In the 1970s, when processed food was on the rise and newfangled contraptions called microwave ovens became all the rage, North Fork chef John Ross refused to conform to the popular trends of the day.
At Ross’ North Fork Restaurant, located in Southold where O’Mally’s now stands, he continued to bake bread from scratch and make all stuffed pastas in-house. He served corn that had been picked only hours earlier.
“I was one of the earliest pioneers in what’s called ‘farm-to-table.’ It’s just an expression of my whole career,” Ross, 70, said in an interview at his Southold home. “I totally not only ignored that [convenience food] movement, I was against it. I didn’t own a freezer in the restaurant.”
How fortuitous for Ross that 40 years later the same culinary philosophy he has touted since the early days of his career is now in vogue with so many consumers who’d rather shop the grocery store’s perimeter — where produce, meat and dairy are stocked — than the dry goods in the center aisles.
“If you want a healthy lifestyle, you need to be eating good, unprocessed food,” he said. “I think the enjoyment value of dining with friends, family is extremely important for your well-being.”
Ross explores this doctrine once again in his third book, “The Poetry of Cooking,” a self-published collection of wholesome recipes crafted with local and seasonal ingredients.
“My message is that you can do this,” Ross said. “This isn’t complex, gourmet food from a midtown restaurant. This is simple stuff.”
The book, organized by seasonal availability rather than by ingredients, is adapted from the “North Fork Chef” column Ross has written for The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review since March 2008. Divided into 12 months, each section begins with a food-related poem selected by Ross followed by what he describes as a prime meal. Several other recipes follow, accompanied by photos taken by Ross himself and other local photographers.
“There are seasonal books out there, but not many that take it month by month,” he said. “It’ll show you what you should be cooking in April.”
In case you were wondering, spinach quiche with goat cheese and Moroccan lamb tagine are recipes included in the fourth month’s section.
A self-described “failed poet,” Ross began his academic career as an English literature student at the University of Michigan. He dropped out, joined the U.S. Coast Guard and he was stationed in New York and assigned to the kitchen.
“I started to fall in love with the fresh seafood of Long Island,” he said. “It was a very good experience. I learned the basics of cooking.”
He went on to graduate from Cornell’s hotel school and opened his Southold restaurant in 1973, the same year Alex and Louisa Hargrave planted Long Island’s first commercial vineyard in Cutchogue.
“It was a sleepier place then,” Ross said. “The Hamptons were already famous. We were not.”
He went on to earn an MBA from Dowling College and served as the director of the restaurant management program at Suffolk County Community College for 14 years. He continues to work his day job as the manager of the North Fork Country Club.
For Ross, the secret to making quality meals at home is simple: Plan ahead. He recommends picking up the ingredients about 24 hours in advance and making almost daily trips to the markets and farm stands to ensure the freshest products.
He promises the extra effort will be worth it in the end.
“As our world becomes more technology-oriented, cooking is moving in the other direction,” he said. “And that’s really cool.”
“The Poetry of Cooking” ($29), is available at select locations from Greenport to Aquebogue including Burton’s Books, Lombardi’s Love Lane Market and the Jamesport Country Store. It’s also for sale on Amazon.com.