Ben Diederiks, executive chef of the recently reopened Publicans in Manhasset, is poised to write a new chapter in the storied history of the gastropub that traces its Long Island roots back more than 70 years.
Publicans has operated as a restaurant-bar on Plandome Road, under several different names, since 1948. Following a string of management changes, it closed last fall and reopened in January with new ownership, a revamped menu, and Montauk native Ben Diederiks taking over in the kitchen — although becoming a chef was a surprise ending for Diederiks.
“Even though I was always around kitchens, I never wanted to be a chef,” says Diederiks, who attended a trade school on Long Island for computer networking but realized it wasn’t his calling.
He later began working at The Gig Shack on Main Street in Montauk. He followed that up with stints at Rowdy Hall in East Hampton and then Swallow East in Montauk and although he says he was a “half-decent” chef, he still wasn’t convinced he should go professional.
But things changed when he started at Swallow in Huntington, working at the salad station and meeting chef Paul Miranda, who had what Diederiks calls a “huge influence” on his life.
“At Swallow, I learned to make simple food but with great techniques,” Diederiks says. “And this is where it started to dawn on me that cooking was a potential career.”
In his three years at Swallow, Diederiks says he “learned as much as he could…asked lots of questions, worked hard, and moved up all the way to managing the kitchen.”
Diederiks then continued to hone his craft at True North in Huntington and most recently as sous chef at Osteria Leana in Oyster Bay.
“You need to teach yourself in the kitchen if you want to advance,” says Diederiks, 33, who has never had any formal culinary training.
Publicans is his first executive chef position and he has redesigned the menu from top to bottom.
“As a from-scratch kitchen, we make all our pastas from hand, dressings, salsas…everything is made in-house,” he says, noting that the goal theme is “elevating simple dishes using great technique.”
One technique he uses is to weigh ingredients out precisely, even the salt that goes into meatballs.
“The reason,” he says, “is to maintain consistency. You want a signature dish to always taste the same.”
Specialties include carne asada and chicken tinga tacos made with handmade tortillas, filet mignon, and cage-free chicken, and served with guacamole and pico de gallo, starting at $7.
Publicans’ top sellers are the all-American burger, two patties made from a custom meat blend of brisket, short rib and chuck, special sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion and cheese for $14, and the Publican, an 8-ounce patty made from the same custom meat blend with truffled cheddar, onion marmalade, and arugula and garlic aioli, served on a brioche bun, for $19. Pricier fare includes a center-cut pork chop for $29 and a New York strip steak for $32.
Vegetarian options are also available, such as a kimchi-topped meatless burger; cauliflower florets cooked General-Tso’s style, a bean-based vegan curry, and a cauliflower steak with raisins and capers.
Looking ahead, Diederiks says he wants to own his own restaurant, manage several kitchens at once, and do more supervising, menu design and training. Yet he sees a huge problem: Some chefs don’t want to cook anymore because they feel they’ve “paid their dues.”
For a chef who prides himself on constantly learning about unique cooking styles and ways to make similar dishes better, Diederiks says he’ll never surrender his hands-on approach in the kitchen.
“You shouldn’t call yourself a chef if you’re no longer cooking,” he says.
Publicans, 550 Plandome Rd. in Manhasset. It can be reached at 516-627-7722. Visit at publicansmanhasset.com