Amid COVID-19, some renowned NYC chefs have decamped to greener pastures.
Chef-in-residence Victoria Blamey of The Mayflower Inn & Spa | Evan Sung
Chef-in-residence Victoria Blamey of The Mayflower Inn & Spa | Evan Sung
While the media dramatically reports about the “droves” fleeing a pandemic-weathered NYC (here’s 10 reasons why the city isn’t dead, btw), they neglect to recognize the die-hard faction who are sticking it out. Chief among them: chefs and restaurateurs. Some have diverted their efforts to boost local charities; most are scraping by with outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery. All are apprehensive as to what is to come in the fall. Another lockdown? Limited-capacity indoor dining? The questions loom as the industry gets creative in survival mode.
Some high-profile chefs are turning to the countryside to bolster their business in the city. This is not a “food flight;” rather, it’s a means to employ staff, serve transplanted patronage, expand exposure and, frankly, a way to keep on cooking in escape-friendly settings.
The beach, for example, provides a breathtaking backdrop for chef Justin Smilie and his seasonal installation of an entirely al fresco Il Buco at the Marram Hotel in Montauk. Just as sister restaurants Il Buco and Il Buco Alimentari pivoted to takeout, market provisions, delivery, and outdoor dining in NoHo, owner Donna Lennard was approached by the beachside boutique hotel to run the restaurant for the summer.
It was a last-minute ask, as COVID-19 prevented previously scheduled chefs from traveling to carry out a formerly planned concept. Upon request, Lennard and Smilie quickly unpacked a new branch of Il Buco. The opportunity allowed Lennard to hire back a dozen people to work “outside in a beautiful, buzzy environment where business is significantly better than what’s going on in NYC,” she says. “It’s keeping our regular guests who are out here for the week or for the summer connected to our restaurants. And just as important, it’s also a huge morale boost for our entire team.” For Smilie, it is his first time cooking outside of NYC in 22 years. “There’s a lot to like about being in Montauk,” he says. “The farmers markets are great, and the fish — striped bass, fluke, bluefish — comes right off the boat, it can’t get any fresher than that. There’s also an air of chill here that I appreciate.”
Daniel Boulud was also tapped “a la minute” to fill in the seasonal slot at the luxurious, Tudor-style Blantyre Hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts. In NYC, Boulud had been devoting much of his efforts to charity, creating his Hand in Hand foundation for his employees experiencing hardship; Food 1st, an initiative to feed emergency workers; World Central Kitchen, for which he and his team made 70,000 meals; and Citymeals-on-Wheels, where he serves as co-president, distributing nearly 700,000 meals over the last six months — four times as many meals than before the start of the pandemic. In addition to these efforts, he started a new home-delivery meal service, Daniel Boulud Kitchen, and opened outdoor dining at Daniel, Bar Boulud, and Epicerie Boulud while putting a number of his other restaurants on hold. A longtime friend asked if Boulud would consider bringing the Café Boulud team to Lenox. And though he had no previous connection to the area, he instantly took to the bucolic property. The proposal not only allowed him to employ the NYC Café Boulud team, it granted him some, albeit limited, indoor dining, a luxury not currently available in NYC. The Michelin-starred restaurant feels right at home in the elegant, ivy-covered estate and Boulud says that there are so many of his New York clientele with homes in the area that if not for the setting, he’d take it for the Upper East Side.
An hour and a half south of Lenox, The Mayflower Inn & Spa sits in the picturesque town of Washington, Connecticut. In July, the recently-renovated 35-room inn kicked off their “Friends of Mayflower” residency program, a pre-COVID concept put in place to honor the property’s centennial birthday. They asked Victoria Blamey, late of Gotham Bar and Grill and Chumley’s, both of which have closed, to be their first chef-in-residence for the summer. “Saying yes didn’t require much thinking,” Blamey says, “especially after three months of cooking and eating at home and staying indoors in a city where the industry was quickly unraveling.” Blamey finds the experience to be a refreshing escape, where ingredients of the season are highlighted. “I am approaching this like a summer vacation,” she says. “It would be unlikely that I would be thinking about lobster rolls had I spent the summer in the city.”
COVID-19 prompted Michelin-starred chef John Fraser to close three restaurants in NYC. Fortuitously, he had already been at work on opening The North Fork Table and Inn in Southold, New York, for months. Moving forward with the new space was a tremendous relief, he says, as he was able to employ many of his staffers at the Long Island property. “Things started to happen here at the exact time we needed it to. It was a way to work through this mess,” he says. In his first effort outside the city, Fraser started by opening a food truck on the property, a fittingly outdoor outlet, with picnic table seating, for lobster rolls, veggie burgers, and other casual fare. His entire corporate team came out to help open the dining room in the inn, which features outdoor and limited indoor seating within a contemporary, stately-yet-stylish renovated setting. Fraser enjoys the sense of relief the distance from the city has given him, along with the opportunity to build more meaningful relationships with purveyors. “I feel a lot lighter out here,” he says. “And I get to actually hang out with the farmer at a farm and visit winemakers at the wineries and build connections in person. It’s inspiring.”
As much as these chefs are relishing the literal breath of fresh air, they are determined to return to the city with renewed vigor. Smilie will go back to Il Buco Alimentari in mid-October, with its expanded terrace seating; Blamey plans on another residency in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in partnership with restaurateurs from Paris; Fraser will flip his five-days-in-the-country/two-days-in-the-city at The Loyal in the West Village; and Boulud will be focusing his efforts on reopening Boulud Sud, db bistro moderne, and Café Boulud as well as forging ahead with his massive new project at One Vanderbilt in Midtown. He is also toying with the idea of shaking up things at his flagship Daniel for a while. “I have the luxury of space inside Daniel and when we reopen inside we may not want to be in the same place we were… we want to do something disruptive and creative,” he says. If, that is, city diners can eat inside anytime soon. If not, Boulud says, laughing, “Bring your coat. We’ll try our best to keep you warm outside, but definitely bring a coat!”
Montauk, New York
Serving: Through mid-October
How to get there: 3-hour drive from Manhattan or accessible via LIRR or The Hampton Jitney
What to order: Crudo of local fluke, turmeric and currants; grilled Long Island duck, apriums, pistachio and mint; skirt steak, smoked almonds, pickled onions; salumi. Or splurge for the Romance Beach Fire package ($1550), which includes a bonfire-side dinner for two with lobster roll picnic dinner, bottle of champagne, or 6-pack cans of rosé or beer; and s’mores.
How to book: Call 631-668-2050 ext 506, or email email@example.com
What else to see and do: Known as “The End” as it is the easternmost tip of Long Island, Montauk is noted for its beaches surfing sites, and its fishing community, both commercial and recreational. The bay known as “Lake Montauk” features a fish market, fishing rigs, and seafood restaurants. Montauk Point Light House, a landmark dating to 1796, is the spot for scenic lookouts and rambling among dunes and bluffs.
Serving: Through mid-October
How to get there: 3-hour drive from Manhattan
What to order: Anyone familiar with Café Boulud NYC knows that the “voyage” part of the menu offers some of the most exciting dishes. At Blantyre this summer, Vietnam is the theme in dishes such as a summer roll with poached shrimp, pickled vegetables, mango, mint and cilantro; and an exquisite branzino with rice vermicelli, turmeric, scallion, peanut, fish sauce and lime. Otherwise, the chilled corn velouté with cilantro cream and espelette pepper; stuffed squash blossoms with ricotta, pine nuts, lemon dressing; and the comforting “Frenchie” burger are great bets.
How to book: Via OpenTable
What else to do: Lenox is a bucolic respite for culture vultures. Known as the summer home for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, although Tanglewood is not holding its outdoor concerts this season, visitors can picnic on the property and also enjoy mini-concerts throughout town. Literary lovers will enjoy The Mount, Edith Wharton’s painstakingly restored home, which offers a peek at the charmed life of the Pulitzer-prize winning author, along with beautifully manicured gardens and several hiking trails leading from the property. Shakespeare and Co., which usually runs award-winning theatrical performances, is now hosting socially-distant drive-in movies. The charming town of Lenox is rife with independent shops, galleries and restaurants to explore.
Serving: Through September 7
How to get there: 2-hour drive from Manhattan
What to order: Blamey has two menus: The Garden menu in the Mayflower Dining Room is a 3-course tasting that includes entrees like braised rabbit leg with green garlic. The Tap Room features casual dishes such as lobster roll and steak frites with black peppercorn sauce. Fans of the belated Gotham Bar and Grill and Chumley’s will delight to see signatures such as scallop ceviche, wild boar rillette, and the notable Chumley’s burger, marked by mango bbq sauce, American cheese, bone marrow, and fried shallot.
How to book:
Mayflower Dining Room call 860-868-9466, via website, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Tap Room call 860-868-9466, via website, or email email@example.com
What else to do: If you’re a Gilmore Girls fan you may recognize the quaint New England town of Washington as the quaint inspiration for “Stars Hollow” in the popular television series. Otherwise, the area is a big stop for watersports, such as kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, boating and swimming in Lake Waramaug and the Shepaug River.
Southold, New York
How to get there: 2-hour drive from Manhattan or accessible via LIRR or The Hampton Jitney
What to order: Fraser is known for his way with vegetables, expertly displayed in the tempura corn; smoked Yukon potato with caviar; and hen of the woods mushrooms with celery root. But local seafood like little neck clams roasted with sundried tomato and garlic butter and scallops with amaranth, broccoli rabe, and Aleppo, and pine nuts should not be missed.
How to book: Via website
What else to do: The North Fork is a hotspot for wine lovers, and tasting rooms are open. Plan tastings via Long Island Wine Region. Farmstands abound along routes 48 and 25, and the neighboring town of Greenport is full of darling shops and restaurants. If in the mood for a bit of history, visit the Tour Fire Fighter boat, a floating museum devoted to the most decorated fire-fighting boat in US history.
Sign up here for our daily NYC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun New York has to offer.
Kathleen Squires is a Thrillist contributor.