By Gianna Volpe
Claudia Fleming may be one of our nation’s best known and highly respected pastry chefs, but the Southold resident is more than ready to momentarily put down the desserts and step up to a different kind of plate as an ever-present proprietor Long Island’s Zagat-topping North Fork Table & Inn.
The former ballerina turned award winning chef will be in Bridgehampton this Sunday where Chef Fleming will join fellow pastry chef, Toni Ross, as the honorees at the Hayground Chefs Dinner, which celebrates the school’s 20th anniversary.
Last year’s Annual Chef’s Dinner netted $300,000 to help the majority of Hayground’s kids—a diverse pool of students hailing from the North and South forks—pay a minority of their school tuition as a huge handful of culinary greats from across both New York and the nation gathered to honor Chef Jonathan Waxman, under whom both Claudia Fleming and Toni Ross worked at Jams “a million years ago,” according to Chef Ross.
“Myself, my late husband and Claudia all worked at Jams, but at the time Claudia was not a chef,” said Ms. Ross of her late husband, Jeff Salaway, and Chef Fleming who both made a swap between the front and back of house while at Jams in the 1980s. One of the founders of the Hayground School, Mr. Salaway is also the namesake of “Jeff’s Kitchen,” a culinary program and space borne from his desire for children and adults alike to connect more closely with their food sources.
“This was during the time when Alice Waters was doing her work with the Edible School Gardens, but it was very early and [Jeff] had a vision forward that many of us haven’t seen yet,” Ms. Ross said. “So after he died, there was a big movement to finish Jeff’s Kitchen and move forward on his dream and that’s how the Annual Chef’s Dinner was born.”
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Ms. Fleming said about the long-term health and wellness effects that growing and cooking food with fresh produce and other ingredients in “Jeff’s Kitchen” is sure to be having on Hayground School’s students. “Plus the program is giving kids the education and experience to see if this work might be something they’re interested to pursue in the future.”
Creating a pool of trained professionals has become all the more important to restaurateurs struggling to find Millennials that want to—let alone can—hack the grueling hours and gross tasks associated with restaurant work.
“When I left Jams, I went to Union Square Café and I remember cleaning bus tubs of calamari every night,” Ms. Fleming recalled of her second job in her industry. “Bus tubs and just being covered in black ink; You just did what you were told until someone told you to do something else. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m bored — can I do something else?’ Peeling potatoes, cleaning calamari, butchering duck—whatever the task was—you just did it.”
The 57-year-old chef said she was hooked by the kitchen’s dynamic atmosphere from her very first day on the job peeling roasted red peppers at Jams when she was just 25 years old.
“I found so many parallels between the dance world and the kitchen, [especially the] preparation before show time and then just technique, technique, technique, technique,” she said. “There’s so much focus on technique and repetitiveness and as a dancer that was my life; You just repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat…Now people do something ten times and figure, ‘Oh yeah I’ve got it,’ And it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, no—unless you’ve done that a thousand times and you can fix what you messed up, then you don’t know how to do it. And that’s sort of a lost attitude I think, especially with young people. It’s just inherent in being young that you want immediate gratification – it just is…”
Chef Fleming credits her ballerina background for providing her with discipline and moxie enough to “make it” in the business.
“Kitchens—if done properly—are very structured; very militaristic. There’s a real hierarchy in…who you talk to before you talk to the head guy and the dance world was very much like that too,” said Chef Fleming. “It was very much like, ‘You don’t ask questions; You don’t speak until spoken to; You never answer back.’ Its just, ‘Do this; do it now…’ I was very comfortable with that…That was dance training.”
A lack of discipline certainly is not an attribute Ms. Fleming applies to 28 year-old Chef Stephan Borgardus, who serves as the Executive Chef at the North Fork Table & Inn, the position previously held by Ms. Fleming’s husband, Gerry Hayden, who lost his battle to Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) last year.
“Stephan is a life-saver,” Chef Fleming said of the chef, who is of the Culinary Institute of America and worked at the North Fork Table & Inn under Chef Hayden. “There’s nobody else that Gerry would have wanted to be here. They are kindred spirits—[Gerry] mentored [Stephan]; he adored him—he saw so much of himself in Stephan.”
And the love is certainly not lost on ‘The Hitman’ Hayden’s former apprentice. The rising chef said not only does he credit Chef Fleming as one of the most influential people he’s ever met, but as a “strong exemplary leader with a devout sense of urgency and attention to detail” he said is helping to shape his future. “[Claudia] has, by far, the most discerning palate I’ve ever seen in my life. Her ability to taste is next to none.”
As Chef Fleming flicks her role focus from pastry chef to proprietor, she said she’s been using those strong discernment senses to implement what changes she believes will increase restaurant’s customer base in the coming year. “We’ve changed some things around here since Gerry passed,” she said. Those changes include a division of the restaurant into fine dining and casual dining rooms. “It’s not just prix fixe—we do a la carte—there’s a hamburger on the menu; there’s fish and chips on the menu…I just feel like the trend of dining is away from fine dining, so we wanted to make it accessible. Drop in, have a glass of wine, have an appetizer.”
Although “drop-ins” shouldn’t expect a drop in food quality — Chef Bogardus said he not only feels his mentor’s presence on a regular basis, but is compulsively following in his footsteps,
“The job of a cook is to execute the mind of a chef onto a plate and for me that’s what I’m trying to do for a business with two owners,” he said. “I get this kitchen; I know how this one flows. I’ve been in a lot of kitchens, but I think in this one I make the best food and it’s [Chef Hayden’s] food…If the olive oil hits the pan, then it gets caramelized onions and if it’s whole butter, than it’s shallots and thyme. Certain regimented procedures have remained in tact…These walls have presence.”
The 12th Hayground Chefs Dinner will be held on Sunday, July 31 with hors d’oeuvres at 5 p.m. and dinner at 6 p.m. in Jeff’s Kitchen at the Hayground School. Chefs will include Josh Capon of Lure Fishbar, Tom Colichhio of Crafted Hospitality, Alex Guarnaschelli of Butter, Marc Meyer of Cookshop, Christian Mir of Stone Creek Inn, Joe Realmuto of Nick & Toni’s and Jason Weiner of Almond, L&W Oyster Co. and Zigmund’s. Michael Cavaniola of Cavaniola’s Gourmet Cheese will serve as Fromager. For more information, visit haygroundchefsdinner.org.
For more information on the North Fork Table & Inn, visit northforktableandinn.com.