There hadn’t before been a North Fork restaurant run by chefs with pedigrees like theirs.
Many predicted they’d never make it through the first winter — and they almost didn’t. Even chefs Gerry Hayden and Claudia Fleming’s friends and colleagues in New York City, who were very familiar with their abilities, were, at best, cautiously optimistic. But there was no going back. The culinary power couple was leaving the city and had fallen in love with this area, due in large part to the fresh produce, poultry, eggs, meat and fish so available at their fingertips.
On the North Fork, the husband-and-wife team would have everything they needed for their concept of a farm-to-table dining experience with seasonal menus. But Hayden and Fleming, who were both born and raised in western Suffolk County, were full-blown city folk by 2005. How did they know the people and visitors to the largely rural and family-oriented Southold Town would embrace their city-bred brand of upscale dining?
According to Hayden, it was the selection of food available at the Southold IGA that determined for him it was possible.
“I went into the IGA and I thought, ‘Wow, they have so many different things,’ ” Hayden recalled recently, ticking off items like smoked duck, buckwheat flour and coarsely ground grits. “All these things I can never find in the supermarket, I found out here. So I knew people could cook; they were cooking. And I thought to myself, ‘Maybe they need a break. They probably want to go out every once in a while.’ ”
After recruiting another couple from Manhattan — hospitality experts Mike and Mary Mraz — the four friends bought the park-like property and building at 57225 Main Road in December 2005. The structure dates to the late 18th century and had been the longtime home of La Gazelle, a French restaurant and bed and breakfast. The building’s new co-owners stripped the restaurant and upstairs guest rooms to their beams and built North Fork Table & Inn in its stead. It opened in May 2006.
Now, more than eight years later, after considering Hayden’s struggle with the neurological disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, they’ve put the property and business up for sale. The asking price is $3.8 million.
What started as a vision, which some said was unrealistic, is now Long Island’s top Zagat-rated restaurant. Friends and colleagues say that in building North Fork Table & Inn, Hayden, Fleming and their business partners also built a brighter future for the North Fork as a thriving tourist destination and gave a huge boost to its farms, wineries and restaurants.
“What they created was a community of people around the restaurant,” said Tom Colicchio, founder of Craft Restaurants and a part-time Cutchogue resident.
For North Fork Table & Inn to have succeeded, Colicchio said, its owners needed to establish a network of suppliers who could support its goals. And they pulled it off.
“They displayed local artists in the restaurant, featured various suppliers, worked with places like McCall Wines and biodynamic farmers,” said Colicchio, who was the executive chef when Fleming was the pastry chef at New York City’s famed Gramercy Tavern in the 1990s.
“They’ve always touted that it wasn’t about them but everybody putting out some really great food in general on the North Fork,” he said. “It’s a family. That’s one of the most important things to do when you’re new to an area. In the city, there’s a community that’s already established and you could just plug into it. What they’ve done makes it easier for other people coming in.”
PUTTING DOWN ROOTS
Ira Haspel didn’t know anything about Gerry Hayden or Claudia Fleming, or the reputations that preceded them.
Hayden was recognized as being among an elite group of top head chefs in the New York City metropolitan area and Fleming was a pastry chef and cookbook author at the top of her field. Both worked for chefs and restaurant owners who would later go on to build eatery empires in New York and beyond, including not only Colicchio but Charlie Palmer and Danny Meyer.
Fleming is a James Beard winner and Hayden has been a repeat finalist for James Beard Awards, the Pulitzer Prizes of the culinary world.
“I didn’t know who Gerry was. I didn’t know who James Beard was,” said Haspel, an architect and co-owner of the “The Farm” in Southold, a biodynamic farm long cultivated by Haspel’s recently deceased wife, KK. “To me, he was just some guy coming up and buying tomatoes, and then more tomatoes, and then a lot of tomatoes, and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said he was looking to open a restaurant and trying all the farm stands and trying to find the best stuff.
“So KK took him in the back to talk.”
The Haspels already believed their produce — biodynamic farming is, to put it simply, beyond organic — to be the best around.
“It tastes so good because it has the most nutrition in it, and that’s really what you’re tasting,” Haspel said.
But the talented minds and hands of Hayden and Fleming took those flavors to another level.
“One day, I was in the raspberry patch and tasting raspberries and Claudia went back there,” Haspel recalled. “And I gave them to her right off the bush, and she just flipped. Later, she came back with a warm raspberry tart and I almost fell over, it was so good.”
Soon, the Haspels were invited for dinner at the chefs’ home in Southold, which they bought in 2005. The evening had a theme: Hayden and Fleming would only be cooking with food grown at The Farm.
“He made a five-course dinner and Claudia made dessert and it was the most creative culinary experience I ever had,” Haspel said. “We don’t have meat at The Farm. They made unbelievable dishes out of the fruit and vegetables, potatoes, leeks, sweet potatoes. They chemically transported them into something that was off the charts in terms of taste and flavor.”
“That night, we planned what they wanted for the restaurant,” Haspel said, “emphasizing the food and not crazy décor. And that’s what it is.”
The Haspels helped physically design and build North Fork Table & Inn. Ms. Haspel was a builder before she became a farmer.
The pages of the menus at North Fork Table & Inn speak to the local farming and fishing communities that make the meals possible, with New American dishes featuring proteins such as duck, grass-fed beef and wild striped bass, and swordfish steak cooked with local fruit and vegetables — even locally-made spices.
Many of the farms and farmers are mentioned by name on the menus, which, given the restaurant’s prestige, is good for their businesses as well. Last July, North Fork Table & Inn began hosting a weekly farmers’ market on its grounds, where customers who might otherwise only go to the restaurant for special occasions are able to purchase the same ingredients as Hayden and Fleming. Among the participants are local poultry farmers Holly and Chris Browder of Browders Birds and Stephanie Gaylor of Invincible Summer Farms, which specializes in rare or endangered heirloom fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers.
“It was the first restaurant that ever bought from us,” said Holly Browder, who opened the Mattituck poultry farm with her husband, Chris, five years ago. “It must have helped us immensely. All these small producers out here that he’s found and has put on the menu, he’s helped all of us. The restaurant is so well-regarded from so many chefs on the East End and New York City and beyond that it opens a lot of doors for the farmers.
“And he’s always tried to show people, even through the cooking classes, that you can buy from the local farmers and make quality food at home.”
Though the partners endured a tough first off-season — needing to borrow money to stay open — it wasn’t long before the chefs knew their hunch was correct and that the area could support their restaurant. How they knew was easy: They ran out of room.
“We couldn’t meet the demands on Saturday nights,” Fleming said. “It was crazy.”
“And we found we didn’t have enough seats to make it viable,” Hayden added.
The building was expanded in 2010.
Looking back, the chefs point to many outside factors that helped the “stars align,” as Fleming said, for a successful business, from the “locavore” movement to law changes that allowed Long Island wine to be sold out-of-state -— “After that, the region got a ton of press,” Hayden said — to the proliferation of cooking shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Master Chef.”
“Those outside factors got people interested in food; whether I like the shows or not is besides the point. I like the customers, so I like when a customer is knowledgeable,” Hayden said. “When a customer is knowledgeable, they will seek us out. And that’s what happened; we were sought out.”
The decision by the partners to sell their restaurant had “everything” to do with Hayden’s health, Fleming said. “As my business partner and dear friend, Mike Mraz has said, ‘We’re like the Four Musketeers, one for all and all for one,’ ” she said. “We began the North Fork Table together and we will see it through together.”
Since being diagnosed with ALS in 2011, Hayden has lost the use of his hands and is physically unable to cook. He’s been helping to manage the kitchen from an electric wheelchair, his speech labored.
But Fleming said they want the world to know the partners will be running North Fork Table & Inn until it’s sold and have no plans to close before a buyer is found.
“Until then, it’s business as usual, and we will continue to provide the same experience we have over the past nine years, help guests celebrate, create memories and serve our community, which we have grown to love and cherish,” Fleming said.
What they’ve accomplished isn’t for the faint of heart, and the chefs are quick to caution that they’re not “living the dream.” What they built involved long hours and, financially, they were constantly scrambling for investors and loans -— from banks, friends or the federal government — either to get started, expand or just stay afloat.
“It didn’t come easy,” Hayden said, his voice beginning to wear after an almost 90-minute interview last week in the restaurant’s newer room. “We’re living life, just like everybody else struggles with life. We come to work. We love what we do and it’s the reason the restaurant is a success. It’s not because somebody dumped a bunch of money into us. It’s because we come to work every day and give people what they want. Or, we give them what they think they want.”
“And they look to us to tell them what they want,” Fleming added.
“Exactly,” Hayden said proudly, adding that a chef friend of his who had visited North Fork Table & Inn recently was amazed to learn that customers don’t ask the kitchen to change up its dishes.
When the property sells, the chefs will pay back their investors, but there won’t be any huge returns for them. The way Hayden sees it, at least those investors didn’t lose money, which would have happened if the restaurant failed -— or, possibly, if the investors had placed their funds elsewhere during the recent recession, during which time the restaurant thrived.
What also helped the business model was the longer busy season on the North Fork compared to the South Fork. On the North Fork, weekends stay busy into November as people continue to visit wineries during harvest time and head to farms for cider, apples, pumpkins and agri-tainment, Hayden explained.
Hayden and Fleming hope the restaurant’s eventual new owners keep it going and “use it as a springboard for themselves and to turn this place into an institution, something everybody will know is always here and part of the North Fork,” Hayden said.
“That would be a story,” he added, “ten years from now if it’s still the North Fork Table & Inn and it’s still a viable restaurant.”
Hayden said he’s been thinking a lot lately about whether he and Fleming had fulfilled their goals with the restaurant, just in time before his ALS progressed to the point where he could no longer cook and now has to sell.
“I think this place is a complete success,” he said. “It never felt like it to me because I was always trying to find money. When we finally sorted everything out and built this room, I just happened to get sick. So, the fact that now we’re here and the restaurant is still up and running and people are writing about it, and want to write stories about the history of it, and the investors will get all their money back, I’d say we went on a pretty successful run.
“I think we blew off a lot of people’s doors,” he said.