East End Women Chefs Point to the Future

Claudia Fleming, Jennilee Morris, Rachel Cronemeyer Flatley, Gretchen Menser
Claudia Fleming, Jennilee Morris, Rachel Cronemeyer Flatley, Gretchen Menser

Some of the East End’s top restaurant kitchens have long been run by women. Most famous among these is North Fork Table & Inn (NFTI) proprietor and cookbook author Claudia Fleming, the doyenne of North Fork dining. Winner of the James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2000, Fleming is one of the best-known and most respected pastry chefs in America. She studied the art of the pâtissier in France and has worked at many of New York’s legendary restaurants, including Union Square Café, Montrachet, Tribeca Grill and Gramercy Tavern, which she helped open in 1994.

In 2006, Fleming and her late husband Gerry Hayden opened the NFTI in Southold, at the heart of Long Island’s wine country. The restaurant’s seasonal menu featured locally grown produce, as well as locally produced wine and cheeses. NFTI quickly gained a reputation as Long Island’s best restaurant. In 2010, Fleming opened the popular North Fork Lunch Truck behind NFTI, answering the East End’s need for delicious “quick eats.”

As this renowned culinarian says, “One of the primary reasons my husband and I moved to the East End was to have a closer relationship with local farmers. That’s undoubtedly the best thing about working here!”

Women chefs remain the exception rather than the norm. Fleming says, “I don’t think the East End is any different than anywhere else. If you have passion and focus you’ll succeed. I’ve always been greatly inspired by women chefs—Nancy Silverton, Lidia Bastianich, Anita Lo, Gabrielle Hamilton, the list is too long—but, for whatever reason, I’ve worked for male chefs. Tom Colicchio, Jonathan Waxman, Michael Romano and, of course, Gerry, saw great value in having women at the helm of their kitchens. From the very beginning of my restaurant career at Jams, women were in charge. It seemed pretty natural to me!”

Claudia Fleming, Photo: Courtesy Mark Jordan
Claudia Fleming, Credit Mark Jordan

Fleming points out that cheffing in general is “very challenging and incredibly rewarding, never a dull moment!” Her status has earned her judging stints on both Chopped and Top Chef: Just Desserts, and a guest appearance on Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa. “I’d like to think that all the women who have worked for me have felt encouraged and supported…that they have an advocate in me!,” she says, “I think whatever women wish to achieve, they can! What’s next for me—along with my partners, Mike and Mary Mraz and chef Stephan Bogardus—is to continue creating memories and great experiences for our guests at the NFTI. Collectively, we hope to bring more recognition to Long Island and all it has to offer!”

Fleming will be honored at Dan’s Chefs of the North Fork on Saturday, July 7 hosted by The Halyard at Sound View Greenport. Thirteen top chefs will gather to celebrate Fleming’s contributions to North Fork cuisine by creating a once-in-a-lifetime pairing dinner open to the public. Of course, the wine—and the desserts—will flow.

In addition to Bogardus and the Halyard’s Bruce Miller, chefs and producers who will be creating the July 7 event include Jennilee Morris of Grace & Grit; Marissa Drago of Main Road Biscuits; Rachel Cronemeyer Flatley of Nick & Toni’s; Phil Mastriglio of Oysterponds Shellfish Company; Taylor Knapp of Peconic Escargot; Noah Schwartz of Noah’s and Suffolk Theater; Tom Schaudel of A Mano, Jewel, A Lure and Kingfish; Matty Boudreau of the Preston House & Hotel; Steve Amaral of North Fork Chocolate Company; and Robby Weaver of The Frisky Oyster.

Yes, Fleming will be contributing some of her famous fresh-from-the-oven desserts to the affair—which makes it the hottest ticket on the North Fork!

Chef Jennilee Morris of Southold’s catering operation Grace & Grit, which she founded in 2012, has also been mentored by men, including Gerry Hayden. She says, “Honestly, I’ve had more male mentors in my career then female. At the beginning of my career Mike Avella, the original owner of Love Lane Kitchen, taught me that ‘the rules don’t apply to me’ and instilled the necessity of continuing education.”

Avella sent her to conferences and classes all over the country where she learned “the importance of investing in people. Later Gerry Hayden of NFTI helped me get through one of the most challenging times in my career and come back 10 times stronger. He taught me how to think through my problems, there’s always a solution. He also showed me how powerful it can be to collaborate and work closely with your farmers.”

Jennilee Morris, Photo: Doug Young
Jennilee Morris, Credit Doug Young

Morris continues, “Although these two men helped shape my future as a chef/entrepreneur I’ve always been surrounded by strong powerful women. I’ve long admired Claudia Fleming and her strength, in and out of the kitchen. I watched Carolyn Iannone of Love Lane Kitchen save an institution and take hospitality to new levels. My longtime business partner Stephanie Pincar-Coleman has fearlessly navigated Grace & Grit through our growth spurts over the years. Sarah Phillips of First and South has been at the helm of her operation filling every role necessary to get the job done. Paula Didonato of the Giving Room has been the greatest and most selfless champion and cheerleader of her neighboring businesses. My own wife and business partner, Jess Morris, has shown immense bravery in taking a chance on opening a little coffee shop in her hometown, North Fork Roasting Co. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen as much passion as I do when I talk to the hardworking farmer, Michelle Hart of Deep Roots Farm. Cheryl Stair, owner of Art of Eating, has shared countless stories and advice with me over the years. Katie and Amanda from Amber Waves Farm worked so hard for so many years and continue to build their business and others with their market. All of these women are pushing the envelope out here. We’re working with each other, we’re working for each other and we’re making a difference in our communities.”

Morris earned a degree in both Culinary Arts and Restaurant Management from the award-winning Institute of Culinary Education. What does Morris feel is the best part about working as a chef on the East End? She says it’s “the camaraderie in our industry. I feel like we have a pretty tight knit culinary scene, especially on the North Fork. We’re very supportive of each other and love collaborating and celebrating the achievements of others. All boats rise with the tide out here. It’s not just other chefs working together, it’s also chefs and our farmers. The relationships I’ve been able to build with some of my local farmers will last long after I hang up my apron. I’ve learned more, spending time with these hardworking cultivators, then I ever could have in culinary school. It’s amazing to see the innovation and the experiments our modern day farmers are working on. Each season we spend time talking and planning the year’s harvest, which is exciting for our team because we can work our menus around this and ensure our customers are getting the freshest food the East End has to offer.”

Morris opened her first restaurant, Bonnie Jean’s Casual American Eatery in Southold in 2010. Morris is also the co-founder of the popular North Fork Roasting Co., a small-batch artisanal coffee roasting company, which opened its doors on Valentines Day of 2015 in Southold.

So Morris has been in a management and leadership positions for 13 years and is proud that she’s been able to mentor other women dealing with that responsibility for the first time—“whether it’s managing a kitchen full of men, your peers, or your elders, I’ve never let gender or age get in the way. I’ve always taught that leadership is not a title or a position. It’s empowering others, it’s having integrity and believing in yourself as well. I’ve chanted the idea that ‘Influence is like a bank account, the less you use it the more you have.’ If you lead in the right direction and are passionate about where you are going, people will want to follow.”

Chef Gretchen Menser also applauds the communal vibe in the local industry, saying, “There’s a great camaraderie among the East End chefs as well as with the regular customers. As one of the few female chefs out here, I believe that it’s a good place for chefs to work in general. There have been more female chefs emerging and being recognized at the top of the culinary world. It has become not so much male vs. female chefs but who has the chops and can execute the job successfully. I’m always glad to share my experiences with anyone who’s willing to listen—I’d like to think that I’ve mentored both females and males in my field. A chef is always growing and constantly learning.”

Gretchen Menser, Courtesy Fresno

Menser’s menu has been a draw at hot spot Fresno in East Hampton since 2006. Her wide-ranging travels inform the menu. Menser was born in La Paz, Bolivia, where her parents were volunteers in the Peace Corps. Her early years were spent in Europe and Asia.

She says, “The exposure to other countries greatly influences the way I think about food. I’m grateful to have found two great bosses and a restaurant that allows me to explore different cultures. Some of the best things about working as a chef on the East End are the accessibility to the local farms and all of the great produce, as well as the relationships with the farmers and local fish and shellfish purveyors. I love working as a chef on the East End because, as consuming and stressful as it can be, I’m surrounded by beauty. From the farms to the beaches, it’s hard not to be inspired.”

Executive Pastry Chef of Honest Man Restaurants Rachel Cronemeyer Flatley agrees, saying, “One of the best things about working as a chef on the East End is the local produce! We have such great farmers out here doing some cool stuff. It’s such a tight-knit community of people who are passionate about food, but also like to have fun with it. I love having conversations with farmers about what different produce they are growing and how to use it, or asking if they would grow something special for me. There’s just something so romantic about knowing the people who grow your food and trying to highlight their hard work in the best way on the plate.”

Rachel Cronemeyer Flatley, Photo: Courtesy Honest Restaurants
Rachel Cronemeyer Flatley, Courtesy Honest Restaurants

Flatley has managed the dessert programs for Nick & Toni’s, Rowdy Hall, La Fondita, Townline BBQ and Honest Catering since 2013, but her career launched in 2008 when she started working at the NFTI under Claudia Fleming. Flatley reflects that “I’ve been really lucky in the restaurants I’ve worked in. They’ve been very supportive of me and my vision. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by such strong women in the business. Claudia Fleming has been an unbelievable mentor, as well as Christina DeLustro, Julie Berger, Sigrid Benedetti, Miche Bacher…There are so many great women on the East End that are willing to help me when I need, and I’m truly thankful to have that support network. I think female chefs are getting more recognition, not just because they’re female, but because they’re creating some amazing food. I think we’re proving that we are strong, hard working, extremely focused, talented, skilled and capable. Although there’s still a long way to go for females in general, I think we’re headed in the right direction and there are great leaders out there paving a way for future generations of female chefs.”

In addition to working for a top East End restaurant group, Flatley had been working as an Adjunct Baking Instructor at Suffolk Community College since she graduated from the school with an AAS in Baking & Pastry Arts in 2010. She says, “I try to be a mentor to all my employees (both male and female), as well as my students. I think it’s important to be relatable and help them find their way in this crazy industry. As mentioned, I’ve been surrounded by some great women, and I try to be that person to others as well.” And that certainly seems to be working. In 2016 Flatley was promoted to Adjunct Instructor and began teaching an Advanced Pastry Arts class. She says, “My dream is to continue what I’m doing—teaching, making wedding cakes and continuing to learn and grow within the restaurant industry, as well as explore the country with the husband and dog in our RV.” Sounds delicious.

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