Matt Kar: A down-to-earth, farm-to-table pioneer

Chef Matt kar of the jamesport Manor Inn. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Chef Matt Kar of the Jamesport Manor Inn. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Matt Kar didn’t establish the North Fork’s popular farm-to-table movement, but there’s no question he was one of its earliest proponents.

“John Ross was definitely the first,” Kar said during an April interview in the handsome foyer of his New American restaurant, the Jamesport Manor Inn. “But I was the second.”

At 56, Kar has helped the region blossom from a place whose restaurants once served little besides “fried food and steak” to a culinary destination in its own right. And he’s done it with no formal training.

A Yonkers native who summered at his maternal grandparents’ Laurel home, Kar said he decided in the late 1980s he “had to do something” about the North Fork’s limited restaurant offerings. One year after this revelation, Kar, who had been managing a Washington, D.C., restaurant, moved to the area and opened the Jamesport Country Kitchen on Main Road. He was just 27.

“I took whatever local food I could get and did very little with it,” said Kar, who lives in Flanders, of the Country Kitchen’s menu.

“I just let the food stand on its own, without sauce or gravy,” he continued. “And it was a hit. People knew we’d have scallops when they were in season. They knew we’d always have corn in July.”

Kar closed the Country Kitchen in March, and it’s on the market for $849,000. His focus now is on the Jamesport Manor Inn, which he acquired in 2004, and building his two other businesses,  Christopher Michael Catering and Two Forks Catering.

The aforementioned John Ross, who opened Ross’ North Fork Restaurant in Southold in 1973, called Kar an “early supporter of local wines and food.”

Jamesport Manor Inn in Jamesport. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Jamesport Manor Inn in Jamesport. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

“Matt operated the Country Kitchen as a place meant for locals, but also as a place where you could get fresh, cooked-from-scratch food and a large selection of local wine,” Ross said. “He hasn’t been in the news as a ‘celebrity chef’ but he’s highly skilled and well-liked in the food and wine community.”

Despite the ability to realize his vision for a restaurant emphasizing local, in-season fish and produce, there was one thing Kar didn’t know how to do at this early stage of his career: cook.

“I learned by watching the guys at the Country Kitchen,” he said.

He learned quickly, because in 1993, Kar launched Christopher Michael Catering, an operation named for his two sons, now 25 and 23.

“The Country Kitchen was doing really good, but we were maxed out,” Kar said. “I said to myself, ‘What can I do to make my sales better?’ And it was a homerun.”

Ross added: “He really was a pioneer of doing catering at weddings and wineries. His company catered my son’s wedding in my backyard.”

Kar opened the more upscale Two Forks Catering three years ago. Both businesses operate from the Jamesport Manor Inn and Kar manages 70 employees altogether.

“I’m not a control freak,” he said of his ability to juggle three businesses. “I work with such great people. I’m very blessed that I found good people and that they’ve stayed with me.”

One of those employees is Wendy Scholl of Mattituck, a server and front-of-the-house manager who has worked for Kar for nearly two decades.

After the Country Kitchen closed, Scholl followed her boss to the Jamesport Manor Inn.

“He’s down to earth,” Scholl said. “I can just read his mind.”

Twelve years ago, when Kar took ownership of the Jamesport Manor Inn, it was something of a rescue mission. The mid-19th-century former

captain’s house on picturesque Manor Lane, which today is surrounded by a private horse farm and a nursery, had fallen into disrepair.
“I decided, ‘I’m gonna save this building,’ ” Kar said.

“When he bought that place it was a decrepit, old, beat-to-hell place,” Ross recalled. “I give him credit for doing that because it was a neat old building and had been shut down for quite a while.”

More than a million dollars later, the Manor, in all its bucolic and haunting beauty, was ready for business. Then, in October 2005, a tragedy of near-Shakespearean proportions struck when a fire consumed the building.

“They said it was the guy who was staining the wood,” Kar said. “He had left a rag somewhere. Spontaneous combustion. But we’ll never really know how it happened.”

The interior of the Jamesport Manor Inn. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

The interior of the Jamesport Manor Inn. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Despite the loss, Kar wasn’t overly discouraged. He didn’t feel, as some understandably might have, that fate was laughing at his plans.

“A lot of people would have given up,” longtime customer Deborah Penney of Mattituck said. “He didn’t.”

The only thing that bothered him, Kar said, was that “nobody got to see the old Manor. We had spent $1.2 million renovating and so many workers worked so hard but nobody got to see their hard work.”

Not surprisingly, the trials he endured having to restore and then completely rebuild the restaurant to its original glory made opening night in May 2007 feel even sweeter.

“It was amazing,” Kar said. “It was a little bit surreal …  like I couldn’t believe it was actually happening after everything I had gone through.”

In the years under Kar’s leadership, the Jamesport Manor Inn has continued to reflect his philosophy of cooking with fresh, local ingredients: corn from Harbes Family Farm in Mattituck, greens from Satur Farms and fish from Braun’s Seafood, both in Cutchogue. Desserts are made on-site.

“What I’m most proud of is our grilled fish and then the pasta special,” Kar said. “Anything with local stuff. I’m always excited when something good comes through the back door.”

Certain Country Kitchen menu items are still available at the Jamesport Manor Inn. But for customers like Penney and her husband, Stephen Zaluski, who had been eating at the Country Kitchen since its inception, dining at the Manor “is an adjustment.”

Matt Kar in the kitchen of the Jamesport Manor Inn. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Matt Kar in the kitchen of the Jamesport Manor Inn. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

“We were very sad to see the Country Kitchen go,” Penney said. “I knew it was the best thing for him … he was sad about it also.”

There’s no question closing the Country Kitchen was an emotional decision, Kar said. How couldn’t it have been?

“The day I was moving stuff out of there I had tears in my eyes,” he recalled. “It was really hard. My kids grew up in that restaurant.”

Still, he maintained, it had to be done.

“The Country Kitchen kind of became a dinosaur,” he said. “Someone needs to go and reinvent it. I don’t want to do that.”

That’s because “everything,” he decided, now seemed wrong with the restaurant.

“The decor, the type of food being put out,” he said. “You can have a customer and you’ll ask them why they don’t come anymore and they’ll say they just like different surroundings.

“That wasn’t happening yet, but it was going to start to happen,” Kar continued. “I wanted to get out before that started to happen.”

Kar doesn’t foresee a similar fate for the Jamesport Manor Inn. Today’s increasingly sophisticated clientele, he said, “is better suited” to it.

And despite competition from other farm-to-table restaurants, Kar said he doesn’t feel pressure to strive continuously to take things to the proverbial “next level.” The Manor’s menu doesn’t change much — and that’s the way he likes it. He knows customers do, too.

“I am by far not the most talented guy,” Kar said. “But I am very consistent.”

This story was originally published in the summer 2015 edition of the Long Island Wine Press