Mangia Monday: Meet Scrimshaw chef Rosa de Carvalho Ross

Chef Rosa de Carvalho Ross inside the dining room of her restaurant, Scrimshaw in Greenport.

Chef Rosa de Carvalho Ross inside the dining room of her restaurant, Scrimshaw in Greenport. Photos by Katharine Schroeder.

Greenport Chef Rosa de Carvalho Ross was an expert in fusion cooking before the expression even existed. Now designating a popular culinary approach, fusion is a general term for a cooking style that melds different regional or sub-regional culinary traditions into a single eating experience.

Ross practically invented the idea. The proof of this is in the pudding—or in her case the whole menu at Scrimshaw waterfront restaurant in Greenport.

Scrimshaw, opened in 2004, features a menu as diverse as Ross’ background. A member of one of the oldest Portuguese/Asian families in Macao, she was born and educated in then-British Hong Kong and grew up with the culinary cultures of many countries. She has since traveled widely, living and learning culinary techniques in Europe, Asia, South America and the United States. All is evident at Scrimshaw, where patrons can choose anything from steamed Cantonese dumplings and duck confit spring rolls to sea-inspired dishes like an oyster po’ boy and flounder stuffed with shrimp, crab and scallops.

Although she has earned many accolades, penned three best-selling cookbooks and cooked with a veritable who’s who of culinary masters, Ross has had no formal training as a chef. Before the 1980s, in fact, the now 75-year-old had no interest in becoming a professional cook.

Growing up with meals cooked by servants, Ross feels that formal training is overrated in the kitchen. In fact, when she married advertising executive Ron Ross in the early 1960s, Ross vividly remembers crying at the sight of dirty dishes in their London home.

“When I lived in London I had to learn how to shop,” she said. “But I learned enough to be interested in cooking.”

Without formal schooling as a chef, Ross has let her passion be her guide. She learned by doing, and her savvy business mind and sassy personality paved the way for what would eventually become a world-class culinary career.

Scrimshaw Restaurant Greenport

Ross really got her culinary start by chance while residing in Italy, after the London years, when she struck up a friendship with world-renowned chef Marcella Hazan, who describes Ross as “her first pupil.”

“I was living in the country and I had a lot of time on my hands,” Ross said. “I met Marcella the first day I was there and she was the only one who spoke English, so we became friends. Eventually I became quite a good cook, mostly because I was interested and already had the background of eating different cuisines.”

After leaving Italy, she continued learning under other critically acclaimed chefs with styles of cooking as diverse as her palate. Her famed teachers included James Beard, Diana Kennedy, Jacques Pepin, Nick Malgieri, Alfred Kumin, Bobby Flay, Daniel Boulud, Anne Rosensweig, Bradley Ogden, Jeremiah Tower, Jaspar White and Martin Yan.

Despite all this experience, however, Ross never considered cooking a career, and by the time she moved to New York, professional cooking was the last thing on her mind, she recalled.

In the mid 1970s, Ross was working in a high-powered Manhattan advertising agency. The turning point in her career came unexpectedly in the late 70s. Frustrated by the large sums the company spent on client lunches, Ross took on the role of overseeing a private chef hired to cook for business meetings. “I used to go in there and supervise and play around in the kitchen, and my co-workers would say, ‘You can really cook. Why don’t you teach?’ ” Ross recalled with a laugh. “I would just say, ‘Who is going to pay for me to teach cooking?’ ”

Encouraged by her colleagues and the growing popularity of Chinese cooking, Ross began teaching people how to make fried rice with egg and other Asian-inspired dishes. The tutorials took off and it wasn’t long before Ross’ first professional culinary effort, Wok on Wheels, was born.

“All I needed was ingredients, a wok and a cleaver and I would go to people’s homes and teach them to cook Chinese,” she said. “I was surprised by the interest. I’d say to people. ‘You pay money to learn that?’ ”

Rosa Ross Scrimshaw chef

Before long Ross was teaching three in-home classes per week and had left the advertising world behind. Her big break came when a wealthy Midtown diamond jeweler hired her for her first catering job. From there, Ross says, she never looked back.

Today, Ross is a Certified Culinary Professional licensed by the State of New York as a culinary arts teacher. She has taught classes at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, now the Institute of Culinary Education, for more than 20 years and has written three cookbooks showcasing her unique mix of styles.

In the course of her career, she has appeared on the Food Network, The Discovery Channel and other national television and radio progra She is a member of the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance, the International Association of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, a founding member of the James Beard Foundation and a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier. For more than 20 years, she has been a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, serving two terms on its board of directors.

Avid sailors and East Marion residents since 1988, Ross and her husband took the plunge to open her first restaurant, on Greenport’s historic Preston’s Wharf in 2004. Her husband, who died in 2012, came up with the name Scrimshaw, or carved whalebone art, as a tribute to Greenport’s whaling heritage and her style of cooking.

Ross hasn’t let all her success go to her head. She spends most of her days, even her days off, at Scrimshaw cooking, managing the staff and chatting it up with guests.

With her Asian upbringing and shoulder-rubbing with culinary elite, Ross was an early advocate of combining multiple traditions in one dish. Her menu blends various methods, including French, Chinese, southern comfort and Thai — just to name a few. She said one of her favorite “local” recipes is a Peking duck with a bird butchered by Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue.

Other go-to ingredients include turmeric and North Fork sea salt. Just don’t ask her to use garlic.

“I really don’t like garlic,” she said. “I only use it sparingly. You really have to be careful with that spice.”

Rosa Ross cooking at Scrimshaw