Guest Spot: Wine to table on the North Fork

While the East End of Long Island offers beautiful scenery and recreation, it is the distinct food and wine landscape and deep pride in it that sets this area apart.

I was born and raised on the cusp of western Long Island, in Queens, and began working in restaurants in 1968 at the age of 15. At the time, I was just looking to stay out of trouble and save up some money to buy an amp, but it quickly became apparent that I had been bitten by the kitchen bug. I went on to spend time in culinary school and worked in dozens of L.I. restaurants. Throughout those years, I was lucky to work with regional ingredients and vendors, which gave me an appreciation for Long Island and its agricultural offerings and roots.

So when I came out to the East End to open Jedediah Hawkins Inn in 2006, I didn’t come necessarily for the financial prospects. What brought me out here was to be close to the farms, the bay and the ingredients I had been working with. The East End is Disneyland from a chef’s point of view; from the range of produce to poultry and shellfish to all sorts of fish and, of course, the wine.

While exploring the range of ingredients, and the ways they could be presented together on a menu, I found a deep sense of integrity among the wineries and farmers, who were, and remain to this day, committed to showing the best that the region has to offer. This beauty, bounty and connectivity affords the area the unique ability to be truly farm-to-table and piece together a memorable meal indicative of this abundant, seaside region with the help of growers (wine and food) from right down the road.

In all of my culinary projects, I’ve tried to adhere to this hyper-local mentality, bringing all the components together. I line my menus with seasonal, local products and stack my wine lists with the region’s producers — as well as making my own proprietary wine — dedicating about one-fourth of my 450 selections to Long Island. I believe strongly in the old adage that “what grows together, goes together” and if you’ve ever had one of our sauvignon blancs with oysters or a cabernet franc with duck, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t, I recommend you get your ass in gear and do so.

The wineries present an undeniable benefit beyond just the pleasure of a great pairing. Since the first wineries set up shop in the early ’70s through to today, they have had a tremendously positive social and economic impact on the area. The wineries have become a major part of tourism and an initial discovery point for the region that in turn supports all of the other industries, from gas stations to farm stands, in all the towns speckled across the two forks. I have repeatedly spoken with guests at my restaurants who have said, “When we come out to visit the wineries we’ll stop at your place for dinner” — never the other way around.

Over the years I’ve come across much skepticism, ironically mostly from Long Islanders, regarding Long Island wines. But the truth is that Long Island produces quality wines, in all categories, that deserve our attention and support. Can you imagine going to the Napa Valley and not being able to get a Napa Valley wine? It’s incomprehensible, but it happens here. This region is making outstanding wines — I taste them every day and sell plenty that pair wonderfully with my food, make the guests happy and keep tourists coming back again and again.

Just as we faithfully support our local restaurants, farmers, fishermen and others in the aqua- and agriculture industries, it’s important that we rally behind the East End’s wineries and take pride in their products. It not only helps all of the other industries involved, but it helps to further establish the culture of Long Island and cement it as one of the top food and wine destinations in the world.

So tonight, grab a bottle of local wine (whatever color or style you desire, there is a L.I. wine for you) and celebrate the character and culture of the region. Cheers.

Photo credit: Vera Chinese

Chef and restaurateur Tom Schaudel is a Long Island resident and has worked within its hospitality industry for over 30 years, opening over a dozen restaurants during his career. He is one of several notable East End community members who wish to express support for the Long Island wine industry and its positive impact on our region. The Long Island Wine Council invites the feedback of residents and local business representatives. Responses can be sent to [email protected].