Sign up for our Newsletter

John Ross (Credit: Steve Wick)

The North Fork has known many pioneers, from the Indigenous people who arrived when the glaciers retreated, to European settlers who came ashore in the mid-17th century, to the Irish and Polish who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

All brought something unique to the region. All left a lasting legacy.

Then there’s John Ross, a more recent pioneer of today’s North Fork.

Ross arrived 50 years ago this year and opened Ross’ North Fork Restaurant on Main Road in Southold. From day one, he was different. He used all local ingredients — fish, scallops, clams and oysters out of the bay; spinach, lettuce, cauliflower, corn and tomatoes picked that day for sale at the area’s farm stands. 

Each morning, eyeing what he could gather for the day, he created a daily menu. Handwritten, then typed up by his wife, Lois, with copies cranked out on a mimeograph machine. There was no laminated menu dotted with coffee stains with the same entrees day after day. He had no interest in that.

Ross was a forager of the local bounty. All of his ingredients were fresh, farmed locally and used each day. He didn’t even have a freezer. If Dorothy Konarski in Peconic was putting her butternut squash out on the counter at Mike’s Farm Stand, he was there to buy it.

His use of local, fresh, in-season food — duckling from Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue was a customer favorite — was a first on the North Fork. The approach didn’t even have a name yet. Someone later would coin the phrase “farm to table.” But it began here, with John Ross. 

When the Hargrave vineyard — also started 50 years ago this year, on an old potato farm in Cut­ch­ogue by Louisa and Alex Hargrave — began selling its wine, Ross showcased it at his restaurant. When another new vineyard began selling its wines, those came to Ross’ North Fork, too.

“We started every morning with that daily menu,” Ross said. “We saw it as a way to be totally fresh. Carrying the local wines was the same idea. They were huge. And it fell right into my vision for the North Fork. It made the difference in creating an actual cuisine. Every famous food area around the world has great local wines.”

Mr. Ross has now written a book, “Chef John Ross – Celebrating 50 Years on the North Fork,” on his history in this remarkable place. It is a rich memoir that tells his story and features poetry and recipes, including one for duck and his restaurant’s iconic summer lobster stew. 

On page 17 is a copy of a March 1974 daily menu — Ross’s opened just three months earlier — that includes baked stuffed clams, filet of flounder, Peconic Bay scallops, Long Island duckling and lobster. The most expensive item on the menu — the lobster — was priced at $7.95.

The journey of the Canadian-born Ross to Southold took many curved and twisting roads. He and Lois married in Omaha, Neb., where she taught school and he worked in a Howard Johnson’s and a steak house. He enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard at the height of the Vietnam War and learned how to cook while stationed on Long Island. He also attended Cornell University’s famed hotel administration and hospitality school.

Working at a Coast Guard station at Jones Beach, where he cooked for about 22 recruits, he made a key discovery: the local seafood was extraordinary. After finishing up at Cornell, he took a job in the kitchen at Squires restaurant in East Hampton. There, his vision of foraging for the best local ingredients began to take shape.

“I fell into an identity that fit my personality,” he said. “There were pioneers of what would be called farm to table out on the West Coast, like Alice Waters. In America then, on one side you had processed food, and on the other side was artisanal food and American wine. Then, there was the beginning of regional cuisine, and I wanted to be a part of that.

“What I discovered cooking for the Coast Guard was the seafood. So that put me in a new direction. Later on I went to Cornell and I spent two summers cooking at Squires in East Hampton. It was that job, and those two summers, when I fell in love with the East End and local ingredients.”

At Squires, he met Steve Mutkoski, who owned the Carriage House, a restaurant on Main Road in Southold. He offered to sell Ross the business and building. With money borrowed from his mother, Ross opened his restaurant in December 1973. His North Fork story began the day he turned on the stove and hung the “open” sign.

Wanting only to offer entrees cooked from scratch, and searching for his own identity as a North Fork chef, he began simply. An early item was “Bonac clam chowder,” named after Accabonac Harbor in East Hampton — the recipe is on page 18.

“This Depression-era recipe reflects the simplicity of using freshly opened clams, potatoes and onions and little else,” he writes in the book.

He quickly realized the North Fork was his ideal home. With its extraordinary bounty of fresh farm produce and seafood, it was the perfect place to offer the menu he dreamed about.

Ross has been closely associated with the area’s winemakers, particularly the Hargraves, who were pioneers in bringing European vinifera to the North Fork’s old potato fields.

“John Ross started his restaurant at the same time Alex and I bought our farm in Cut­ch­ogue and planted it in wine grapes,” Louisa Hargrave wrote in an email. “We were growing grapes that no one thought could be grown on the East Coast; John created a restaurant doing something similarly unusual at the time: basing his menu on food from local farmers, cooked to order with precision and care.

“We staked all we had on our ventures and set the standards that redefined the North Fork — us, with estate-grown wines made only from low-yielding, super-premium grapes; John, with true farm-to-table cuisine. As soon as we had wine in the bottle, John featured it. A few years later, when others entered the viticultural fray, he put their wines on his list. Although most restaurants would buy from a single distributor … John always chose every wine on his list based on his personal taste. His menus changed daily, and his list changed as he explored the best of Long Island.” 

As the “nucleus of vintners” in the region took hold, Hargrave recalled, Ross began a tradition that she described as “both extraordinarily generous and supremely important” to the growing industry: a monthly dinner exclusively for area winemakers. “Lenz winemaker Eric Fry organized local winemakers to each bring a ‘mystery bottle’ that could be from anywhere but Long Island,” Hargrave said. 

“John would match each bottle with some culinary delight, and we would taste them blind, then discuss them and score them. Whoever brought the bottle with the highest score would get dinner paid for by the other winemakers. The collegiality and sharing of knowledge created by these dinners bonded us forever and set the tone for today’s burgeoning viticultural and culinary destination — Long Island’s North Fork.”

On July 13, both Ross and Hargrave will be honored on the Cut­ch­ogue Village Green in an event co-sponsored by the Cut­ch­ogue-New Suffolk Historical Council and the North Fork Promotional Council celebrating 50 years of winemaking on the East End. For more information, email Mark MacNish at cut­ch­[email protected]; or Lisa Sannino, at [email protected].