North Fork Table and Inn’s Claudia Fleming is still cooking with love

Cover subject Claudia Fleming of The North Fork Table & Inn at Magic Fountain in Mattituck. (Credit: David Benthal)

North Fork Table and Inn culinary power couple Claudia Fleming and Gerry Hayden’s story was one of true love, in the kitchen and out. But when her husband lost his battle with ALS at just 50 years old in 2016, Fleming found herself having to go it alone — in the kitchen and in life. As she grows into her new role, the award-winning chef, cookbook author and North Fork culinary icon is tweaking her recipe for success.

One of America’s most respected pastry chefs, Fleming has a James Beard Foundation Award for “Best Pastry Chef” under her apron belt, plus esteemed experience from Gramercy Tavern and Tribeca Grill. But despite her impressive CV, the humble Fleming dislikes the “icon” moniker.

“Dinosaur is more like it,” she laughs. “But seriously, I’ve been cooking for a very long time, so by virtue of the fact I’m still here, it’s nice to be called an icon.”

Icon or not, finding a way forward without her other half hasn’t been easy. “Gerry was our North, our direction, our leader,” said Fleming. “He was the vision of the restaurant and I was happy to work for him. So aside from the obviously difficult mourning process, finding a new way to lead has been the biggest challenge. I’m still exploring that.” Fleming credits front-of-the-house partners Mary and Mike Mraz for smoothing the path. “They’ve worked by my side tirelessly,” Fleming said. “I wouldn’t have lasted a month without them.”

But as she finds her way, she’s responded by bringing back a more casual, “sophisticated comfort” way of dining. “We’d gotten very experimental in the past few years and we needed that experimentation to move forward,” she said. “But one of my goals in the kitchen this year is to be more approachable but still sophisticated.”

In other words, focus on the “less precious” side of dining. The North Fork Table and Inn food truck on the restaurant grounds was her concept, helping elevate sandwiches to a new level. “Sandwiches have always been a passion of mine and that’s an aspect of cooking I’d like to focus on more,” she said, noting that she always thought she’d end up owning a sandwich shop. Meanwhile, serving breakfast at the inn also gives her a quotidian platform to explore.

Another passion for experimentation? “Ice cream!” she said. “You can infuse ice cream with nuanced, nontraditional flavors you wouldn’t necessarily put on a dessert plate such as herbs, vegetables and even truffles! I once dined at Arpège in Paris and was served gazpacho, finished tableside with a scoop of mustard ice cream, cold but spicy hot … I’ll never forget it.”

Fleming is excited that her 2001 out-of-print cookbook “The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern” is being re-released this year, but she’d love to write another one. “So much has changed since then!” Plus, North Fork living inspires with its local farms and seasonal offerings. “I’ll take something like rhubarb when in season and incorporate various textures into the same dessert.”

FEMALE INTUITION

After decades cooking in male-dominated kitchens, Fleming is proud to be a female chef. In fact, she’s planning to ask a couple of her female chef friends to make guest appearances this season. “Once they’re out here, they realize it’s easy to get to the North Fork!”

Although male chefs are more common, even in restaurants owned by women, Fleming feels women bring a different — and more intuitive — sensibility to cooking than their male counterparts, adding a balance to the mix.

“Boy is this gonna get me in trouble, but in my experience, women are more nurturing when they cook and are more invested in how things taste,” she said, citing the yin and yang of the male/female dynamic. “Younger male chefs are more presentation driven, manipulating with bubbles, foams, powders and the like. They’re always trying to come up with new stuff. But you really need both sensibilities as the two feed off each other.”

And that male influence might be rubbing off on her too. “The savory side of cooking always spoke to me, and my style developed watching the cooks in the kitchen,” she said. “This season I did roasted pears, but before I put them in the oven, I seared them on the stove the way you would a piece of protein. Their reactions were like, ‘How ’bout that!’ ”

Fleming has also been instrumental in helping other female chefs, either directly or by inspiration, both in the kitchen and out. “Claudia leads by example,” said Jennilee Morris of Grace + Grit and North Fork Roasting Co. “With all of her talent and accolades she lives a life of true modesty, and it’s incredible to witness because she is not ordinary at all. She has set a benchmark in our industry for female chefs and hospitality in general and continues to inspire young women every single day.”

Rachel Flatley, pastry chef/owner of Cakes & Confections and executive pastry chef for Honest Restaurants, concurs. “I started at North Fork Table and Inn as a pastry cook then worked up to be Fleming’s assistant, and she absolutely laid the foundation for my career. She inspires other female chefs to be confident, have a voice, be humble, take criticism and make it constructive, and take pride in their work. At work there are times I think, ‘What would Claudia do?’ As silly as it sounds, it definitely inspires me to do things the right way, which is not always the easy way.”

And what to make of the fact that Fleming actually started out as a dancer, not a chef? That experience is not wasted at all, she insists. “Moving around each other in a crowded kitchen, creating a menu … it’s all choreography.”

North Fork Table & Inn is located at 57225 Main Road, Southold.