A Conversation With Colin Ambrose

Colin Ambrose at Estia's Little Kitchen. Lori Hawkins photo

The chef and owner of Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor talks about the Empty Bowls fundraiser for Project MOST, at which he will be honored for his support of the educational nonprofit, and why getting students out of the classroom and into the garden can be the best education for some.

You’re being honored by Project MOST at its Empty Bowls Fundraiser this weekend with the second annual Empty Bowls award for your work supporting Project MOST, a non-profit after school program in Springs and East Hampton. What first drew you to support this organization?

My relationship with [Nick & Toni’s executive chef] Joe Reaulmuto was the key. Joe is a member of that board, and I guess you’d call him a North Star for that organization. Joe asked me if I might be able to help with a fundraiser and he explained the fundamentals of the organization, which I understand to be focused specifically children who don’t have parents at home in the afternoon. They provide that group with not only educational programming, but activities that include gardening and learning about food from the soil to the seed to the plate. So, it was a natural for me. As Joe explained, he had and others involved like Bryan Futerman used Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard as inspiration [for the Springs Seedlings program]. They built the greenhouse and they established the systems that would help the children learn about where their food comes from, and then, eat out of the garden. All of those things are analogous to what I try to do for my customers here at the Little Kitchen. So, it’s a wonderful outreach.

You’re talking a lot about the Springs Seedlings project, which is the edible garden at the Springs School. Edible gardens in general have popped up at almost every school on the East End over the last decade. How important do you think this is for education? 

It’s a fundamental for kids that aren’t getting it in the classroom. I was one of those kids that learned through tactile programming — you learn how to work with fabric, and learn how to work with wood and in this case, food and soil. I was much better learning by doing, and so that’s why I think the Edible Schoolyard is important. I had a grandfather who provided me with that in his own way. He did it just simply because he had the garden, and it was a place where we would hang out when I was on his property as a kid…In this case, the sixth-grade boy or the fourth-grade girl who might not be understanding algebra or mathematics or some of these other things, puts the seed in the soil, and watches it grow. Then in the end of the day, those might be the kids that go on to become apprentices at the Quail Hill Farm [in Amagansett] and/or interns at Nick and Toni’s. They may come to me for a job, so it’s important for me to recognize that that was how I learned, and that’s how I can help other kids, too. 

Project MOST is celebrating its 10th year at the Empty Bowls Fundraiser. What are some of the chefs that you look forward to tasting at this annual event?

You know, I just like being a part of the group. For me, it’s more of an opportunity to be supporting an organization that’s recognized by my peers. I’m going there because I like to be cheek to jowl with a group of people who do the same thing I do, get to know them a little bit better, and celebrate each other through what we do. I am there for the colorful food, the flavors in the bowls. I love the fact that the whole community comes together and doesn’t really have one specific dish in mind. They’re coming for the communal program.

Any hints on what guests can expect to taste from The Little Kitchen this year?

We’ll be serving the Mexican sweet corn chowder, which is a combination of tomatillos and sweet corn, and onions and cilantro. There’s no dairy in it until we garnish it, so it’s a vegan dish. It’s been very well received here, and I think that it’s going to be different enough from everything else that’s at the party, that it’ll stand out.

The Project Most Empty Bowls fundraiser will be held on Sunday, March 10 from noon to 3 p.m. at the American Legion Post 419, 15 Montauk Highway in Amagansett. Tickets and more information are available at projectmost.com.