By Gavin Menu
Cheryl Stair grew up near farm fields and on the bays of Cutchogue, on the North Fork of Long Island. She attended the Culinary Institute of America, and while she was there presented a restaurant project named “Eat with the Seasons.”
“My professor deducted one point. I got a 99 because he thought the whole project didn’t have any legs,” Stair said. “But if you grew up out here, you ate that way. You waited for things. You didn’t try to eat corn in May.”
Stair made a living on those same principles as a chef at famed East End restaurants like Star Boggs in Westhampton Beach and The Laundry in East Hampton. After a short stint at the Shelter Island Yacht Club, where the company was born in 1987, Stair and her husband John Kowalenko opened Art of Eating in 1990 on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor, where the Dock House is today. The company soon moved to the Waterside on the corner of Noyac and Long Beach roads, and after four years in Noyac, they moved to the former Honest Diner location on Montauk Highway in Amagansett, and spent 19 years there until this past winter.
For this, its 30th season, Art of Eating has moved once again to 264 Butter Lane in Bridgehampton, and the one constant connecting that small shop on Long Wharf to the new compound in Bridgehampton remains Stair’s commitment to seasonal, locally-grown produce. Her love of farm-to-table cuisine has roots that run much deeper than any flashy new culinary trend.
“It’s a big time commitment on my part every week.,” Stair said about her use of products from a wide variety of farmers. “Balsam Farm has the best corn, I believe, but I really love Dave [Falkowski]’s tomatoes and Sang Lee’s tomatoes. I really think corn is better on the South Fork, and tomatoes are better on the North Fork. But then they call you and say it was too wet, or too dry, or too hot, or too cold, or the deer ate two rows of lettuce, and I have to start all over again.”
Another challenge for Stair is being in the catering business, as opposed to a restaurant that relies on a similar menu day in and day out. Stair said she often creates 15 new menus every week during the high summer season.
On a personal note, I am a fairly accomplished cook and when people ask if I went to culinary school, I say no, that I began peeling shrimp and washing dishes at Art of Eating on Long Wharf when I was 13 years old and worked my way up from there. I was born into the restaurant business, but Cheryl taught me just about everything I know about seasonal cooking on the East End, which boasts one of most impressive combinations of land and sea the world has to offer. When I asked Cheryl, who I still cook for from time to time now 29 years later, how many more years she had left in the catering business, she smiled, shrugged and said only that this summer is shaping up to be busier than ever.
“It’s at this point where we did someone’s first Holy Communion, and then their wedding,” she said, bursting out in laughter. “Two different veils.”