Widgets Magazine

Joan Turturro, Chef and Innkeeper of the Orient Inn, on Orient, Cooking, Slow Food & the Journey from CBS News

Q: How did you come to Orient? A: By accident. Call it a rainy day find.

I worked for television, it was an election year and I was on call, so I couldn’t go far away from the broadcast center. I needed to go places  where I could get back into the city in a hurry.  I shared a place with friends who had been renting in Southold for years.

My first weekend was rainy, and we did what most people do on a rainy day…….Get into the car and drive around.

When I saw Orient, I fell in love with it. And promised myself that I would live here one day. The hamlet itself made me feel I was back in history.

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And the wetlands—they are extraordinarily beautiful and quiet. This was back in 1996.

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Q: So you fell in love with Orient on a rainy day in the mid-90s. But you were in television; how did you become a Chef-Innkeeper at Orient Inn?

A: Orient stayed in my mind, and at that point I was thinking of changing careers. I had been editing news and documentaries for CBS News, but I was ready for a new adventure. I’ve had many careers in my life.

I bought the post office/ice cream parlor building in Orient. We used it for the summer on weekends, and one day I realized Orient needed more businesses; we were down to the historical society, post office, and general store. Since my husband, Howard Leshaw, loved ice cream, we decided to bring back the ice cream parlor on a smaller scale. And we ran that for several years.  (Now the space is Four and Twenty Blackbirds pies.)

While driving back and forth to Orient Point I noticed this building, which appeared abandoned. I kept passing it, thinking it was a perfect place for an “Inn”.

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The Orient Inn as it looks now

In February 2001 the building was auctioned—during a Nor’easter—and there only two bidders. We won. Then we raced to get it ready to open for July 1 of that year.

Q: It’s a beautiful, large home, and looks like it has some history. What’s it’s backstory?

A: It was at one time part of the Edwards farm, which was a huge farm out here. The farm stretched from the sound to the bay. The house was built by one of the the Edwards brothers  in 1906.

Sometime in the 30’s the house was sold and became a tourist home, then an adult home for the community. But when I was looking at it, it was abandoned.

The house was set up like an inn and had good bones. We redid all the bathrooms—each room has its own bath—painted, replaced the furniture with what felt right here—the building has a personality—and that is a combination of  craftsman & traditional furniture.

We have wrap around porches, an East  Patio, South Garden, a West Garden, all reflecting the manor house history.

We opened on schedule with our five rooms.

Q: Your kitchen is very modern, very professional looking, and you call yourself a chef-innkeeper.  Do you have a signature dish? What role does food have in your Inn?

A: The kitchen is my studio. I’ve always loved to cook. I graduated from the French Culinary Institute, so I’m trained as a classical French chef. I love cooking breakfast for my guests, and I make private dinners for them. I also offer cooking classes, so I get to cook more than breakfast.

As to signature  breakfast dishes, my omelettes are a favorite—I’ve been told my French toast is extraordinary, I wish I could eat it. (I’m calorie conscious).

Q: You were a TV editor; did you have any hospitality industry experience before opening the Inn?

A:  No. I’ve traveled a lot for work, and always in the back of my mind was the idea that someday I wanted to do an Inn, and a restaurant. But I hadn’t worked in the industry.

My television  career was a great training ground. I had to work with teams and always toward a deadline. Having rooms ready for check in  and having meals ready on time sort of duplicated my network experience.

I started this business when I still working full time, so it was operational during vacations and weekends. I retired from CBS in 2005 and made this business full time. That’s also when I went to culinary school, which was a two-year course of study.

I see the inn as a great platform to cook and feed people and have them experience the beauty of Orient.  The French Culinary Institute was great for figuring out if I wanted a restaurant because part of the curriculum included working in their restaurant. After many years of ‘making air’ for television, I decided that I would prefer to cook at my own rate, and chose to be  a private chef instead.

Q: Every lodging option on the North Fork is an idiosyncratic destination, wonderful in it own way. What is the defining difference about the Orient Inn?

A: Our casualness and spaciousness. We are also pet-friendly.

I serve hot breakfast from 8 am to 10 am—coffee’s on at seven. There’s a buffet and a menu for hot breakfast.

I cook everyone’s custom order, and our seating is very fluid. It’s easy to eat with privacy, indoors or out, even in your room—I really have respect for people’s mornings.

Of course, if people want to eat together, we can easily accommodate that too.

Q: Pet friendly is unusual, as is breakfast other than family-style only. Do you see any more big career changes ahead, or are you really enjoying being a chef-innkeeper?

A: I was an art major—I think of all my careers as using different palates, from stained glass to film to video to now food and hospitality.  There were lots other things in between too.

I did film and video editing for 30 years  for news and documentaries. Each day was a new adventure, and that’s how this is. I plan to keep traveling to see other places’ cuisine, incorporate them into my skills. In particular I’d like to go to the far east. Right now I’m very exited about  Asian fusion cuisine. That’s another thing I love about Orient and the North Fork generally—the food.

As a chef I love the idea of fresh produce, the boutique farms, and the slow food movement out here. I’m a leader with Slow Food East End and Chefs to School.

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Heirloom Tomatoes from the nearby KK's The Farm

Q: What’s Slow Food East End and Chefs to Schools?

A:  Slow Food East End is an organization that is part of the international push back against fast food culture. Through our Edible School Garden Program we sponsor Master Farmers to help setup and cultivate school gardens, which are now in place in a majority of local schools. Since our students now have some experience or at least basic knowledge of growing produce, our Chefs to Schools program send chefs to schools to teach the joy of cooking, nutrition and using produce from their school garden along with produce locally sourced. This program is inspired by the ‘Chefs Move to Schools’ initiative created by First Lady Michelle Obama as part of the campaign to reduce childhood obesity.

In addition to these programs, we hold events, snail suppers and socials. For more information please check out our website at slowfoodeastend.org.

Q: What’s a Snail Supper?

A: Snail suppers are potluck suppers in which people bring a dish home cooked from local seasonal ingredients. It’s a lovely time, meeting people over good food.  Sometimes there’s a theme, like our last dinner showcased the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin. That was part of  The Ark of Taste, bringing back regional foods that are becoming extinct.

The next one is the one I host annually, right after Thanksgiving, and the theme is make something from your leftover feast.

I encourage everyone to join us in celebrating the North Fork’s harvest and bounty, to break bread together in community, and to tour Orient in its November beauty and quiet.