I came to the east end of Long Island twenty-four years ago to open a restaurant. At that time, there were a couple of people growing vegetables to sell to restaurants, most from what were large gardens and not farms. There were some people fishing in the local waters and some baymen clamming and harvesting bay scallops who would then sell to local restaurants and markets. The wineries were mostly new and trying to figure out what grapes to grow and how to properly vinify them. Most of the local restaurants were buying their produce and meat and fish from jobbers and distributors who might also have been importers of some European products.
So it is interesting to look back at those times from the standpoint of today on the east end. The North and South Forks of Long Island have become amazing places to cook, farm, fish and make wine. We now have a large number of local oyster beds that produce some of the finest oysters in the United States. The bay scallops, which were adversely affected by a brown tide in the mid-1980s, have come back to solid levels. The wineries have refined their efforts so dramatically that solid and consistent bottlings have replaced the inconsistent and not so good offerings of the time when I came here. We have local wheat and bakers who mill that wheat and make great bread with it. Small scale food production businesses continue to blossom and sell their products in the NYC market and in some cases nationwide. A few farmers on both forks are raising cattle, sheep, hogs and chickens of outstanding quality. The farmers who focus on vegetables are now large and well managed, turning out plenty of fantastic tomatoes, greens, potatoes, onions, garlic, sweetcorn and much, much more. It is now possible to cook in a restaurant that uses almost 100% locally grown, caught and produced products. Who would have thought this was possible when I first arrived? Not me.
I will go one step further and say that right now, in 2015, there is no finer place to cook with local ingredients in the United States. There is no other place in the United States where the farming of vegetables, fruits, grains, animal husbandry, winemaking and fishing coalesce to the degree that they do here.
This is a big claim to make, I suppose, in some quarters. But there is no other wine region in the country that has the fish and shellfish available to cooks in their area in the proximity that we do here on the east end. Long Island may be a little late to the game, but it has arrived in a very big way. When you look at the area regionally instead of locally, say from Portland, Maine to northern Virginia, the agriculture, aquaculture, fishing industry and viticulture is truly amazing and often overlooked in the food press.
The food press spends far too much time fetishizing food and chefs. The most important part of what is happening to food in the US, namely the growing demand for well made, well grown, sustainably harvested and distributed foods is happening before the chefs get their deliveries or do their purchasing. It happens on the farms and in the water and in the vineyards. I think in the future we will see restaurants playing a smaller role in food culture. The larger roles will stay with the farmers, fishermen and with the people who are remaking food manufacturing in the country.
The story I want to tell takes place where I am and where I cook. But as the growth of small-scale farming and food production continues all over the country this type of cooking can happen anywhere.
I am a chef. I have been cooking as locally as possible since I was a kid in college cooking for myself. As a chef, I have always supported local vendors and will continue to do so. My next concern is to find a way to get people to learn how to cook again so that they can enjoy delicious, healthful, locally sourced foods in their own homes. People at all economic levels have come to rely on everything from shitty prepared foods sold in big box stores and supermarket chains to high-end restaurants for their sustenance. Cooking at home at a reasonably high level, with amazing local ingredients and making truly delicious food is the future. And it is not that difficult.
This past summer was the first one in about 30 years that I didn’t spend in a restaurant kitchen. I cooked in a private home. And while I was cooking there I came to the realization that the meals I prepared could be cooked in any home that has running water, a stove, and a few kitchen tools. In the coming weeks and months, I want to provide some recipes and insights that will allow more people to enjoy cooking well, more healthfully and entertaining at home with friends and family. We’re going to be cooking on the east end and we will be cooking at home.
copyright 2015 Kevin Penner