The Spirit of PlaceA visit with chef John Ross
Well before farm-to-table cooking and seasonal cuisine took root on eastern Long Island, there was Ross’ North Fork Restaurant in Southold. Former regulars get a dreamy look in their eyes as they tell you how they pine for dinners past. They still hunger after the sweetcorn. Less than three hours off the vine, quickly steamed and served with plenty of good butter, it went for “two bucks a bowl, for the table.” Then there was the half-duck from Crescent Farms. “We’d roast the heck out of it,” chef-owner John Ross recollected from his home in Southold. When it was done, he’d bone it so that “you could cut it like a steak.” The skin was crisp and sweet with caramelized honey and the meat was succulent. If beach plums were in season, he’d roast those, too, and puree and add them to the syrupy sour-sweet sauce called gastrique. And the oysters! They were from local waters, and Ross liked to bake them with butter, garlic, parsley, breadcrumbs, and a glug of anise-flavored liqueur.
Everything was made from scratch, even the puff pastry. Every summer evening, at five o’clock, after Ross had written the menu and his wife, Lois, had run it through the mimeograph machine and one of their three children had set the tables, he’d dispatch a waitress to old George Conway’s farm, to collect the corn in a burlap sack that would be waiting under a tree. Just out of restaurant school, Ross attended the First Symposium on American Cuisine in Lexington, Kentucky where Julia Child and Pierre Franey were among the speakers. Thus inspired, he never wavered in his resolve to cook honest food that spoke and tasted of the place where it was grown. And so it went for twenty-seven years, from 1973 to 2000, sixteen hours a day, six days a week, until Ross’s legs gave out and he quit the restaurant game.
“We weren’t a fancy Manhattan restaurant,” he said. “By chance, I bypassed the New York scene, having never worked in the city. And that turned to have been a good thing because it helped me to stay true to my vision,”
On a front burner in his unfancy home kitchen rested a thing of beauty, a big pot of stew, thick with leafy greens and chickpeas and pork that looks like the American cousin of a rustic French garbure. When told of the resemblance, the Canadian-born Ross, who is as plainspoken as his wonderful food, raised an eyebrow and said dryly, “We just call it soup.”
These days he cooks mostly in the kitchen of the First Presbyterian Church of Southold, where he’s involved in Maureen’s Haven, a consortium of churches that provide food and temporary shelter to people in need. Over the years, he also found time to write a newspaper column and a series of cookbooks that are as much a history of the region’s food and wine as they are a tribute to restaurants of a bygone era and also a vanishing way of life.
But he’s not nostalgic for the past. “The North Fork has changed a lot since the days when I ran my restaurant, mostly in a good way,” he said. Enthusiastic about the new generation of chefs who’ve discovered the region, he makes a point of mentoring young industry professionals. The other evening, two young women chefs came to dinner. Together, they prepared mussels en croute. The mussels were local, of course, and so were the leeks and white wine. For the croute, they hollowed out Ross’s own long-fermented sourdough rolls. Then they spooned the mussels and their broth into the rolls along with a splash of cream. It wasn’t strictly French, no, it was something better: a pure expression of North Fork cookery.