Frigid. That is the only word to aptly describe the temperature outside the cargo area at Islip’s MacArthur Airport. A careful listener might pick up nearby utterances of more colorful phrases involving brass monkeys or meat lockers. They aren’t quite appropriate. Although that one about the meat locker….
Persimmons hang like holiday ornaments from windows and walls on the second floor of Riverhead’s Preston House & Hotel. Drying in a Japanese tradition going back centuries, they are intriguing to behold, certainly, and have a certain exotic flair about them. But new Executive Chef Kyle Koenig does nothing for the mere appearance of it. As he gives one a light squeeze, he reveals that the fruits will eventually find their way into various treats for lucky guests. “I’m not sure how many people have tried them,” he says, “but I’d like them to be able to do it here.”
Everything about Koenig’s demeanor, his approach, emanates a dedication to deliciousness to which he hopes to expose, well, everyone he meets. “I just learned that, being a Scorpio, apparently I am unbelievably eager to please people,” he says. “I was reading that and started laughing. Maybe that has something to do with it.”
Koenig is making a homecoming of sorts to the East End, having worked with Tom Colicchio as Chef de Cuisine when Bridgehampton’s Topping Rose House first opened its doors in 2010. He left to rejoin Colicchio as Chef de Cuisine at New York City’s Craft in 2015, and now a journey that began at the Culinary Institute of America, an externship at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Napa Valley and…wait, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s pause a moment.
A love of food, a feeling for the importance of where it comes from and how it is prepared and presented, what it can mean to people, can be traced back to the chef’s Texas youth. “I think a lot of it comes from my grandparents,” he says. “On my mother’s side, they were farmers. They had 120 acres—corn, cattle, cotton. My grandfather would deliver his own vegetables in and out of Houston to sell—a farmers market before there were farmers markets.
“My father’s parents were foodies before that was a term,” he goes on. “They had a huge garden—tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, carrots, etcetera—were always making homemade sausages, sending me up in trees to pick the pecans for pie. We’d go down to Fredericksburg to get peaches. We would get 50 cases, and then my grandparents would stand there for days, peel them and bag them, and that was for people to stop by and buy them. The sausages were the same thing—they were for people to come by and buy. My grandfather just enjoyed doing things for other people.”
Koenig steps from his truck, through the icy air and into the cargo pickup area, in search of his package. Southwest Airlines is running a bit behind schedule, and awaiting its arrival, the anticipation feels almost illicit.
Farm-to-table and dock-to-dish were not concepts invented on the East End, but the ferocity with which chefs and diners have embraced the locavore movement is as strong here as anywhere. While at Topping Rose, Koenig met all the farmers, learned about the seasonality, about what vegetables were locally available when, what fish to serve during what month, an education he carries with him. “That was all very much getting me ready to be a chef out here, so maybe all things kind of led this way.”
Now that Koenig has planted his roots firmly in East End earth, it feels only appropriate that the home where he lives with his wife, Jessica—the beverage director at The Preston House—and their two children has nestled him among the bucolic farms and wine country vineyards that define the region. “We love the North Fork very much,” he notes, “and I don’t think anyone has really explored and gotten to the bottom of all of what this area has to truly offer. There are a lot more farms, a lot more produce, a lot more land and a lot more people doing a lot more things than we know. We’re going to start tapping into that more.”
Were he in Montauk, it would be hard for him to stay away from regular visits to Gosman’s, still one of his favorite spots to select seafood. Here in Cutchogue, he just so happens to be able to pass by Braun Seafood Co. every day on his way to work. Let’s be honest, not just pass by, but stop in every chance he gets for a first-hand greeting with the fish he’ll be putting on your plate.
The smell of sea thick around him, Koenig walks past tuna loins and swordfish and tilefish, rooms stacked with oysters of varying shapes and sizes, pools filled with lobsters, and you can see his mind working on dishes that do not yet exist. This is Willy Wonka’s factory for the shells-and-scales set. He spies some scallops, which were not on his original list but will now work their way onto tonight’s menu. They are from Peru, yet he hopes they will delight diners who have been lamenting the Peconic Bay scallop shortage this year. “I know people miss them, they look forward to them, so hopefully they will really enjoy these.”
“They called. It arrived.” One hour away.
“I was at Culinary Institute of America. I had been there about three or four months, and it was Thanksgiving break. I had learned some basics—how to make Hollandaise, etcetera—and it was getting to that time when my grandfather was getting a little older and I got to take over cooking for the holidays.
“We cooked together, and I would say I was doing a lot more of the work—doing the turkey, doing the gravy, doing the stuffing, doing the asparagus and Hollandaise because I want to show off some new skills—and my grandfather is in the corner, whipping the mashed potatoes. He’s just doing it forever and ever, and I guess being young and cocky, I was like, C’mon, I’m doing 30 things, you’re doing one. But ask me, after dinner, which bowl was clean.”
He gets quiet for a moment, eyes not as dry as when he began.
“I never got to tell my grandfather that story. He passed away a year ago.”
In The Preston House kitchen, Koenig unboxes his cargo. The cardboard is slit and pulled back, revealing the treasure that has journeyed from the Midland Meat Company in Texas to this countertop in Riverhead. As far as we can figure, only one other chef in the country would be able to receive such a shipment. All others, get in your car, drive down to the Lone Star State and pick it up yourself.
Red and rich, marbling running like a map of some West Texas town filled with endless back roads and rivers leading everywhere at once. Koenig handles it with a certain respect, you could even say reverence. He slices with a surgeon’s precision while looking with an artist’s eye at the flatiron steak yet to be.
The way he says it, it’s not so much an introduction as a conjuring.
“There really is nothing else like this,” Koenig says. “It’s really the best I’ve ever found. Is it more effort to get it here? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. I want people to be able to taste this, to experience this.”
He steps back and gives his head the subtlest of shakes as if rousing himself from a fugue. He looks around the kitchen, then out the door at a few arriving guests who most likely have no idea what’s in store.
“Now I have to get to work.”