A red electric guitar is slung over Tom Schaudel’s shoulder and his faded jeans tremble as he taps his feet to the beat of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Schaudel’s trademark bandana is conspicuously absent as his four band mates—two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer—rock on alongside him.
Schaudel, one of Long Island’s top restaurateurs, is grinning while leading the quintet through the Southern rock classic, his wrist rhythmically down-strumming as if he’s chopping up a Chilean sea bass destined for his frying pan. Between jabs, he bursts out the chorus triumphantly, like the uncorking of an aged wine bottled up far too long.
The performance is in celebration of Peconic Bay’s wineries, and there’s no one more worthy to grace the stage and energize the crowd. The celebrity chef has developed an incredible following throughout his four decades as the Island’s most recognizable culinary artist, nourishing thousands along the way and resurrecting countless restaurants with his Midas touch while sweating away 200,000-plus hours in the kitchen. To him, it was time well spent.
“I’m totally in love with restaurant culture,” says Schaudel, who embarked on his 45-year-long journey when he took a job at a restaurant to save money for an amplifier and was instantly intoxicated by the food’s aroma. “It’s the one place in the world where I feel like I belong.”
Now 60, he continues to hit the high notes. At his newest incarnation, Jewel in Melville, he recently talked about food and music, with his back to a massive wine collection while his clientele devoured what’s left of their lunches. Behind his shoulder decorative lamps hung upside down disorientingly from the ceiling. Around his forehead is an orange bandana that confirms he is, indeed, Tom Schaudel.
Schaudel owns four Long Island restaurants and a catering business including Jewel. His impact is undeniable, say industry leaders.
“He really is what Long Island restaurateurs strive to be,” says Long Island Dining Alliance President Donna Trapani. “He’s certainly that person who’s impacted the food industry, not only with the amount of restaurants that he has opened, consulted for or even been the chef for—he has taken owning restaurants to another level.”
“He’s really considered Long Island’s top chef, no question,” she continues. “Honestly, to me, he’s an empire builder.”
“A lot of people would just see the name Tom Schaudel and that’s enough for them to go,” agrees Mario Saccente, executive vice president of the Long Island chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association. “He is one of very, very few on Long Island that his name means you should try his restaurant. Just by his name alone, his restaurant is worth visiting.”
With 40 years in the business, Schaudel has weathered his fair share of failure and success, also witnessing some of the most bizarre customer behavior imaginable, as documented in his book Playing with Fire: Whining & Dining on the Gold Coast.
Through it all, Schaudel’s passion remains the food.
“It’s the color of the fresh vegetables, the fish and the thin-skinned lemons that still get me out of bed in the morning,” he says romantically. “It’s not all the other stuff that comes along with this…it’s truly the product that I get sweaty about. I’m still addicted to it.”
Schaudel’s obsession has its limits, however. At one point, he cocks his head back, opens his mouth and mimics snoring while describing a meeting with his accountant.
“[I’d] rather be at the dentist,” he says.
And though his consulting work is renowned, the chef admits at times he had trouble convincing his counterparts to act on his advice.
“I’ve been at this 45 years, so I know something,” insists Schaudel. “For them, when it doesn’t work out they say, ‘I paid you do to this.’ It wasn’t worth the money for me at that point; I rather just deal with my own stuff.”
Whether he wants to admit it, Schaudel has left an indelible mark on the local restaurant industry.
“He’s always one step ahead of everybody,” Trapani says. “He brings local ingredients, which is one of the newest trends. If Tom is bringing something to the table, most people will follow what he’s already instituted.”
If one thing does get under Schaudel’s skin, it’s eaters who refuse to expand their palates and thus, limit their options.
“I’m more concerned about the wussification of America,” he says. “I mean, we’re afraid of everything now: We’re afraid of gluten, ‘I can’t eat this, I’m allergic to sauté, I can’t eat the other thing, this makes me fart, that makes me fat, that makes me old.’ It’s food, man. You’re really missing out on a lot of fun by limiting yourself.”
Despite the lofty praises, newspaper and magazine profiles, appearances on television and even his own wine, Schaudel remains grounded. To him, he’s just like any other Long Islander.
“At the end of the day, what is this?” he says. “I own a restaurant, so what? In the scheme of things, it’s not world peace, it’s a fucking restaurant, it’s food. If I die tomorrow Long Island somehow will go on.”
He considers what just came out of his mouth, and adds, “Hopefully they’ll stop for a day or two.”
Undoubtedly, they’ll continue to imitate him.
From The Chef’s Mouth
Here are some of restaurateur Tom Schaudel’s favorite dishes from his restaurants, in his own words.
6800 Jericho Tpke., Syosset
Seared Chilean Sea Bass with Lobster Fricassee, Sauteed Spinach and Smoked Tomato Relish: “This dish literally paid for my house. It’s been the most popular one I’ve ever done for whatever reason. I think the bass marries well with the richness of the lobster sauce and the smoked tomato relish has enough acid to cut through to add balance.”
400 Broadhollow Rd., Melville
Warm Octopus Salad with Potatoes, Red Onion, Capers and Grapes: “I love octopus in all kinds of preparations but especially with these ingredients. In Asian cuisine the goal is to hit on all five tastes, and this dish seems to do that for me. There’s the savory taste of octopus and the potatoes, the salty-bitter capers, the sourness in the merlot vinaigrette, and the sweetness of the grapes. It just bounces off the tongue and gets better with every bite.”
13550 Main Rd., Mattituck
Tom’s Carbonara: “Here I did a riff on an old Italian favorite. We added local trevisio lettuce, smoked duck and copious amounts of black pepper to a traditional carbonara prep with, what I believe to be, a very interesting result.”
62300 Main Rd., Southold
Steamed Lobster: “A Lure sits in the Port of Egypt marina overlooking the Peconic Bay. There’s an outside deck that seats 100 people in the summer and, for me, that’s the A Lure experience. I love sitting out there, looking at the bay, and eating a perfectly steamed lobster with nothing but lemon and butter.”
Grilled Striped Bass with Satur Farms Sweet Corn, Farro, and Roasted Tomato-Olive Vinaigrette: “Striped Bass is one of my favorites of the local fishes. The snow-white flesh is complimented by the vinaigrette and the corn screams ‘Summer.’ The farro adds a toothsome quality and beautifully absorbs all the different flavors.”