Swainson Brown’s mother knew when he was just 5 years old growing up on the island of Jamaica that he was going to make cooking his career.
“He was a straight ‘A’ student, but his love was for cooking,” said Beverley Samuels. “Growing up, he always wanted to cook. At the age of five he was cooking chicken for dinner. He would find recipes and cook what he found.
“He was a great kid,” she added. “He was so young and I worried he would burn down the house, but this was what he loved to do.”
In 2015, Glenn Petry, the owner of the iconic Pridwin Hotel on Shelter Island, hired Mr. Brown to work in the kitchen. “I hired him first as a consultant to give me ideas for the menu,” said Mr. Petry.
But, he said, it was more of a tryout to see if Mr. Brown could carry the hotel’s kitchen into the future. “The idea was that if we liked what we heard, we’d bring him on as the executive chef. And we connected immediately. He became family. We saw Swainson as just what we were looking for.”
By the end of last week, six residents of Southold, Greenport and Shelter Island had died of overdoses Southold police have connected to cocaine laced with the highly toxic fentanyl. As of Monday evening, no arrests have been made.
Mr. Brown was the Shelter Island man who died. He was 40.
Sunday night, dozens of people carried candles in Greenport’s Mitchell Park in honor of all those who died. Several people who talked to a reporter spoke glowingly of Mr. Brown.
To Mr. Petry, the death came as an overwhelming, out of the blue shock. “He was such a happy, positive man, and everyone in my family loved him. He didn’t have a selfish bone in his body. He was a great talent and a great teacher. The loss is impossible to describe.”
Speaking from Atlanta, Mr. Brown’s sister, Shannon Dunn, spoke of the brother she loved, a man who supported her and their mother in every way. Swainson, she said, was the kind of man you want as a brother.
“We went out there to see him in 2016,” she remembered. “I was in New York City and I had not seen that part of Long Island before. The staff at the hotel was so friendly, so very nice. He cooked dinner for us every night. He made us feel so special. He made brick chicken. It was delicious.
“He took us here and there on the island,” she added. “People would stop in to say hello. He was very popular with the community. People loved him. He had genuine relationships with everyone. He made us feel at home. And we could see Glen treated my brother as family, not just as the chef.”
Mr. Petry said he and members of his family took to Mr. Brown immediately, won over by his love of cooking and genuine and gentle personality. He also loved to go fishing, and went every chance he had in the waters around the island.
“He was a natural in the kitchen,” he said. “He was doing things with food that were unique. He did a shrimp scampi that blew me away. It was the best shrimp dish I ever had.”
From day one, Mr. Brown and Mr. Petry got long famously. “He was easy to work with. He didn’t blow his top, which isn’t unusual among chefs. He quickly began to develop a following. The hotel and restaurant were getting more and more popular.”
Then, in 2019, the hotel closed for extensive renovations. The pandemic delayed the renovations, and the hotel is scheduled to reopen next spring. But during the closure, Mr. Brown stayed on, baking bread which he distributed locally and doing private cooking events.
In early August, Mr. Petry took Mr. Brown to New Hampshire, to spend a week at Mr. Petry’s in-laws home. “He cooked lunch and dinner every day for 20 people and everyone loved it. My mother-in-law wrote a glowing letter about him.
“But this was Swainson – absolutely unselfish and very generous,” he added. “In the kitchen right now we have his sourdough starter. We are going to hold on to it.”
Shannon Dunn said she and her mother will come to Shelter Island to pick up Swainson’s belongings. Later they will hold a memorial for him in New York City, and a funeral will be held at the end of the month in Georgia.
“I don’t know what we will do without him,” said Mr. Petry.