The North Fork region has seen many pioneers, from Aboriginal peoples who arrived when the glaciers retreated, to European settlers who landed in the mid-17th century, to Irish and Poles who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries.
All of this brings something unique to the region. All of this leaves a lasting legacy.
And John Ross, a recent pioneer in what is now the North Fork.
Mr Ross came here 50 years ago this year and opened Ross’ North Fork Restaurant on Southold’s Main Road. From day one, he was different. He uses local ingredients—fish from the bay, scallops, clams, and oysters; the same-day pick of spinach, lettuce, cauliflower, corn, and tomatoes is sold at farm stands in the area.
Every morning, he thinks about what he can glean that day and creates a daily menu. Written by hand, then typed by his wife Louise with a copy printed on a mimeograph. No laminated menus dotted with coffee stains, offering the same entrees day after day. He has no interest in it.
Mr Ross is a collector of local treasures. All of his ingredients are fresh, locally grown and used daily. He doesn’t even have a refrigerator. If Peconic’s Dorothy Konarski puts her butternut squash on the counter at Mike’s Farm stand, he buys it there.
He uses local, fresh, and seasonal produce—ducklings from Ackerberg’s Crescent Duck Farm are a customer favorite—for the first time in the North Fork. This method doesn’t even have a name yet. Someone later coined the phrase “farm to fork”. But it started with John Ross.
When Hargrave Vineyards (also started 50 years ago on Louisa and Alex Hargrave’s old potato farm in Cutchogue) began selling wine, Mr Ross was in His restaurant shows it. Those wines also came to Rose’s North Fork when another new vineyard started selling its wines.
“We start every morning with the daily menu,” Mr Ross said. “We thought it was a way to keep things fresh. The same idea with carrying local wines. They’re big. It fit right in with my vision for North Fork. It played a big part in creating something really good. Every famous gastronomic region has excellent local wines.”
Mr. Ross has now written a book, “Chef John Ross – Celebrating 50 Years in the North Fork”, recounting his history in this remarkable place. It’s an informative memoir that tells his story and features poetry and recipes, including duck and his restaurant’s signature summer lobster stew.
Page 17 is a copy of the daily menu from March 1974 (Ross’s opened only three months earlier), which includes baked stuffed clams, flounder fillets, Peconic Gulf scallops, Long Island duck and lobster. The most expensive item on the menu—lobster—is $7.95.
Canadian-born Mr Ross’ journey to Southold has taken many twists and turns. He and Louise are married in Omaha, Nebraska, where she teaches and he works at Howard Johnson and a steakhouse. He joined the U.S. Coast Guard at the height of the Vietnam War and learned how to cook while stationed on Long Island. He also attended Cornell University’s prestigious School of Hotel Administration and Hospitality Administration.
Working at the Coast Guard station in Jones Beach, cooking for about 22 recruits, he made an important discovery: The local seafood was delicious. After graduating from Cornell, he got a job in the kitchen at Squires restaurant in East Hampton. There, his vision of sourcing the best local ingredients began to take shape.
“I fell into an identity that fit my personality,” he said. “There were pioneers of the so-called farm table on the West Coast, like Alice Waters. There was processed food in America on the one hand, artisanal food and American wine on the other. Want to be a part of it.
“I discovered that cooking for the Coast Guard was seafood. That gave me a new direction. Then I went to Cornell and spent two summers cooking at Squires in East Hampton. It was This job and those two summers, I fell in love with the East Side and local ingredients.”
At Squires, he met Steve Mutkoski, owner of a restaurant called Carriage House on Southold Main Road. He offered to sell the business and the building to Mr Ross. Mr. Ross borrowed money from his mother and opened his restaurant in December 1973. His North Fork story begins the day he turned on the stove and put up the “Open” sign.
Just looking to serve entrees cooked from scratch and finding his identity as a North Fork chef, he started simple. An early offering was “Bonac Clam Chowder,” named after the AcaBonac port in East Hampton – the recipe is on page 18.
“This Depression-era recipe reflects the simplicity of using fresh clams, potatoes, and onions, and little else,” he writes in the book.
He quickly realized that North Fork was his ideal home. With an abundance of fresh produce and seafood, it’s the perfect place to serve up his dream menu.
Mr Ross was close to winemakers in the area, notably the Hargrave family, who were pioneers in planting European vines to the old potato fields of the North Fork.
“John Ross opened his restaurant around the same time Alex and I bought our farm in Cutchogue and planted wine grapes,” says Louisa Hargrave ( Louisa Hargrave in an email. “We grow grapes that no one thought could be grown on the East Coast; John founded a restaurant and did something equally unusual at the time: his menu was based on food from local farmers, carefully prepared.
“We’ve put everything we have on our business and set the standard to redefine the North Fork – us, with estate-grown wines made from only low-yielding, ultra-premium grapes; John, delivering real Farm to table food. As soon as we finished our wine, John recommended it. When others joined the viticulture scene a few years later, he added their wines to his wine list. Although most restaurants will Buying from a single dealer… John always selects each wine on the list based on his personal taste. His menu changes daily and so does his list as he explores the best of Long Island.”
Ms. Hargrave recalls that as the region’s “vintage core” was established, Mr. Ross began what she called a tradition of “extraordinary generosity and enormous importance” to the growing industry: a monthly dedication to the region. Winemakers host dinner parties. “Lentz winemaker Eric Fry organized local winemakers to each bring a ‘mystery bottle,’ which could have come from anywhere but Long Island,” Ms. Hargrave said.
“John will pair each bottle with some gourmet food, and we will taste it blind, then discuss and score. Whoever brings the bottle with the highest score, the other winemakers will pay for the dinner. The spirit of collaboration and knowledge sharing created by these dinners will We are forever connected and set the tone for today’s thriving viticultural and culinary destination, the North Fork of Long Island.”
On July 13, Mr. Ross and Ms. Hargrave will be honored at an event in Cutchogue Village Green, co-hosted by the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Committee and the North Fork Promotional Council, celebrating 50 years of Eastside brewing. For more information email Mark MacNish: cutch[email protected]; or Lisa Sonnino, at [email protected]