Alexander Graham Bell famously coined the expression, “When one door closes, another opens.” Veteran chef Victor LaPlaca counts himself a believer because that’s exactly how his Haviland Kitchen & Bar in East Rockaway came to be.
In 2020, LaPlaca, along with millions of other restaurant workers across the country, had lost his job overseeing food and beverage operations at NeueHouse, a collective workspace in New York City, due to the pandemic. The New York State Restaurant Association has estimated that more than 8,000 restaurants in New York State closed due to the pandemic.
“I was discussing the idea of doing some catering with my longtime friend Don Poland. We even talked about possibly doing some type of food-truck operation,” says LaPlaca, 49, who grew up in Lynbrook.
LaPlaca says that while he knew he could likely return to NeueHouse once businesses started to reopen, he had already been contemplating his next move before the pandemic hit. He said, “I didn’t want to do what I was doing for someone else any longer.”
Working with his partner Poland, whom he met decades earlier while working at Michael’s Porthole Restaurant in East Rockaway, LaPlaca found available space on Main Street, the former site of Nikki’s Bakery. “We built the place and ended up putting much more time and money in than we originally thought,” LaPlaca explains.
LaPlaca credits his wife, Melinda, for the name Haviland Kitchen, which refers to local entrepreneur Joseph Haviland, who built a grist mill in 1688 for milling grains. The area became a town square with a public oven that people used to bake their own bread after milling their grains at the mill.
“I thought Haviland was a great name for a restaurant where casual, American food is the focus,” LaPlaca says.
When he was growing up, LaPlaca used to visit his Sicilian grandparents’ farm in upstate New York. Their huge garden with fresh veggies including corn and heirloom tomatoes helped cultivate his appreciation for cooking and Italian cuisine.
“Food was a huge part of my upbringing,” he notes. Following high school, he attended The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.
“Culinary school was very intense but it taught me discipline because you’re in school with people who are already working in restaurants,” he recalls.
Following school, LaPlaca’s career took him all over the country. He worked through the 1990s under the direction of celebrity chef/entrepreneur Todd English at an array of English’s restaurants including the acclaimed Olives in Boston and Las Vegas, and in New York at the W New York – Union Square. He also served as corporate executive chef of Todd English Enterprises, overseeing all existing restaurants, and leading back-of-house teams for all new restaurant openings.
“When I worked at the original Olives in Boston, I learned all about food and bold flavors. It was an incredible place to work,” LaPlaca says, adding that his former boss was ambitious with his offerings. “He had 20 specials per night, on top of a packed menu that already had 30 items on it.”
LaPlaca also did a stint as executive chef at the Isola Trattoria in the now-defunct Mondrian Hotel in SoHo from 2011 to 2016.
LaPlaca, who specializes in Italian cuisine but also cooks many other types of food, says he wants to “stay true to using locally sourced ingredients.”
“I want to elevate and educate people about food, such as our lamb spareribs, which are big sellers on the menu.” As chef/owner of the 50-seat venue, which opened in December, LaPlaca will be doing most of the cooking.
Signature dishes already getting rave reviews include cast-iron chicken, marinated in parsley and garlic with roasted Yukon potatoes; roasted pork shank with polenta, truffle-cabbage and apple-cider glaze, and monkfish piccata with braised artichokes, white wine, lemon, and capers.
Appetizers spotlight Long Island-sourced oysters Rockaway and the Haviland salad, a shareable dish made with romaine, mozzarella, and cranberry-bean red onions in balsamic vinaigrette.
Asked about the current spate of celebrity chef cooking shows, LaPlaca says they benefit the business.
“I think the celebrity chef phenomenon is great because it educates people about different aspects of food,” he says, adding that he appeared on Iron Chef America with Todd English.
“I want to be successful, not famous. It’s too crazy and too draining to be a big celebrity chef. I like to be honest to food I’m preparing, and create a good experience for people.”
Regarding the ongoing pandemic, LaPlaca had familiar complaints about rising food costs, supply chain issues, and persistent trouble finding restaurant staff.
But he remains optimistic that both residents and good reviews/word of mouth will help drive traffic.
“We’re literally a mom-and-pop restaurant — we’re right on Main Street,” LaPlaca says.
“I also want people to come from other places, but I want to make it worth their while.”
Haviland Kitchen & Bar is located at 43 Main Street in East Rockaway. It can be reached at 516-612-4545. Visit at havilandkitchen.com.
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