Alan Krawitz


Las Vinas Chef Mark Astorga Perseveres With Peruvian Cuisine

Las Vinas Chef Mark Astorga cooks up Peruvian cuisine in Mineola. (Photo by Jennifer Uihlein)

While many people were sustaining themselves on a diet of fast-food delivery during the coronavirus crisis, others were peppering their palates with ethnic cuisines from across Long Island. 

And for those who never lost their taste for fine Peruvian food, Mark Astorga, the owner and head chef of Las Vinas in Mineola, is certainly thankful.

“Many owners didn’t open until a month into the crisis,” recalls Astorga, who says that his restaurant was open all along for takeout. “In the very beginning, we weren’t very busy. I started to think maybe I should have stayed home as well.” 

Astorga adds that while his takeout business has gone up and down, it has helped to keep the restaurant afloat during the past several difficult months.  

While he talks about the need to “fight through” these challenging times, he also says that some restaurant owners may take this time to leave the business entirely. 

“I know a few owners who may not come back at all because they’ve taken too big a hit,” he says.

Long Island reopening rules as of press time allows for limited inside dining along with strict adherence to regulations such as continued social distancing and enhanced cleaning. 

“We had already changed the entire setup of our restaurant to handle takeout and delivery and now we have to change again to a new system of having diners indoors,” Astorga says. “It’s daunting.” 

He adds that a lot of people may still not feel comfortable coming back inside the restaurant. Astorga also says he’s had to cut some of his prices on food as well as to-go liquor to make it easier for people.  

“We’re trying to accommodate,” he says, “we went to keep a steady flow of business.” 

But, on the bright side, Astorga says that county and state agencies such as the Nassau County Department of Health and the building department have helped make things easier for restaurants to comply with new health and safety regulations, including expediting permits for outdoor dining tables. 

Las Vinas has been using a shared driveway, just off Jericho Turnpike as an outdoor dining area for the time being but his staff can only set it up after 5 p.m. each day. 

While Astorga did not attend culinary school, he says his knowledge of Peruvian cuisine springs mostly from watching and helping his parents cook at a restaurant they opened in California. In 1976 the family, originally from Lima, Peru, moved to New York and opened one of the first Peruvian restaurants in the city in Jackson Heights. 

“I started out in my teenage years peeling potatoes and helping out in the kitchen, but I always had a passion for cooking,” recalls Astorga, 45, who grew up in California. 

After working with his parents for many years, Astorga had the opportunity to open his own place, and in 1998 opened a Peruvian spot in Kew Gardens called Inca’s. 

“After Inca’s, I found another location in Manhasset on Plandome Road around 2010 and I stayed for about four years, developing a solid following in Manhasset as Las Vinas,” he says. 

From there, he relocated to Mineola near the end of 2015, where he continued with the Las Vinas concept of mainstream Peruvian cuisine. 

Astorga still does most of the cooking at Las Vinas, although he has experienced chefs as well as a few family members who also help. 

Some of Las Vinas’ most popular dishes include lomo saltado (skirt steak with onions and tomatoes over rice), ceviche mixto (mixed seafood in lime juice), jalea (mixed fried seafood with lime-marinated salad) and arroz pollo verde (chicken and vegetables in cilantro-seasoned rice).  

In addition, his hot sauce is a big favorite, made with 15 different ingredients, based on Jalapeño peppers. 

Astorga adds that even though outdoor dining is an option as well as limited indoor service, he believes that pickup will still be a preferred option especially for people who are nervous. 

“We recently switched to using our own drivers for delivery as opposed to the third-party platforms such as Grubhub and Uber Eats,” he says, noting that such services charge too many fees and those fees cut into profits. 

In addition, he says that some people aren’t spending what they used to pre-pandemic. 

But, looking to the future, Astorga admits there is “much uncertainty,” with everything going on. 

“I want to stay positive,” he says. “We’re all going to have to fight through these tough times to survive.” 

Las Vinas is located at 178 Jericho Tpke. in Mineola. It can be reached at 516-747-0194 or lasvinasny.com

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Claudio’s of Greenport Feeds The North Fork

Executive Chef Kevin Garcia is overseeing a rebirth of historic Claudio’s in downtown Greenport.

While many New Yorkers applaud the efforts of healthcare workers and essential personnel during the pandemic, one iconic Long Island restaurant is going further by cooking and donating local cuisine to healthcare workers and the needy on the North Fork. 

The venerable Claudio’s, which is commemorating its 150th anniversary this summer after being sold to a new management group in 2018, is donating food to Community Action Southold Town (CAST), an organization that serves low-income individuals and families on the North Fork.  

“We’re now involved with a variety of community partnerships starting with biweekly and then weekly food donations, giving 100 individual meals every Tuesday from Claudio’s pizza kitchen, including on- and off-menu items such as popular clam chowders, pastas and burgers,” says Tanya Doggwiler, a spokesperson for the restaurant. 

Founded in 1870 in downtown Greenport village on the North Fork, the restaurant was America’s oldest same-family-run restaurant in the nation, staying in the same family for four generations until recently. 

After the first donation, Doggwiler says that those in need can visit CAST every other Tuesday to pick up individually packaged meals. She also notes that Claudio’s Waterfront recently opened for takeout, delivery, and dockside pickup so those visiting the restaurant can also donate canned goods, clothing, and more that will be brought to CAST. 

Crabby Jerry’s is also open for takeout and delivery while food from Claudio’s main restaurant is limited to pizza. 

In addition to donating food to CAST, Claudio’s is also supporting the efforts of healthcare personnel at Stony Brook’s Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport by donating gift certificates for weekly raffles to the staff. 

“The staff can take home food with them so they don’t have to eat at the hospital every time,” Doggwiler says, adding that it “gives the workers a bit of flexibility to enjoy a meal with family, or their partner.”

Moreover, there is also a project underway to decorate masks with local elementary school students in honor of the hospital’s 475 employees. The masks will be hung at the hospital as a thank you to the community’s first responders.

Patrons and first responders enjoying Claudio’s signature dishes such as clam chowders or lobster rolls might want to toss a thank you to Executive Chef Kevin Garcia, who is now helping his partner celebrity Chef Franklin Becker oversee all three kitchens at Claudio’s after lending Becker a hand last summer with menu changes at the storied restaurant complex. 

Garcia, who started in the restaurant business at age 15 washing dishes, worked his way up the culinary ladder for more than 20 years at high-end restaurants such as Jean Georges Vongerichten’s Prime Steakhouse at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Drew Nieporent’s Lucca in Boca Raton, Mario Batali’s Lupa and later as chef di cucina at Del Posto. 

He says that working out on Long Island’s North Fork is very special due to its “small farms and availability of fresh fish, excellent produce, and local wineries.” 

“It’s been like a dream… amazing,” he says, noting how he’s built relationships with local farmers, and has had access to very fresh, local seafood.

However, Garcia couldn’t help note how the restaurant industry has been “decimated” by the coronavirus.

“We’re dealing with the rules of COVID,” he says. “It’s a complete reinvention of everything. It’ll work out for some people, and some not.”

He predicts this pandemic will have a lasting effect on the hospitality industry and that many restaurants won’t reopen. 

Garcia, who grew up in New York City and Connecticut, notes that they are trying their best to keep the integrity and history of Claudio’s intact, despite the difficulty of grappling with the new reality of social distancing. 

“We’re just preparing for when we can have seating outside,” he says, but…”we still have staff to pay and we are in the process of hiring, but at the moment, we’re not covering expenses from just doing takeout and delivery.” 

Some of the dishes Garcia has been helping get out the door include lobster rolls, lobster Cobb salad, soft shell crab, and oysters and clams served a variety of ways, from steamed to sandwiches.  

“Although we sometimes have to make changes for takeout and delivery, you still have to put out your best things and do the best you can,” he says.  

Claudio’s is located at 111 Main St. in Greenport. It can be reached at 631-477-0627 or claudios.com

Related Story: The North Fork: Farm Country Plus A Lot More

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Pomodorino Rosso Chef Antonio Bove Cooks With Grace

Pomodorino Rosso co-owner Chef Antonio Bove, left, uses only the freshest ingredients.

Carol Cesone and Chef Antonio Bove, co-owners of Italian eateries Pomodorino Rosso in Valley Stream and Uva Rossa in Malverne, are doing more than their share to keep their tight-knit community going during the seemingly endless coronavirus crisis. 

For starters, Pomodorino Rosso is open for takeout and delivery, something that can’t be said for many restaurants across the island. But Cesone says that even more rewarding is regularly donating meals to healthcare workers at nearby Long Island Jewish Valley Stream. 

“We do it just because it’s the right thing to do … we’re not looking for a medal or anything,” says Bove, who started cooking at age 18 with a family business in Italy.  “We also send food to the police, to churches, and other members of the community. We’re a very tight-knit community and we’re very fortunate to have successful businesses and people that have been very supportive of us as well.” 

Cesone, who started out as a designer before partnering with Bove, says that initially both restaurants were shut down during the pandemic. But they decided to open Pomodorino Rosso for takeout so their staff could at least get “some source of income.” 

“Between both restaurants, we had close to 35, 40 employees in total,” Cesone says, adding that for a majority of their employees, this work was their sole source of income. “We really are like a family in both restaurants, between the servers and the cooks.” 

Cesone says that opening Pomodorino made more sense than opening Uva Rossa as they have a large pizza oven at that location. They boast that it bakes “some of the best pizza on Long Island.”

Some of the restaurant’s specials include eggplant rolls, grilled brussels sprouts, rigatoni Napolitano, chicken Uva Rossa, chicken Margherita, and various salads such as seafood and spinach salad.

Both Cesone and Bove report that so far their takeout business has been very brisk, and they praised the Village of Malverne for supporting them. They do the same for the community.

“We’ve donated all year long to many other local and civic organizations, such as schools, churches and others,” Cesone recalls. 

But now, like many eateries, they’re stepping up and helping feed healthcare heroes working overtime on the front lines of the pandemic.

“We’ve donated a variety of dishes from pizza, penne, chicken dishes and salads to the hospital, enough to feed about 100 people at a time,” she says, adding that their donations were aided by the help of the Valley Stream Chamber of Commerce. The chamber designed a food donation schedule called a “meal train,” so that other businesses could regularly donate food to the hospital and make sure all the food was distributed to nurses, doctors, and other workers who were interested. 

Cesone says they’ve donated to the hospital at least three times already by simply loading up their delivery van and dropping off the food.

“The food is a little something special for the healthcare workers to look forward to during an otherwise dismal day,” says Cesone. 

Bove, who came to the U.S. in 1994 from Italy before opening Uva Rossa in 2013 and Pomodorino Rosso in 2018, says he’s always believed in supporting people in hard times. 

Hospital executives also seemed heartened by the community efforts. 

“The team at LIJ appreciates the thoughtful food donations for the caregivers on the frontlines,” said LIJ Medical Center Executive Director Michael Goldberg. “It’s reassuring to the team knowing that the community supports them with quality meals, which adds an element of regularity to their day.”

Cesone says that presently, business overall is good, thanks to a brisk takeout business. 

“Weekends get very busy,” she says, adding that she hears people looking forward to going out and getting their food. “It’s like a nice diversion.” 

And, at times, Cesone says that business has been so good it has “gotten out of control at times.” 

However, she adds that the future is uncertain. 

“I’m not sure how we’ll be at the end of this thing, when we can have people back in the restaurant,” she says. “This new way of life now seems normal, because we’ve been doing it for a few months already.”

Pomodorino Rosso is located at 47 Franklin Ave. in Valley Stream. It can be reached at 516-812-6171 or pomodorinorosso.com

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Chef Ben Diederiks Starts New Chapter of Publicans in Manhasset

Ben Diederiks is executive chef of the newly rebooted Publicans in Manhasset. (Photo by Tab Hauser)

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

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Health Care, Tech Growth Should Steer Long Island Economy In 2020, Experts Say

Hauppauge Industrial Association President Terri Alessi-Miceli addresses the 26th Annual Economic Summit on Feb. 12, 2020 as panelists look on.

Despite a few bumps, Long Island’s economy is doing well and should continue its smooth sailing through the end of this year, thanks in large part to growing health care and technology sectors, according to a panel of local business leaders. 

That was the consensus among panelists at the Hauppauge Industrial Association’s 26th Annual Economic Summit, which brought together more than 150 members of LI’s business community to discuss issues including the housing market, job growth, confidence ratings on Wednesday, when audit and tax firm AVZ also released its 2020 Economic Survey and Opinion Poll.

“Overall, I’m optimistic and I feel very good about the commercial and residential real estate markets on LI,” said Jim Coughlan, a principal at Tritec Real Estate, who stressed that mixed-use developments are a large part of the future on LI. But, he cautioned, “Big houses and taxes will be a challenge for many.” 

He stressed the need to provide housing choices that people want at all ages and that includes increased development of downtowns such as Farmingdale and Patchogue, that are attractive to both Millennials and seniors. 

As far as jobs and future job growth on the island, forum moderator Bob Quarte, managing partner at AVZ & Company and past HIA-LI president, noted that “by 2030, 1 of every 3 jobs nationwide will be remote.”

“Younger workers, especially Millennials, are generally looking for more of a work-life balance, with more flexible schedules and more free time,” he said. 

Among the highlights from the AVZ survey were that in addition to the health care and technology sectors showing the greatest growth potential, overall confidence in the LI economy dipped from 7.2 in 2018 to 6.8 in 2019. Confidence in the national economy also dipped from 7.5 in 2018 to 7.2 in 2019, despite strong economic indicators such as record low unemployment, a robust stock market, and increases in hourly wages. 

Rich Humann, president and CEO of H2M Architects + Engineers, spoke to how the technology sector plays a role.

“We’re still in an employee-centered labor market,” he said, noting that employees have an upper-hand due to a continued low unemployment rate near three percent, according to the New York State Department of Labor.  

His firm has nearly 300 remote employees, mainly due to physical space constraints at H2M’s offices in New York and New Jersey. 

Speaking to the island’s continued surge in health care jobs was Janine Logan, director of communications for the Nassau-Suffolk Hospital Council. 

“Right now, 18 percent of the population on LI is 65-plus and that means that varied types of home care, wellness, and preventive care will continue to be viable areas of employment,” said Logan. 

She added that many jobs in health care don’t require degrees and can be obtained through training and/or certificates programs. Both Quarte and Logan also stressed the ever-increasing need for mental health/addiction treatment and geriatric specialist jobs. 

“Mental health is a growing issue in health care,” said Quarte, citing increasing suicide rates. 

Logan agreed, saying that jobs in mental health and addiction will continue to be in high demand. 

“Is going to college for everyone?” Quarte asked. “What about trade schools?”

Dr. John Nader, President of Farmingdale State College, said, “Not everyone needs a college degree, but everyone needs and education.” 

He spoke about the ranges of varied programs available at Farmingdale from engineering degrees to certificate programs. 

“There are many options to traditional degrees and more students are looking at micro credentials, like mini-degrees or certifications in specific topic areas or varied certificate programs in areas such as technology, criminal justice, or health care,” he said.

Other highlights from AVZ’s survey included findings that 43 percent of firms on LI had no issues finding skilled workers, 46 percent of firms increased their headcount;, 20 percent of firms gave salary increases of five to nine percent, more than 70 percent of those surveyed plan on working either full or part-time after they retired.

Herb and Olive Marketa: Freshest In Manhasset

L. to R.: George Vatakis and Julia Petropoulos recently opened Herb and Olive Marketa in Manhasset. (Photo by Tab Hauser)

Julia Petropoulos, who has skillfully recreated an authentic market-café for all lovers of Mediterranean food at her recently opened Herb and Olive Marketa in Manhasset, traces her earliest culinary inspiration to another chef named Julia.

“Since about age 5, I had a love of cooking that I picked up from watching Julia Child on TV with my grandmother Rose,” Petropoulos recalls. “I had always wanted to have my own business and owning my own restaurant was an end goal since I was young.”

Growing up in Philadelphia, Petropoulos says she started in the restaurant business by working in her parent’s restaurants and learning the ropes. When she graduated high school, Petropoulos was accepted to the Culinary Arts Institute but at her parents’ urging, opted instead for a degree in education from Drexel University. She then combined her background and education by teaching culinary arts at a high school outside of Philadelphia for five years. 

“I had several students that went on to have careers in the restaurant business and I stay in touch with many of them to this day,” she says.

Herb and Olive began to take shape after Petropoulos’ husband got a lucrative job offer in Greece, where she would live for another five  years. While living in Greece, Petropoulos brainstormed and did a lot of research on various products while formulating what type of restaurant she would eventually open. 

When she and her husband moved back to New York, they settled in Manhasset. Two years ago, things began to fall into place when the current location, formerly the Greek tavern Mykonos, became available. Petropoulos, along with her business partner George Vatakis, agreed that the Plandome Road spot was perfect. 

Herb and Olive Marketa, which opened in October, is a unique market-café concept with high ceilings, white brick, and reclaimed wood from upstate New York. The venue features a full-service specialty Mediterranean foods market in front and café in the back that sources its ingredients directly from the market. 

“Everything is being cross-utilized from the oils and nuts to the fruits,” says Petropoulos, who describes her venue as “a neighborhood place where people can come to buy all their Greek products from olives, oils and fresh deli to produce, coffee, jams, pastas, and legumes.” 

She also believes in sourcing as many organic products as possible, such as free-range chickens and eggs from a local farm in Lancaster, Penn. 

Petropoulos created Herb and Olive’s tapas- and small-plate-focused menu, but also shares cooking duties with executive chef Michael Giannakis, whose resume boasts head chef spots with the New York Islanders and Barclay Center’s 40/40 Club in addition to Manhattan restaurants Avra and Rao’s. 

The Marketa’s specialties include grilled lamb chops, shrimp, octopus, spinach pie, and loukaniko, an orange-scented Greek sausage. Also available are from-scratch desserts such as loukoumades (Greek fried dough), baklava, and assorted pastries. 

Petropoulos says she is “truly blessed” to have been able to open her dream store. She is also grateful that the local community has welcomed her with open arms.

“We haven’t even advertised yet,” she says. “We’re all word-of-mouth at this point … But, so far, so good.”

Herb and Olive Marketa is located at 172 Plandome Road in Manhasset. It can be reached at 516-439-5421 or herbandolive.com

Mykonos Restaurant Serves Up Great Greek Cuisine

Chef Nick Neophytou preps falafel for his hungry customers at Mykonos Restaurant in Smithtown. (Photo by Matthew Kropp)

The story of Mykonos Restaurant in Smithtown is not simply about standout Greek cuisine. It’s also a quintessential tale of an immigrant coming to the U.S. in search of a better life. 

Nick Neophytou, the owner and head chef of Mykonos, didn’t have cooking in mind as a career when he first came to the U.S. from Cyprus in 1985. He had hoped to study at Hofstra University, but that plan would not come to fruition because he didn’t have the tuition money.  

“When I first came here [to the U.S.], I didn’t know about cooking,” Neophytou says. “In Greece, I was an electrician and I also worked with a shipping company. But the shipping company job was very hard.” 

In need of work, Neophytou, who came to America with little more than $30 in his pocket, says he sought out Greek-owned businesses, and Long Island diners were a logical choice. 

He began his restaurant career at the Peter Pan Diner in Bay Shore as a busboy. And, after only about six months, the owner saw his strong work ethic and asked him to get some experience in the kitchen. 

“I began slowly making diner staples like burgers and wraps,” he recalls. 

It turned out the kitchen was Neophytou’s forte and he would become the Peter Pan’s head cook for the next nine years. From there, he went to the California Diner in Patchogue, also as a cook. He would also cook in two more now-defunct diners — the Empress Diner in East Meadow and The Syosset Diner — before realizing his American dream of opening his own business. 

Mykonos Restaurant opened In Smithtown in 1993 after Neophytou purchased the small but struggling eatery from another Greek immigrant. 

“One of my meat suppliers had told me of this place that wasn’t doing well and I decided to go see it,” he recalls. “I ended up borrowing money from relatives and bought the place for $60,000.” 

Neophytou recalls that the early days of his restaurant were tough times. 

“I had just bought a house in East Islip and my wife was pregnant,” he says. “Seven days per week, I was doing everything…from cooking to waiting on and clearing tables. It wasn’t easy.” 

However, following several years of struggles and numerous renovations, the restaurant has been slowly and steadily increasing its business and building a loyal customer base. 

He now employs six people working in the kitchen as well as a hostess and waitresses.  

“My customers really enjoy my homemade food that is all made from scratch daily,” he says, adding that he sources his ingredients from various suppliers from across Long Island.  

Some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes include gyros, souvlaki, spinach pie, Greek chicken, fresh octopus, and lamb chops, as well as homemade desserts including baklava and rice pudding. 

Reflecting on his journey from Cyprus to the U.S., Neophytou, now 56, stresses the importance of having the support of his wife, Linda, whom he met early on while working at Peter Pan Diner. 

“I couldn’t have gotten to where I am today without my wife,” he says. “She kept me going even when I felt like giving up.”

Mykonos Restaurant is located at 45 Route 111 in Smithtown.  It can be reached at 631-979-2000 or mykonossmithtown.com

Azerbaijan Grill: Divine Persian Cuisine

When Azerbaijan Grill, a restaurant serving Turkish and Persian fare in Westbury, first opened in 2005, many people in the area knew little about this style of Mediterranean cuisine. 

Chef Sammy, who owns the eatery and asked that his last name not be used, just started cooking and slowly built a customer base, he recalls. As it turns out, his eclectic menu has staying power.

“Mediterranean food has a language all its own, and that should be apparent to the diner,” he says.“I’ve always made a point of bringing a unique style to the food I cook.”

After coming to the U.S. in 1999 from Azerbaijan, a country located north of Iran and south of Russia, where people speak a variation of the Persian, Sammy recalls working at a variety of part-time jobs in the restaurant business, including waiting tables and later as a line cook.

“I worked at a Persian/Afghani restaurant in Flushing and also at a now-closed restaurant in Roslyn Heights, where I prepared various dishes and really started to learn the craft of cooking,” he recalls. 

But, it wasn’t until after he finished-up a stint working at Aladdin in Syosset in 2005 that Sammy knew he was ready to strike out on his own by making a “modest” investment and taking over the then-foundering Turkan Café in Westbury. 

“Much of my education about the restaurant business was not so much cooking but observing and studying other restaurants’ operations to see what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “I try as much as possible to apply positive approaches to my own place.” 

Part of that unique style includes cooking-up traditional Persian and Turkish favorites such as boneless chicken kebab, marinated with lemon and grilled on an open fire or jujeh kebab, cornish hen marinated with lemon and zaffran.

Other favorites include lamb shish kebab, vegetable mousakka (vegan style), baba ghanouj, smooth roasted eggplant spread, whole branzino, a Mediterranean fish in lemon-garlic sauce as well as flaky, light spinach pie

Asked about his experience in the kitchen, Sammy revealed that back in his native Azerbaijan, he never cooked, but that he was always an enthusiastic and adventurous diner who enjoyed sampling new cuisines. 

“The concept of a good restaurant is supposed to be the cooking and not just taking food, heating it and serving it to people,” he says, noting that he “dislikes frozen food that isn’t prepared from scratch.” 

He adds that he personally oversees the from-scratch preparation of everything Azerbaijan serves from the grilled fish and kebabs to the hummus, eggplants and traditional desserts such as baklava and Persian ice cream. 

Although Sammy enjoys a variety of different cuisines, he says that still enjoys Mediterranean cuisine best as it can “be eaten seven days per week and you will never tire of it.” 

Looking forward, Sammy says he has his sights set on expansion.

“At some point soon, I would like to expand and open another restaurant here on Long Island,” he says. “Ideally, I would like to do an open-air, backyard style, Mediterranean restaurant along the lines of Greek cafes, such as Oasis in Flushing. But, not just yet. That is a project that is still on the horizon.”

Azerbaijan Grill is located at 1610 Old Country Road, Westbury. It can be reached at 516-228-0001 or azerbaijangrill.com

Chef Matthew Boudreau Brings New American Dining to Riverhead

Chef Matty Boudreau is an award-winning barbecue competitor and new American menu creator.

Ask many people about coffee cake, and it will likely hold little more importance than a dessert they may favor, or perhaps not. 

But for Matthew Boudreau, the current executive chef at the Preston House & Hotel in Riverhead, it helped launch his diverse and accomplished culinary career. 

“I can remember my grandmother Edith was a great baker and she made this fantastic coffee cake … and the smells used to just fill the house,” he recalls.  “That coffee cake is now on the menu at the Preston House.”

Boudreau’s now signature coffee cake is part of the elevated-yet-approachable dining experience that Preston House owner Joseph Petrocelli envisioned when he hired Boudreau as the boutique hotel-restaurant’s executive chef last year. 

The chic farm-to-table New American-style restaurant seats 88, or 160 including al fresco in warmer months. The 20-room, five-story hotel located directly behind the restaurant features studios and suites that offer intimate service. The property built in 1905 was once the home of Henry Preston, the first salaried Suffolk County sheriff.

Other staples at the Preston House include a nice piece of fish, surrounded by quinoa, roasted fennel and local tomatoes; organic roasted chicken, done in an ancho-honey glaze with baby carrots and my summer chana, Boudreau’s take on the classic Indian dish Chana Masala, sans tomatoes and with accents on braised garbanzos and vegetables. 

“My philosophy is to give people a new experience in an area that really is starting to come into its own,” says Boudreau, 41, who resides in Sag Harbor. Boudreau says that something akin to a “renaissance” is now happening in Riverhead, similar to changes that took place in Patchogue in the last several years with its resurgent downtown. 

“People all over are eating healthy and I strive to make healthier, trendier dishes with more vegetables,” he adds, pointing to his summer chana as a shining example. 

Looking back, Boudreau points fondly to his days working alongside his dad outside Fenway Park in Boston, selling sausages. 

“I was only 8 years old and I can remember selling those sausages and barking at the fans to get sales going,” he recalls.  

Selling those sausages would ultimately pay off, leading Boudreau to a career with more than 20 years’ experience working in kitchens from Los Angeles to London, getting an early start in the culinary world at age 14. 

By age 20, he was already working as a sous chef. 

And, while Boudreau never attended formal culinary school classes, he had the benefit of learning on-the-job while working at Café Max in Memphis, Tenn., from two established chefs who had attended the Culinary Institute of America. 

“It was both a great education ‘cooking the book’ without incurring the debt that attending school usually brings,” he says.  

Boudreau’s diverse background as a chef includes working as a part of the opening staff at top New York City venue Balthazar, which morphed into a gig as one of the company’s corporate chefs traveling between Miami, Los Angeles, and New York City. 

Working in Europe, Boudreau joined the Formula One culinary team as a personal chef. 

During his time living in London, Boudreau was tapped by Chef Anton Edelmann to take over his new restaurant Cru, which focused on now-trendy farm-to-table fare and small plates.

As an avid fan who considers barbecue “near and dear” to his heart, Boudreau competes regularly in contests in Memphis. 

“I have a large network of people I converse with down in Memphis and they’re all big fans of barbecue,” he says.

Boudreau also recently won a Dan’s Taste of Summer GrillHampton event in the Hamptons for the third year in a row. 

“The event lets chefs showcase their barbecue skills and we can really cook.” 

That award-winning approach inspires Preston House’s ingredient-driven and flavorful fare that takes a balanced and traditional approach to food. And the charming ambiance of the historic locale is just gravy.

Says executive director Jennifer Petrocelli, “We’re happy to be part of the revitalization of downtown Riverhead.” 

The Preston House & Hotel is located at 428 East Main Street in Riverhead. It can be reached at 631-775-1500 (hotel) and 631-775-1550 (restaurant) or theprestonhouseandhotel.com 

Chef Thomas Rougey: A Perfect Landing

Chef Thomas Rougey outside The Landing in Ocean Beach, the closest restaurant to the ferry terminal.

Chef Thomas Rougey’s path to becoming the executive chef at The Landing in Ocean Beach is anything but typical. 

For starters, unlike many chefs who begin their career at culinary school, Rougey, now 32, learned working at his father’s restaurant, Emerson’s in Babylon, when he was just 18. 

“I learned to cook on the job, while cooking for my dad in his restaurant,” he recalls. “That was my training…I didn’t go to any fancy culinary school.” 

However, Rougey likely had a leg up on other chefs anyway, coming from a country known for its fine cuisine. 

Born and raised in France, Rougey, who came to the U.S. in 1998, says he is a third-generation chef who progressed from a pantry line cook to a sous chef. He finally landed the role of executive chef at several venues including East Hampton Point Restaurant and Hotel, Verace in Islip, and True American Kitchen in Mineola. 

Rougey, who originally planned to be a computer programmer, says that he doesn’t regret not going to culinary school. 

“My on-the-job training was definitely better than going to a culinary school, I mean, I moved up the ranks in the kitchen quickly,” he recalls. He mainly used skills he learned early on. “Cooking, for me, was a natural thing. It was in my blood, even though I didn’t realize it until I was doing it daily.”

Calling cooking “too hard a job to not love,” he says that, fortunately, once you can navigate one kitchen, you can figure out the rest. 

“The various systems of cooking in the kitchen change little from restaurant to restaurant…only the atmosphere and size of staff…large kitchens just have more hands to control,” he says. 

As executive chef of The Landing for the past year and a half, Rougey has helped to rework the venue’s menu a bit, keeping the spot’s seafood staples such as calamari and sushi but adding a French flair. 

Rougey says he’s generated good buzz with specialties such as surf and turf, a homemade turkey burger, and from-scratch pastas that he learned to make growing up in Nice, France, which is only about 30 minutes from Italy.  

Patrons of The Landing also seem pleased with Rougey’s light-style French cuisine. 

Belinda Rubino wrote on Facebook that the “surf and turf, the sushi, beet salad, and a white Cheddar, applewood smoked bacon burger were all prepared to everyone’s delight. Executive Chef Thomas Rougey satisfied my restrictive [gluten-free] vegan dietary needs with great flare, by serving a perfectly cooked crispy skinned salmon entree, delicate asparagus and miniature zucchini sauteed in olive oil.”

Rougey, who enjoys the laid-back atmosphere of Ocean Beach also says that working in the U.S. compares favorably with his native France. 

“Work-wise, I like the U.S. better for opportunities than France,” he explains. “I like the way the U.S. handles business. People seem to be hungrier to work here.” 

The Landing at Ocean Beach is located at 620 Bay Walk in Ocean Beach. It can be reached at 631-583-5800 or thelandingob.com