Students of American wine history know that Alex and Louisa Hargraves founded their Cutchogue winery, Long Island’s first commercial winery, in 1973. But those inside that rich history also know a very special restaurant opened the same year—Ross’ North Fork Restaurant—on the Main Road in Southold, in the space that is now Founders Tavern. (Later it moved operations to the building now occupied by O’Mallys on Route 48 in Southold.)
While the East End has seen tremendous expansion of farm-to-table dining in the last 15 years, when you ask chefs of all stripes how this movement started, they invariably answer in two syllables: John Ross.
Though back then, the term “farm to table” didn’t exist, Chef Ross promoted his work as “cooking from scratch” or “the food and wine of the North Fork.”
He says it’s best to “have your own vision, not try to be like other restaurants at all.”
Ross still lives in Southold with his wife Lois, and he still cooks every day, but he hasn’t worked in a restaurant kitchen since 2004, when he sold his takeout restaurant, The Rotisserie. Ross has since released three books; his latest, The Poetry of Cooking, came out in 2015.
Ross says, “The North Fork fit my personality, I’m a middle-class, family guy. My wife and I have loved the North Fork for 45 years! We’ve seen a gradual evolution out here. We’re very fortunate—we still have one of the world’s greatest bounties of raw materials and the people enjoy them—add the wine and it really defines what a culinary destination is all about—regional cuisine. Tuscany, Provence, we have nothin’ to apologize for here.” Ross says he was “pretty stubborn and set on my goals—the notion to do fresh period. You don’t know how many sales reps I kicked out of my place.”
Ross had his first tastes of regional restaurant cooking when he spent two summers working at Squires in East Hampton. He says it was “an excellent 50-seat place, it made me want to be the chef at a small American restaurant.”
Ross’ North Fork carried every local wine, beginning with Hargraves’ first release in 1976. Ross had an exclusively Long Island wine list and a small French list.
From 1980 to 2000, Ross released private labels with Hargraves, Pindar and Lenz which were served exclusively at the restaurant. He even helped blend some of the wines. He says “the relationships that developed around wine were the greatest part of my career.”
In fact, Ross may have hosted Long Island’s first wine pairing dinner, before Long Island wines. On May 29, 1975, Bully Hill co-founder Walter S. Taylor led diners at Ross’ North Fork in enjoying his New York State wines with Chef Ross’ dishes. True to form, this legendary mad man of the wine business got roaring drunk and, after the dinner, had to be driven away to his lodgings.
The date of this first dinner is not just memorable to all involved, it was commemorated, along with Chef Ross’ likeness by Taylor on the back of a menu cover that night. Ross has used this iconic image (seen on the cover of The Food and Wine of the North Fork above) on his menus, books and other promotional materials ever since.
For 10 years, Chef Ross and Lenz winemaker Eric Fry hosted monthly winemaker dinners for about 12 people. Participants had to bring a non-Long Island wine to share in pairings. Ross prepared an on-the-spot meal, and diners were challenged to guess the varieties and origins of the wines.
Ross and his restaurant crew went on to prepare a five-course Palmer wine dinner at Disney World in Florida. And he prepared special dishes for annual Wine Council events at the old World Trade Center in New York.
Ross sold his namesake restaurant in 2000. Looking back he says, “I think I’d do the same thing. I’m not a rich man, but I loved it.”