Widgets Magazine

Farm-to-Table Founding Father Chef John Ross on Food, Poetry, the Coast Guard & More

Q: How did you come to the North Fork? A: That’s a long story.

I was born in Canada, but my family moved to the U.S when I was five. I grew up in Dearborn MI and went to the University of Michigan. I became an English major and developed a life-long interest in poetry. Poet laureate Donald Hall was a professor then and I was greatly inspired by him.

Q: Wait--an English major? But you’re a master chef—how did you get into cooking?

A: Along the way I started cooking at restaurants just to earn some money. I found that I was pretty good at the mecnanics of cooking and it grew on me, even though I didn't know much about food at the time.

I met my future wife, Lois, at Michigan where she was a music major. In 1965 we were married and moved to Omaha, Nebraska where I worked in a fine dining restaurant called Trentino's. This experience was where I developed a real passion for being a chef.

On looking back you have to realize that cooking was not a prestigious occupation in Amrica - not something that your parents would be proud of. That came later with the advent of Julia Child and the interest in gourmet cooking which followed.

Q: Ok, so you’ve gotten the cooking bug. But you’re still in Nebraska, from Canada via Michigan. How did you come to the North Fork?

A:  It was during the Vietnam era when young men were being drafted or enlisting in the military. I decided to join the Coast Guard, because they guaranteed I could continue my cooking career. I went to boot camp in Cape May, and then shipped out of NYC on a 300 foot cutter. We went out on five week “weather patrols” in the Atlantic all the way from Greenland to Cuba.

Q: What’s a “weather patrol”?

A: It means being ready to rescue ships or planes in trouble. Our ship was in a rescue mission in Hurricane Inez in 1967 where we rescued a cargo ship in the eye of the hurricane. It was a harrowing experience where our 300' ship was being tossed around like a Boston Whaler. We did get to the stranded ship and our crew of engineers was able to get it moving again without any loss of life.

After a year I was transferred to a lifeboat station off Jones Beach. I had moved up the ranks a bit, had gone to the Coast Guard cooking school—believe it or not, it’s a pretty good school. During the time with the Lifeboat station I fell in love with the seafood of long island, the fresh clams, oysters, lobster, and fish. The coast guard auxiliary would have clambakes on the beach where I was able to prepare seafood that I had never experienced before.

During the last two years of my coast guard service I became an instructor at the cook's and baker's school on Governor's Island in New York. During this time we lived in an apartment on Governor's Island with a beautiful view of the Statue of Liberty.

After discharge I went to the Hotel School at Cornell University where I received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Hotel Restuarant Management.

Q: Ok. So we have the Coast Guard to thank for bringing you to Long Island, and giving you a passion for fresh seafood. But still, you’re Up Island. How did you get here?

A: While at Cornell I worked two summers in a small fine dining restaurant in East Hampton called Squires. I met the owner of the restaurant, Kent VanWegen, in chemistry class at Cornell and he hired me as his chef for the summer. Squires was one of the best restaurants in the area and that experience motivated me to become the chef/owner of a fine dining restaurant of my own.

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Chef Ross and some of his fresh potato dumplings

Q: Ok, so how did you get started?

A: While working at Squire's I met Steve Mutkowski, a fellow Cornellian, who owned a restaurant in Southold called The Carriage House. He wanted to sell his restaurant and return to Cornell as a professor. With some financial help from my family we bought the restaurant and renamed it Ross' North Fork Restaurant. I was at that location for 11 years before we moved to the North Road and continued for another 16 years. [The two buildings are Founder's Tavern and O'Mally's now]

From day one I made the decision that we were going to cook from scratch and feature American cuisine. These decisions weren't that popular then as the microwave oven had just been introduced and processed food was becoming much more sophisticated. In fine dining, European chefs were the benchmark.

Q: I guess that’s why you’re well known as one of the founding members of the farm-to-table movement. You resisted the food industrialization from the outset, and helped everyone else find their way back.

A: I wasn’t thinking about movement building. I was just committed to cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients. I bought food from local purveyors and realized that the North Fork was one of the greatest food sources anywhere - vegetables, fruits, and seafood.

We innovated the daily menu offering six or seven entrees, four appetizers, and four desserts. In a time before photo copying machines, my wife would type the menu then run it through a mimeograph machine every day.

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We operated on a daily basis with fresh seafood delivered daily. I dealt with three or four farm stands during the season and had my fresh meat delivered from the city. We didn't even own a freezer except for a small ice cream freezer and a household freezer for leftovers.

Q: That’s amazing, using such daily fresh ingredients that you ran a restaurant without a freezer.  How long did you do that?

A: I was the chef/owner of Ross' North Fork for 27 years, from 1973 until 2000. Coincidentally, Alex and Louisa Hargrave planted the firs vinifera wine grapes on Long Island in 1973. While at Cornell I became interested in boutique winery operations in the Finger Lakes. So when the Hargraves released their first wines in 1976, I was there to get involved.

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Chef Ross with Louisa Hargrave and Governor Cuomo at Harvest East End 2014

I developed an all-Long Island wine list and during the early years carried all the wines of the North Fork. My relationship with the wine community was one of my most loved experiences that continues to this day. From the winemakers meeting at my restaurant to the annual barrel tastings at the vineyards and in the city, I was always a participant contributing hors d'oeuvres and being part of the wine scene.

Q: Sounds wonderful, and busy. Did you find time to do anything else?

A: I also became an assistant professor at Suffolk Community College where I was the director of the Restaurant Management Program for 14 years. My program later evoled into the Culinary School now operating in Riverhead. I retired from teaching in 1998 and sold my restaurant in 2000. I also operated a small take-out restaurant in Southold called The Rotisserie. It opened in 1996 and I sold it in 2004. It is still operating today under new owners.

After many years of being on my feet it was time to slow down. My children were all grown up and graduated from college. They helped me at the restaurant for a long time but didn't want to make a career out of it.

Q: But you didn’t stop working.

A: I became a consultant for a new private golf club and ended up as their chef for about 2 years. I also wrote my first book, "The Food and Wine of the North Fork" which was published in 2005. I also wrote a second book, "The Story of North Fork Wine" and published it in 2009. In 2008 I began writing the bi-weekly food column for the Suffolk Times and Riverhead News Review Newspapers. I would begin each column with an excerpt from a poem and it became a signature. After eight years I am still writing the column.

Q:  That’s really cool that you wove your early passion for poetry with your later but mostly lifelong passion for cooking. And now you have a new book, right?

A: My new book, "The Poetry of Cooking" came out last October. It consists of poems and recipes taken from my column over the last eight years. The recipes have been reworked and reformulated into very easy to follow instructions. The chapters are from January to December, reflecting the seasonality, holidays, and events throughout the year.

Each chapter begins with a full length poem about food. Some are written by famous authors and some by unknowns, but they reflect my favorite food poetry. The poems are followed by a "prime meal" for each month followed by about a dozen recipes that fit the month.

niagara falls 031 Chef Ross with artist Sharron Russell, who created the cover image for "The Poetry of Cooking" (shown)

My hope is that people will be inspired to cook from scratch and enjoy cooking which has become therapy to me. I hope that my readers will get the passion for cooking and enjoying the results with friends and family.

The poetry part is funny; I was a mixed up kid back then who didn't have a clue about so many things. But I went to all these poetry readings at Michigan and never realized that later in life they would come back to give me so much enjoyment.