating the best. That sad salad they served to me at boarding school was not something I was going to touch.”
Lyman, who is studying business and nutritional sciences at Bucknell this fall said she was always proud of her father, but once she and Mansell started their business and began selling their goods at local farm stands they witnessed first hand the kind of relationships he has built with people over the last two decades.
“It has been great to see the reaction everyone has to him,” said Lyman. “To see that side of it and how much people love that restaurant, it’s mind blowing that one man can produce that kind of following.”
Ambrose would likely blush at those comments.
“It’s not my goal to be anything more than I am today,” he said, wrapping up the interview. “I am that guy who will spend the next three hours getting this garden ready for the weekend. My job is to be a good father and just do what we do here.”