Richard Burns has no use for foamed sauces, does not sport a faux-hawk or a bandanna, is not planning to open an upscale burger joint. He turns 75 this month, and he makes no bones about his age. Far from playing down his ... culinary longevity, the executive chef at Jimmy Hays Steak House in Island Park has a license plate that reads: OLDCHEF.
Burns has been cooking professionally for 50 years, and he has forgotten more than most chefs will ever know. He came up in the classical kitchens of New York in the '50s and '60s, apprenticing himself to French chefs and learning to speak their language. Now he presides over a crew of native Spanish speakers, most of whom he hired as dishwashers and trained to be cooks.
THE VEAL STOCK Every other day, Burns' first task is to tend to the veal stock. To the enormous pot of simmering veal bones and aromatic vegetables, he adds the remainder of yesterday's stock. In this way each new batch is enriched with history.
Burns started the stock 16 years ago, when he took over the kitchen at Jimmy Hays, and it will doubtless outlive him. He uses it much as a Japanese chef would use miso paste - to add an ineffable richness and depth to almost every savory dish: grilled rib-eye, steak au poivre, shrimp scampi, chicken francese.
AS GOOD AS HIS PREP When Burns gets in at 10 a.m., there are two or three cooks already at work peeling potatoes, shelling shrimp, butchering lobsters. Gradually, more of the staff arrive and the blanching of French fries and onion rings commences, as does the finishing of sauces and chopping of vegetables. Burns' mantra is: "You are only as good as your prep."
Other kitchens use commercial bases for sauces and soups; not Burns'. Veal stock and chicken stock are made every other day; lobster stock and lobster butter, twice a week. The long-simmered rice pudding is made three times a week, as is the obscenely rich Gorgonzola sauce, which drowns oven-roasted garlic bread in the restaurant's signature appetizer.
LOBSTER CONNECTION Burns is fanatical about lobster quality: He only buys females (he likes their relative broadness and their roe) and none weighs less than 2 pounds. He steams them, broils them and uses them to make the luxurious "Lobster Jimmy," wherein the cut-up beast is sauteed with cognac, lemon and garlic and served over alumette potatoes that soak up all the juices. He is also one of the last chefs in the New York area to offer lobster Thermidor, in which lobster meat is extracted from the shells, enhanced with mushrooms, seasonings and lobster bisque, then packed back into the shells and gratinéed. In fact, Burns owes his current job to lobster. In 1992, Jimmy Hays, the man, was looking for a chef to upgrade the food at his eponymous restaurant. Hays sought advice from Steve Jordan, scion of Island Park's Jordan Lobster Farm. Jordan recommended Richard Burns whom he - and his father, Bill, before him - had been selling lobster to since 1964.
A RESUME AS LONG AS A DINER MENU Burns initially signed on as a consulting chef. "He thought he was coming for four months," said Hays, "but he's still here." The owner could not have more respect for his chef; he proudly calls the restaurant that bears his own name "the house that Burns built."
The 16 years Burns has spent at Jimmy Hays is by far the longest-running gig in a half-century career. After two years in the Navy (his forearms still bear the faded tattoos), he embarked on a cook's tour of Manhattan's most illustrious French restaurants: apprentice to chef Georges Blanc at the Waldorf- Astoria, saucier (the sauce guy) at Le Chanteclair, poissonier (fish guy) at La Caravelle, night chef at the Plaza, in which capacity he oversaw all four restaurants, hotel banquets and room service.
NEW YORK'S MOST EXPENSIVE RESTAURANT In the 1970s, Burns teamed up with restaurateur Frank Valenza to open Proof of the Pudding and The Palace, which, when it opened on East 59th Street in 1975, was the most expensive restaurant in New York. In the '80s, he and Bobby Shapiro opened Hoexter's Market (American) and Uzie's (Northern Italian), where Burns made his own pasta. After running the kitchens at Gianni's at South Street Seaport and Vanessa on Bleecker Street, Burns was lured to Cedarhurst in 1983 to rescue a failing Italian restaurant called Guido's. Then it was to Florida and back to Manhattan after he got a call from Sardi's asking for his help in reopening the Theater District mainstay. His next stop was Jimmy Hays.
He has no plans to leave.
Jimmy Hays Steak House , 4310 Austin Blvd., Island Park; 516-432-5155; jimmyhayssteakhouse.com
ESSENTIALS Dinner Monday to Thursday 4-10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4-11:30 p.m., Sunday 3-10 p.m. Accepts most credit cards; wheelchair accessible. $$$
Jimmy Hays calls itself a steak house, and there's no arguing with the prime beef, dry-aged on the premises. Beyond the 17-ounce New York strip, filet mignon (which can also be had au poivre), porterhouse and chateaubriand for two, there are big, fat pork chops and double-cut lamb chops from American sheep.
LOBSTERS YOU CAN'T BEAT
Under chef Richard Burns, lobsters, all of them at least two pounds, can be had steamed, broiled and a la Jimmy (sauteed with cognac, lemon and garlic). Culinary warhorses thermidor and a l'Americain appear regularly as specials. There's plenty of other seafood on the menu.
BREAD AND SIDES Speaking of appetizers, no first-time diner should skip the way-over-the-top roasted garlic bread drenched in Gorgonzola sauce, a dish almost comically delicious.
The side salad that comes with dinner is a desultory affair of nothing-special lettuce and seasonless tomatoes, but most of the other sides are terrific, especially the onion rings and the potato dishes: French fries, matchsticks, hash browns, home fries, Lyonnaise (pan-fried with onions), O'Brien (sauteed with peppers and onions), au gratin (baked with cream and topped with cheese) and cottage fries, a crispy potato galette that rests underneath (and soaks up the juices from) the special rack of lamb.
BOTTOM LINE Jimmy Hays is an attractive, sprawling place with a comfortable bar and multiple bustling dining rooms. Everything runs like clockwork, and while it's not inexpensive (entrees range from $28 to $46), it always feels like a good value.