On a bitingly cold February afternoon in Greenport, Robby Beaver was busy preparing French onion soup with gruyère crostini for 27 Riverhead High School students at The Frisky Oyster, the eclectic Front Street restaurant he and his wife, Shannon, have owned since 2010.
“I couldn’t think of anything better on a day like this,” the executive chef told the hungry teenagers, who had piled into the establishment’s sleek, high-backed booths for a class field trip featuring an authentic French meal.
Three courses later, after the students had devoured the last of their apple tarte tatin, Beaver, 37, set down a small cup of coffee on a table near the bar and introduced himself.
“When I was a kid, I used to enjoy being in the kitchen with both of my grandmothers,” he said. “My paternal grandmother is an amazing Southern cook. I would get in there and roll the dough with her when she was making pies — all the little, menial tasks kids can help out with.”
If Beaver’s father had gotten his way, his son would have taken over the family’s Richmond, Va., tree and lawn care business once he graduated from high school. And although Beaver did like being outdoors and helping his dad, he was innately aware that his best work could only be done in the kitchen.
So when he was a teenager — “as soon as I could get my license,” he recalled — Beaver secured a job washing dishes at the Richmond restaurant Crab Louie’s Seafood Tavern. It was an unglamorous position, but he was grateful for the opportunity.
“I enjoyed being in the restaurant and just the vibe, the buzz that happens when it gets going,” he said. “I would figure out ways to be a little more efficient washing dishes so I could have free time to watch other employees cook and help them out.”
Beaver’s sense of initiative was quickly noticed by Crab Louie’s owners, who promoted him to the restaurant’s cold appetizers station.
“I did that for three or four months and then they kind of let me move around the kitchen doing whatever I could,” Beaver said. “Once I started working on the hot appetizers side, that was when I was really enjoying it. It was a lot more to learn and a lot more control.”
Control? It’s a telling choice of words and Beaver readily admits he’s a perfectionist who has trouble relinquishing power to his cooks.
“I think that was the hardest thing as I evolved through different jobs and through school,” Beaver said. “The hardest thing was delegating and not doing it myself because the second I let go I couldn’t make it perfect — what I wanted it to be. And that’s something I still struggle with.”
Not surprisingly, it’s this same yearning for perfection that enables Beaver to excel in the kitchen, whether he’s slicing fingerling potatoes into symmetrical halves or drizzling a precise amount of soy glaze over a Crescent Farms duck confit spring roll.
This somewhat rigid, very French technique was partially instilled in Beaver by celebrity chef Jeffrey Buben, who in 2001 hired Beaver as a line cook at Bistro Bis, his Parisian-style restaurant in Washington, D.C.
“He was a fine young cook and we always knew he had the passion and a strong determination to succeed in the culinary arts,” Buben said.
Beaver worked at Bistro Bis for two years before Buben “basically gave me a kick in the butt to go to culinary school,” he said. “He said, ‘Just do it. Check it off the list and you’ll be glad you did. I don’t want to see you waste your talent not ending up where you could be.’ ”
After graduating in 2003 from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Beaver and his wife moved back to Richmond. He began cooking at private parties, which he said was “good, but not enough to sustain us.”
The turning point in Beaver’s career came in late 2003, when his father-in-law took the couple to The Inn at Little Washington, a five-star Virginia restaurant where Beaver had “the most amazing meal” of his life.
“A couple months after that, I called to see if they were hiring,” Beaver said. After a kitchen tryout during which he prepared parsnip and jalapeño soup, he landed a job at the inn’s cold appetizers station. A year later, he was promoted to sous chef.
In 2007, the Beavers moved to Southold with their son Sean, now 9. The couple also has a 5-year-old daughter, Nora, and a 1-year-old son named Levi. They currently live in Riverhead.
“We came up to visit my father-in-law, who has a house in Southold, and were certain we wanted to open a restaurant out here,” Beaver explained.
At first, The Frisky Oyster, which opened in 2002, was little more than a “favorite little date night spot” for the couple. Then things moved at warp speed: Beaver became executive chef there in 2008 and bought the restaurant from Dennis McDermott and Hank Tomashevski in 2010.
“The place felt right to me and I wanted to have more at stake,” he explained.
“We thought Robby would be a good fit and he’s done a very nice job,” said McDermott, who will soon be at the helm at a new eatery in Greenport’s Stirling Square. “We’re very happy with how he’s carried on the restaurant. He believed in it early on.”
Under Beaver’s supervision, The Frisky Oyster focuses on fresh, French-style cuisine that incorporates local ingredients whenever possible. He purchases greens from KK’s The Farm in Southold and fish from Braun’s Seafood in Cutchogue. The cider he uses in the restaurant’s rye whiskey cocktail is from Woodside Orchards in Aquebogue.
“His food is always very honest,” McDermott said. “He strives to use the best ingredients and he doesn’t cut any corners.”
Noah Schwartz, owner and executive chef of the Front Street restaurant that bears his name, called Beaver, whom he’s known since 2009, a “great chef” whose food is “creative and interesting, with really well-developed flavors.” The two have such a rapport that, Schwartz said, “If one of us runs out of napkins or dish soap or even duck, we’re able to borrow from each other.”
In Greenport, a small town that now has more dining options than ever before, restaurateurs must find a way to stand out in order to stay afloat. Beaver seems to have figured out how to do that — and then some.
“I try to stay true to this place and create the best experience I can: service, food, wine, atmosphere,” he said. “The feedback we get most is that when people are here, they feel energized and recharged. It’s a small space, but when it’s going it’s very alive.”
This story was originally published in the spring 2015 edition of The Long Island Wine Press
Grilled Montauk Tuna Cilantro Walnut Pesto, Long Island Mushrooms, Hearts of Palm and Halpin Farms’ Bok Choy
Pair with: Paumanok Vineyards Chenin Blanc
Yield: 6 portions
For the fish:
3 pounds Montauk (or fresh) sashimi-grade tuna fillet
Sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
For the pesto:
2 bunches cilantro
½ cup toasted walnuts
1 tablespoon chipotle peppers
4-5 cloves fresh garlic
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and pepper to taste
Poached heart of palm
Fresh baby bok choy
Season fish and grill to preferred doneness.
Place all pesto ingredients in a food processor and run until smooth, adjusting seasoning as needed.
Place the remaining items in a sauté pan and heat over a high flame, adding stock to keep moist.
Place a large spoonful of pesto on each plate and top with the vegetables.
Slice the tuna and place on top of the vegetables.