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James Junk in the kitchen at Bistro 72. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
James Junk in the kitchen at Bistro 72. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

James Junk’s innate ability to predict what people want, even when they don’t know they want it, is reflected in his cooking.

For instance, the 51-year-old pointed out recently, the dried cherries and prosciutto slices that adorn his flatbread pizza might sound unusual together, but separately, those foods are palatable to most diners — and that can encourage customers to try a dish they might otherwise shy away from.

“I like to do things that are classic, but do them with a twist,” he said.

For the past two years, Junk has been doing exactly that as executive chef at Bistro 72, the New American restaurant at Hotel Indigo East End in Riverhead.

Located just off the Long Island Expressway’s next-to-last exit, Bistro 72 is situated at the gateway of the North Fork, an area just minutes from where Junk grew up.

Born in Roscrea, a small town in central Ireland, he moved to Center Moriches as a a toddler and still lives there in his childhood home with his wife, Suzanne, and their 4-year-old son, Conor.

After graduating from Center Moriches High School in 1982, Junk, who always enjoyed cooking, took a job helping out in the kitchen at The Ocean Resort at Bath and Tennis in Westhampton. In 1991, he became co-owner of Mangos, a Manhattan Beach, Calif., eatery featuring South Pacific food with a French flair.

Junk also worked at hotel restaurants in San Diego, Calif.; Arlington, Texas; and Smithtown before making his professional return to the East End.

When it came to showing off his talents for his prospective employers at Indigo East End, Junk was characteristically daring, offering to cook an elaborate meal for hotel owner Rob Salvatico and food and beverage manager Jeff Minihane in their homes as part of the interview process.

“I said, ‘Let me cook for you,’ ” Junk recalled. And he did: pan-seared sea scallops served inside the shell with a pink Himalayan salt and braised short ribs.

It was a gutsy move, but the right one: Junk landed the job soon after and the management at Bistro 72 has never looked back.

“When we were hiring for the position of executive chef, we didn’t want to hire just a cook,” Minihane explained. “It was important to us that we have a creative chef. James coming to my home and cooking in my house was a great example of that awesome personality he puts into everything he does.”

At Bistro 72, Junk’s personality, which he describes as bold but caring, is expressed in dishes like duck confit fried wontons and roasted vegetable vegan ravioli, a dish made with Daiya, a rich and creamy — yes, really — dairy-free cheese alternative.

“I’ve worked with many great chefs in many great restaurants in my career,” Minihane said. “None was as thoughtful and balanced as [Junk]. His approach to cuisine wholeheartedly considers how people enjoy food. He creates dishes that use familiar components expertly prepared and presented.”

Junk incorporates local products whenever possible (the menu’s soft pretzel braids, for instance, come with a beer cheddar cheese sauce from Crooked Ladder Brewing Company in Riverhead) and the restaurant’s wine list boasts 24 North Fork varietals.

“There’s so much the East End has to offer,” Junk said. “It’s at our fingertips and it’s the freshest of the fresh. There are local farms right down the road from us.”

Junk also buys fish from Braun’s Seafood in Cutchogue and desserts from North Fork Chocolate Company.

“He’s a great chef,” North Fork Chocolate Company co-owner Ann Corley said. She and NFCC co-owner and executive chef Steve Amaral began collaborating with Junk on dessert offerings last year. Bistro 72 currently sells the Calverton outfit’s carrot cake and individual-sized caramel apple pie.

“Jim is the nicest, easiest-going guy,” Corley added. “And he’s inventive.”

Making good food is important, of course, but so is getting to know the people who are eating his creations. Junk makes a point of walking around the dining room when he can to interact with customers.

“I’m on the floor a lot,” he said. “I want to know about people. I find out everything I can about them: where they’re from, what brought them to our establishment, how they can come back. That’s the only way we’re going to learn in this industry: their feedback.”

While discussing his 33–year career one morning before the lunchtime rush, Junk recounted an anecdote from his early days in the culinary world that helped frame his role as a cook.

He said an older chef once told him that to be successful, his job wasn’t to put out fires — it was to maintain them.

It’s a philosophy he now lives by.

“The day goes by fast,” Junk said. “The fire’s always there.”

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