Chefs Dinner To Benefit Hayground School


Chefs including Claudia Fleming, center with Toni Ross, at trhe 2016 Chefs Dinner. Philippe Cheng photo

By Michelle Trauring

The idea started in one room of a house in Bridgehampton, a tree in the backyard as its playground.

Over the next 50 years, that concept would ebb, flow and transform — an educational philosophy that would grow into what is known as the Hayground School today.

The Hampton Day School was the brainchild of Tinka Topping — who will be honored at this year’s Chefs Dinner at the Hayground School Friday night in Bridgehampton. Topping conceived the place as a space for alternative learning before it even had a name — the style of learning that continues to be celebrated at Hayground to this day.

“I feel very delighted and humbled and I’m looking forward to a really good time,” Topping said with a girlish laugh. “I know it will be.”

The 13th annual dinner, the primary benefit for Hayground held in memory of its co-founder, Jeff Salaway, is “joyous and delightful,” according to Toni Ross, and exactly what her late husband would have wanted — an intimate, five-course dinner for 150, featuring seasonal, locally based dishes from the combined efforts of 13 chefs, this year including Eric Ripert and Tom Collicchio.

Chef Alex Guarnaschelli at the 2016 Chefs Dinner at the Hayground School. Jenny Gorman photo

“I believe the Chefs Dinner would be a dream come true for Jeff,” said Ross, who was honored last year and also helped start the school. “[It’s a] dinner with and by friends sharing extraordinary food and laughter in support of the extraordinary Hayground School, the school he wished existed for him as a child.”

In 1966, working with a group of fellow East End parents, Topping helped found the Hampton Day School, an educational institution devoted to a flexible curriculum built on the passion of the teachers and interests of the kids, longer periods, smaller class sizes with a diverse population, and a range of ages, where older students could help their younger peers.

The early days were “wild and crazy and wonderful,” Topping said. “Very creative and lively. There was a lot of resistance to how lively and creative it was. We were considered ‘that crazy school’ by some. It was a wonderful place, in the beginning.”

She would leave in 1975, only to come back in 1991. Five years later, she would leave again — a difficult decision, she said, but this time she did it with a group.

“When we left, we left all starry eyed and idealistic and wanting to rectify all the mistakes we felt had been made. Clean the slate,” she said. “To start a wonderful school again.”

And, so, they did. In 1996, the Hayground School opened its doors.

“We started with wanting to do things more radically and better and with a lot of idealism and excitement,” Topping said. “So I guess Hayground isn’t that different in philosophy, but the people who were involved this time were different, and it’s a different time in our society. It’s particularly wonderful at this time in our society when it’s so desperately needed, a place like this.

Fromager Michael Cavaniola. Jenny Gorman photo

“I think we’re living in a very chaotic and scary time in our country, and I think we need a place where children can be strong and nurtured and respected and honored, and learn to become citizens that are thoughtful and vigorous and to be activists,” she continued. “And I think we do that. We protect kids and we nurture them and it matters.”

The proceeds raised at the Chefs Dinner benefit the Jeff Salaway Scholarship Fund, which assists students on financial aid, and Jeff’s Kitchen, Hayground’s professional kitchen that doubles as a classroom and is supported by a science lab, garden and greenhouse.

This is not lost on the talent in the kitchen, including Claudia Fleming of the North Fork Table & Inn in Southold. The James Beard Award-winning pastry chef isn’t sure what her dish will be, but said she knows the flavor profiles will include blueberries and corn, and that the Chefs Dinner will be a night to remember.

“The atmosphere is casual and friendly. There’s great camaraderie amongst [the] chefs. We’re all helping one another plate and having a great time. The energy is intoxicating,” she said. “The growing, preparing and sharing of food is one of life’s most basic and beautiful pleasures. Knowing where our food comes from and how it is grown is crucial to our health and wellbeing. These lessons are paramount at Jeff’s Kitchen at the Hayground School. The earlier our children can integrate these philosophies into their lives, the happier they will be — I’m absolutely sure of that.”

The 13th annual Chefs Dinner, honoring Tinka Topping and Bill Telepan, will be held on Sunday, July 30, from 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton. Admission is $1,200. For more information, visit


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