The Man Behind a Little Kitchen
By Kathryn G. Menu
Colin Ambrose’s culinary career on the South Fork began with a severance check from Top Shelf magazine and a Greek diner named Estia on Main Street in Amagansett. But really it was in Whitewater, Wisconsin where this chef was made, and where the majority of his core beliefs about food — and business — were shaped.
Today, Ambrose is known as a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement on the South Fork as he served up fresh, local food at Estia decades before it was in vogue, grew his own food in a garden behind the restaurant and worked with local farmers when chefs still boasted about flying ingredients in from around the globe.
The Amagansett Estia’s is long shuttered, and since 1998 Ambrose has cultivated and evolved his business at Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor, and more recently at its sister restaurant, Estia’s Back Porch Café in Darien, Connecticut.
But it was in Whitewater where a young Ambrose began to find his culinary voice. He was sent to spend time with his grandparents, Stephen E. and Cee Cee, whose Whitewater home was roughly an hour from Winnetka, Illinois, where Ambrose was raised by his parents. It was there that Cee Cee arranged for local high school boys to take young Colin to the river to fish, serving as his guide into a lifelong passion for fishing.
“They would make sure there was always a free line if mine got tangled, and I always came home with the biggest fish,” said Ambrose. “She made sure I learned how to clean them by the time I was six, and that I knew how to take the legs off of frogs, and how to pickle beets. These are just the things that happened every day in Whitewater — collecting beets, and onions and potatoes from Grandpa’s garden, collecting chickens and eggs from friends in the neighborhood — not because it was considered cool, but just because they were there, and that was just how you did things.”
“In the big picture, these were just a handful of the days of my life, but those are the days that molded me.”
Fast forward roughly a decade later, and Ambrose found himself once again in the woods — this time in Jackson Hole, Wyoming — where he spent four months planting trees at the age of 18. The camp quickly realized there was more than hotdogs being cooked on the fire next to his tent, with pots bubbling with stew made from what he had brought to the site, and what he could cull from fellow planters.
“I realized in that moment that while I was not the first kid to get picked for the baseball team, this was something I could do that people really needed me for,” said Ambrose.
He had a similar experience at the University of Utah, where, living in a farmhouse, his roommates would routinely bring venison home from a hunting expedition, and Ambrose learned to butcher.
“I made good venison stew,” he said, “and it was just made with what we had — potatoes, onions, sometimes it was made with beer, sometimes with wine, sometimes with water — it just depended on what was flowing through the house at the time, maybe the beer from a leftover keg from the night before.”
No beets, but carrots — no problem. No brown sugar, but there is honey leftover from breakfast — use it.
Ambrose’s commitment to avoid waste, and use what was available, was at the root of the farm-to-table menu he developed at the original Estia — like the venison stew culled from what was available in his college house, or the meals prepared camp side in Wyoming, Ambrose was doing what he was taught during his happiest childhood days in Whitewater.
Of course, creating a menu — and sensibility — at Estia wasn’t completely born in Wisconsin, Utah and Wyoming. Ambrose credits chefs like Dennis MacNeil, the late Gerry Hayden — the three chefs would become known as the Basil Brothers along with famed chefs Charlie Palmer and Rick Moonen for the farming cooperative they shared in the 1990s — and Bobby Flay for taking his food philosophy and helping define it.
“They taught me how to take what I learned from my family and apply it to a professional kitchen,” said Ambrose.
True to his roots, and like his grandfather before him, Ambrose has enjoyed a plentiful garden behind the Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor for several years now, and whenever possible, fresh vegetables, herbs and even fruit are harvested from the warm ground just steps from the restaurant’s wooden tables, and incorporated into salads, sides like South Fork succotash, sandwiches, tacos, burritos, and bowls like A’s Pop — a dish that gives healthy a good name with pulled chili chicken, organic red quinoa, egg whites, an assortment of vegetables and avocado.
Otherwise, he gathers from local farms when possible — relationships with farmers like Bette Lacina and Dale Haubrich from Under the Willow Farm on the Sag Harbor Turnpike, just a stone’s throw from Estia, are decades strong at this point; but Ambrose will be the first to admit he must have tomatoes year-round to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“Anyone who thinks they are getting a local tomato in May either doesn’t know any better or is kidding themselves,” laughed Ambrose, “and the radishes in August, probably not local, but sometimes I do have to have them.”
That said, the paella — one of the dinner menu stars — will feature what Gosman’s Dock has available. In May, that happened to be porgy and flounder as well as little neck clams, although shrimp are also included in the paella and any chef that promises local shrimp is not from Long Island.
“But we have long made a commitment to utilize the bounty around us and what our community has to offer,” said Ambrose. “But it cannot all be sourced locally, and that is just the simple truth.”
While local is best, the most important thing to Ambrose when looking at the food that makes up his menu is that it sells, and sells fast, because that is the key to a restaurant that can pledge the promise of truly fresh food. At the Little Kitchen, which is named, in part, for its tiny cooking space — a space that serves hundreds of plates morning, noon and night — this becomes even more critical. If it is not leaving his kitchen quickly, expect it to have a short life on Ambrose’s menu.
His patrons — and the regulars are a devoted lot — and his staff have also shaped the development of food at Estia’s, in Amagansett, and certainly in Sag Harbor, which has evolved to feature an extensive menu at breakfast, lunch and dinner inspired by southwest United States, and central America.
“Rueben Bravo worked for me for several years, and with more and more Latinos working at Estia’s it was important to me to start building a menu based on their palate,” said Ambrose. “We started making our own salsa, Rancheros followed, which Joe Heller ate every time he came in, and then it just started to grow in that direction. We are growing our own cilantro now, our own peppers, tomatoes in season, I leaned to roast sweet corn from Bobby Flay, and it just all came together.”
His patrons — many regulars will eat at the Little Kitchen once or twice a week, and according to Ambrose, they usually order the same thing, the same time each week, and bring the same company for their meal — have also made suggestions over the years, a few in a lucky lot earning a named dish on the menu.
“I have always said there is a component of the community that travels a lot, and they travel to come to Estia’s, and for them, there is a moment of time that they think of as Estia’s time, whether that be breakfast before anyone gets here, the 2 p.m. lunch, a prix fixe dinner — the paella on the prix fixe is the best deal in town and there are those who come every week for it.”
Ambrose’s passion for food, and for building community filters into virtually everything he does, including his newest venture, the American Rivers Tour. In addition to creating a restaurant that feels like home for many of his clients, and certainly a staff that has worked by his side for decades, Ambrose has also sustained a group of artists in meals in trade for art, and regularly hosts benefits with his wife, Jessica, at the Little Kitchen, including one this fall, The Turnpike Block Party, which will benefit the Sag Harbor Partnership.
“My children [daughters Lyman, Mansell and Whittier] were cultivated through the kitchen garden, playing outside the kitchen door,” he said. “And that has changed their view of what it means to be an American … any ability I have to share that through my food, or through my other work, I am grateful for.”
While his daughters are now all close to adulthood, Ambrose has new children to look after this year at the Little Kitchen: bees.
“They are so happy right now,” he said during an interview in early June, beaming only like a new father can. “As a kid, I was taught not to freak out about bees, and the other day I was out there with them and they surrounded me. I almost think they know who I am at this point.”
While aiding his own garden, he admits he cannot claim them entirely as his own in the pollination department, and Ambrose is okay with that.
“They have a three-mile pattern, so I hope they make it over to Channing Daughters, and Bette and Dale’s,” he said.
“I don’t know where they have been,” adds Ambrose. “They are kind of like my daughters these days …”
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
A Lot When it Comes to These Dishes
Tomato, Bacon and Jack Cheese Melted on 8 Grain Toast with the option to add an egg or two.
Inspired by /Named After: Allen Grubman
“They don’t come in often, Allen and his wife, Deborah, but what I think is cool is when they do come in, they always come in together, and they always come in for breakfast,” says Ambrose, of the famed entertainment attorney, who had the Grubman Classic named after him around 2004, after telling Ambrose his menu would benefit from a dish in his name. “No one has ever been quite so direct about it,” laughed Ambrose, who has a real affection for Grubman and his family. Grubman suggested to Ambrose that the dish should be classic and simple, describing a crusty piece of Tuscan bread, toasted, and topped with fresh tomatoes, bacon, and cheese, broiled to bring it together into an open face sandwich perfect for breakfast (eggs optional), or lunch.
As the Little Kitchen moved away from sandwiches — and reconfigured its kitchen — the Classic Grubman hit the cutting room floor, but was brought back by Ambrose as “The Mini Grubman,” offered now at a lower price point on a smaller piece of whole grain bread, and served with a side of coleslaw.
Tuscan Toast topped with Goat Cheese, Spinach, Tomato, Onion and Two Poached Eggs
Inspired by/ Named After: Isabel Carmichael
Isabel Carmichael was a customer of Ambrose’s Estia in Amagansett, when he was moving the eatery, slowly, away from his Greek diner roots. Ambrose had already become acquainted with Miles Cahn, the Coach Leatherware founder who began making goat cheese with his wife, Lillian, in the Hudson Valley in the mid-80s. Cahn was also a regular fixture at the Amagansett restaurant in the 1990s, like Carmichael, and Ambrose purchased the artisanal cheese.
Carmichael, who liked to “eat clean,” said Ambrose, would order the Tuscan bread found elsewhere on the menu, spread with goat cheese, and topped with spinach, onions, tomatoes and poached eggs as a special request.
“Finally, I said, let’s just give this a name and put it on the menu,” said Ambrose. “So a year after she started ordering it, we called it Isabel’s Request, and promptly after it hit the menu, she started ordering something new.”
“You know, it has been on the menu for 25 years and is on both my restaurants’ menu, and it is very popular,” he continued. “There are ‘Isabel’s Request’ customers, where that is all they order.”
BIG AL’S BURRITO
Mixed Vegetables, Veggie Burger, Egg Whites and Jack Cheese
Inspired By/ Named After: Alec Baldwin
“We have a nice relationship,” said Ambrose of Baldwin, who became a customer at the Amagansett Estia’s, where he was a fan of the chef’s sweet corn ice cream, and the two became friends.
While the Little Kitchen has evolved to include a number of burritos, and southwest and Mexican inspired fare, it was Big Al — a vegetarian himself — who first suggested Ambrose branch into vegetarian burritos.
“When he came in, he would have it every time,” said Ambrose.
DEN DEN’S EYE OPENER
Two Eggs, any style, a Short Stack of Pancakes with Bacon or Sausage.
Inspired by/Named After: Chef Dennis MacNeil
One of Ambrose’s oldest friends in the South Fork culinary world, MacNeil took Ambrose under his wing when he was just starting out, and years later stepped in to help out at the Little Kitchen. The menu was largely successful, says Ambrose of the Sag Harbor eatery at the time MacNeil came on board after the tragic death of longtime chef Deanne Oi, but MacNeil felt it was missing something Ambrose had long avoided: the combination platter.
“So we called it Den Den’s Eye Opener, and as much as I had avoided it, it has never left the menu,” says Ambrose. “There are people who have Den Den’s every time they come in and that is just the way it is.”
Ambrose would include another combination platter, Tony’s Complete (2 eggs, potato, bacon, toast, small juice and coffee), named after the eatery that preceded the Little Kitchen, Tony’s Coffee Shop.
Returning to the Rivers
While at this point, the cuisine Colin Ambrose is known for is often associated with the farm fields of the South Fork, and the seafood teeming in the bays and oceans off Long Island, his roots in cooking are on the banks of streams and rivers in the Midwest.
“Essential to my whole being is time spent on the water, and as much as I love it around here, I grew up on rivers,” says Ambrose.
His history is also tied to storytellers who strived to preserve American stories — his uncle, Stephen Ambrose, a historian and biographer of U.S. presidents, wrote “Band of Brothers,” but also works dedicated to exploration, including “Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West,” about the Lewis and Clark Expedition and “Nothing Like it in the World,” detailing the construction of the Pacific Railroad. Colin Ambrose, who grew up canoeing with his late uncle, is also interested in preserving stories, and in particular, the tales found across America, on banks of rivers, and ideally those that come with a good meal.
And so, the American Rivers Tour was conceived — a project Ambrose, a longtime collector of East End art — has coined his new “ART” project.
Ambrose began river fishing as a child, a practice he would continue as an adolescent Boy Scout, becoming known as someone who could create more than your average campsite grub. The American Rivers Tour brings the chef and businessman full circle, retuning him to those culinary roots. This year, Ambrose has already fished the Chagrin River in Ohio, with Grove Hill Restaurant Chef Tim Bando and Chagrin River Outfitters guide Dan Pribanic, where Bando and Ambrose cooked braised lamb and spring vegetables over an open campfire. He also has explored Hudson River and Jamaica Bay with Chef Kerry Heffernan, and Urban Fly Guide’s Brendan McCarthy.
Each excursion is detailed on americanriverstour.com, with videos, photographs and even recipes. Resources are also available for those looking to plan their own river tour and eventually, Ambrose envisions a curated online store of supplies. Big Hole River, Chippewa River, Au Sable River, and, of course, the mighty Mississippi, are also on the 2017 bucket list for Ambrose.
“There are a lot of stories out there,” said Ambrose. “I’m inspired to tell them. And if it keeps me fishing a lot, well that’s nice too.”