Meet Suffolk Theater Chef Tom Schaudel

When Chef Tom Schaudel was approached to be the Culinary Director of the newly renovated Suffolk Theeater, he accepted the challenge of running a kitchen outside of his comfort zone. He was not exactly sure what a Culinary Director is, but Schaudel does know how to create great dishes and run a successful gastronomic operation. What’s clear is that Ross Schaudel Catering has taken over the food service at the newly renovated Suffolk Theater in downtown Riverhead, and Schaudel is overseeing the day-to-day functions.

“I don’t want to reinvent the wheel and get all fancy,” Schaudel said about the theater menu. Finger foods, cheese plates, crab cakes; smaller dishes that are easy to share will be how the chef initially approaches writing the menu. “I’ve never opened a theater,” Schaudel said. “We are trying to feel our way through it.”

Running a theater is an “odd bird” according to the chef. The space can hold 500 people, but groups of 150 are more likely. Suffolk Theater is designed cabaret style with flexible seating. Dinner and a show, whether it be theater, comedy, music or a film is the goal. The venue is enormous, so depending on the event it can be sectioned off to make the room a comfortable size.

The food will be prepped and served on site. Local wines, produce and proteins will grace the menu as per usual for a Schaudel experience.

It doesn’t function like a restaurant; food must be served within show time, but also without disturbing the show. That’s why the plan in the beginning will be to keep it simple. Shared plates and finger foods will be on the menu while the staff gets a feel for how dinner-and-a-show works, but eventually Schaudel will be serving sit-down dinners.

Opening a kitchen in a theater may be new to Schaudel, but he’s a seasoned veteran of the restaurant industry. Currently he’s the chef and co-owner of Coolfish in Syosset, A Mano in Mattituck, A Lure in Southold and the newest venture and largest of the four restaurants, Jewel in Melville. Schaudel is no stranger to the East End, he’s also had restaurants in Montauk and East Hampton.

Schaudel began his career at 15 years old and attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) straight out of high school. He graduated CIA in 1972, during the “dark ages,” before the school moved to its sprawling campus and received the acclaim it now garners. But Schaudel was doing 70-80 hours a week in the kitchen during high school summers and had a lot of kitchen miles under his belt before attending CIA. That is the old-school hardcore way cooks were built in the 1960s under the old French guard. Long hours were put in, and perfection was expected or a European psycho would throw a pan at your head.

The grand opening of the Suffolk Theater was held on Saturday, March 2, and 550 people attended. Schaudel admits he got his butt kicked serving hors d’oeuvres for such a huge turnout, but said it was great, “I’ve never seen Main Street so packed.” The rejuvenation of downtown Riverhead is something that Schaudel is proud to be a part of, and was another big draw for him.

He feels the Suffolk Theater is a piece of history that needs support. Riverhead has the draw of the North Fork, while being easily accessible from the Hamptons.

As the ebb and flow of theatrical food service becomes more apparent Schaudel will figure out the best way to run sit-down dinners. He is in a unique position because of his four other restaurants. Having the other spaces will allow him to experiment more to figure out what works on the menu, and surplus food can be brought to one of his other venues, this will limit the fear of wasted product.

Opening night was packed and the bar got slammed. The chef finished the night helping wash dishes and glasses; the same way his career started.

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