Gabrielle Walsh has made a career in food and wine, although she admits her introduction to the latter was memorable only for how bad it was.
As a child in Mississippi, she would watch cooking shows on public television and recalls seeing Julia Child use wine in one of her dishes. On a subsequent shopping trip, she convinced her mom to buy wine for a meal so she could imitate the author of “The French Chef.”
Looking back, it probably wasn’t the type of bottle Child would keep on hand to make her famed boeuf bourguignon.
“It was one of those cheap cooking wines you find in a supermarket,” she said with a chuckle. “I thought, ‘This is disgusting.’ That bottle is probably still sitting in my parents’ pantry.”
Now the general manager and wine director at Stone Creek Inn in East Quogue, Walsh has certainly discovered that there’s much more to wine than grocery store plonk.
Born on Long Island, the Westhampton resident returned from the South to attend school, majoring in psychology at St. Joseph’s College. While she had aimed to work as a counselor, the restaurant industry grabbed hold of her instead.
She first worked as a server at the former Inn at Quogue, which is also where she was introduced to the greater possibilities of wine. The restaurant’s owner, Larry Hoffman of Dockers in East Quogue, held a contest among servers to see who could sell the most bottles of wine in a month.
Walsh rose to the challenge and earned herself a Trinchero Mario’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.
“That’s when I realized wine could be such a magical thing,” she said.
Her love for wine has only grown in her role at Stone Creek Inn, where husband-and-wife owners Christian Mir and Elaine Digiacomo first hired her as a server 10 years ago.
Today the 34-year-old does a little bit of everything for the highly regarded restaurant, which recently earned Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence, a distinction it has held since 2006. Among Walsh’s responsibilities is managing the wine list of more than 350 selections along with Mir, who is also executive chef.
The list features many choices from popular regions in France, Italy, California and Australia, along with local Long Island selections. Walsh gets a thrill talking about some of the less-publicized options on the menu, including bottles from South Africa and Santorini.
“We highlight hidden gems on our wine list,” she said. “They’re great value wines that usually work with any dish on the menu.”
That dinner menu, of course, is the brainchild of Mir, a gifted chef who hails from outside Toulouse in southwestern France.
He came to New York in 1991 to serve as executive sous chef at the popular Tavern on the Green. His first shift there, he recalled with a lingering astonishment, was on New Year’s Eve.
It was there that he’d soon meet Digiacomo, who’d been hired as a pasta cook at the restaurant and would go on to become Mir’s partner in life and business.
After Mir made brief stops at Café Centro and Grand Tier at the Metropolitan Opera, the couple fell in love with a large abandoned Victorian inn on Weesuck Creek in East Quogue. They opened the Stone Creek Inn (you can’t exactly name a restaurant Weesuck) in 1996 following a period of significant renovations at that former home of the Ambassador Inn.
The 160-seat restaurant features two dining rooms decorated in all-white with wooden floors that creak gently, evoking the building’s history. It was built in 1910 as a private residence and served as a speakeasy during Prohibition. A bootlegger’s cottage still stands on the property.
In reviewing the Stone Creek Inn when it first opened 21 years ago, New York Times food critic Joanne Starkey simply labeled the restaurant as “lovely.”
That word might also be used to sum up Walsh’s description of the couple at the restaurant’s helm.
“So much of the staff has been here for more than 10 years and that’s because of Christian and Elaine and the great role models they are for all of us,” she said.
Walking into the kitchen at prime time on a busy Saturday night, the staff calmly prepares hundreds of meals without anyone raising their voice, Walsh marveled.
“That’s Christian’s demeanor and, because of that, it’s how his kitchen runs,” she said.
“That’s been my personality always,” Mir said after hearing of Walsh’s remarks. “We can get things done the same without yelling. That’s more of a distraction.”
Instead, the focus is on the food, a mix of French Mediterranean and American cuisine. Mir, who’s worked in kitchens since he was 14 years old and living in his native Villmur, prides himself on combining his French roots with the finest local ingredients the East End can provide. Walsh said the restaurant’s recent relationship with Peconic Escargot in Cutchogue is a great example of this. Another local purveyor the restaurant sources from is Early Girl Farm in Brookhaven.
Local is also reflected in bottle selections from Long Island wineries. Walsh points to Paumanok, Macari, Wölffer and McCall as among her favorites.
Mir said he and his wife, who is responsible for the front of the house and the catering side of the business, are lucky to have a woman like Walsh on staff.
“A restaurant cannot run without a person like Gabi,” he said. “My wife and I totally trust her and we hope to give her the tools to succeed. We recognize our longtime staffers are a big part of our success.”
Walsh said relationship-building with both the staff and the customers is an important part of her job.
“It’s what I do,” she said. “I do love.”
This story was originally published in the Fall 2017 edition of the Long Island Wine Press