The story behind Commander Cody's Seafood on Shelter Island

There was a time when an East End fisherman who caught a lot more than he could sell would buy a fryer, set up some picnic tables and open a restaurant. A few of those joints, such as Commander Cody’s Seafood on Shelter Island, are still around because they have the most devoted customers and the freshest fish. Jim Hayward, who started a restaurant named for his dog Cody in 1993, says his success has more to do with simple food rooted in his raising. “If you don’t want the real deal, don’t come here, because I don’t use substitutes. I do home cooking.”

Hayward grew up in Ridgeland, heart of the South Carolina Lowcountry. He was the oldest of nine siblings, and his mother expected him to shoulder the cooking responsibilities from the age of 10. “She’d sit back and point that stick in case I’d burn the food,” he said. “I was cooking for the whole family.” He grew up cooking hearty fare in large quantities: crab boil, fried chicken, pulled pork and ribs — the foundations of his menu today.

Jim Hayward weighs out clams and muscles at Commander Cody's...

Jim Hayward weighs out clams and muscles at Commander Cody's Seafood on Shelter Island. Credit: Raychel Brightman

On a recent weekday afternoon, 84-year-old Hayward was unloading boxes of porgy, squid and clams from the back of his pickup truck, his dog Frankie (Cody passed in 1995) staying close enough to snag anything that might drop. Hayward is a big man and easily carried large boxes full of iced fish across the gravel yard to the restaurant on Smith Street, which is also the home where he raised his daughters, Chloe (39) and Amanda (35). Inside, Amanda, pastry bag in hand, was putting the finishing touches on 35 chocolate-frosted birthday cupcakes for a catering order.

The gravel yard turned into a parking lot a few hours after Hayward unloaded the seafood. Customers came in for takeout orders, to buy fresh fish or to eat fried chicken and ribs at picnic tables on the patio. To enter Commander Cody’s, they stepped past the fish-smoker still redolent of hickory, squeezed by the drinks cooler, stood next to the blue whiskery waters of the lobster tank and evaluated the vivacity of the clams before they placed their orders for locally caught, home-cooked delectables, whether smoked, steamed, grilled or fried.

Commander Cody's Seafood on Shelter Island. Photo credit: Raychel Brightman

The restaurant’s reputation extends far beyond Shelter Island — a notable accomplishment, considering a ferry ride and sophisticated navigation aids are required to find it. On a weekday in May, the Mascucchinis from Philadelphia were on their way to Montauk when a little research convinced them to detour to Commander Cody’s. Ron Mascucchini said they had to drive around and come back a few times since the hours of operation here are like the fish: subject to availability. After lunch, Mascucchini, seeing Hayward at the lobster pot on the patio, came over to thank him for the freshly prepared food, including fries with a coating of a peppery spice mix Hayward swears by. He told Mascucchini, “It won’t give you a headache, but it will make you sneeze.”

Hayward came to Shelter Island in the ’50s to farm and fish, selling his catch first from his truck and then from the seafood market in his home, and he has always kept South Carolina culture, family and food close. Hayward’s nephew Gene works with him. Eight of his nine siblings are living, and living well, several in New York. Hayward said, “If you invite the Haywards over, you better have a lot of food because this family will eat everything.”

For many years, Hayward made his living as a commercial fisher, dragging for flounder, but these days he buys most of the fish he sells. “I buy from all the guys who fish. That’s why you got cellphones. You call around and see who has fish. I usually buy striped bass from guys on the South Fork.”

If you don’t want the real deal, don’t come here, because I don’t use substitutes. I do home cooking.

Jim Hayward

Although he no longer takes a trawler out for flounder, Hayward still dredges for bay scallops, as he did this past fall after the installation of a pacemaker drew a warning from his cardiologist to avoid scalloping for at least six months. Hayward thought the doctor must have meant six weeks, because the season for bay scallops is only five months long. “I don’t know how I got it wrong. I must have seen some dollar signs,” he said. “For the time I could go out there, I felt fine.”

Decades of commercial fishing taught him where to get great fish, and also what to do with it, including preparing the notoriously bony porgy. Porgy is delicious if you can figure out how to remove the rows of short, sharp bones. Hayward stood next to a 10-gallon tub of pristine porgy fillets and said, “When I cut it, it has no bone in it. I filleted those this morning.” You could make sushi from it.

Left: The lobster roll at Commander Cody’s Seafood on Shelter Island. Top: The clam bake filled with lobster, little neck clams, shrimp and muscles. Bottom: Fried chicken. Photo credit: Raychel Brightman

The menu at Commander Cody’s is a combination of New England seaside cooking (lobster rolls, lobster dinners, clam bakes) with the coastal South Carolina dishes of Hayward’s youth, including a Lowcountry boil — a steaming, spicy pot of crab, corn, sausage and potatoes that hits all the major food groups. Hayward learned to make ribs by watching his uncle use a barbecue pit dug in the ground, a technique that virtually guarantees a stupendous quantity of food, as well as quality.

Hayward makes no accommodation to the contemporary food scene at Commander Cody’s. If tiny bits of parsley have been scattered over your clam bake, it’s not for decorative purposes, it’s food. The posted business hours are loosely observed, and the vibe is fast-casual without the fast. “I tell people, if you are in a hurry, don’t come here to eat. We cook everything to order. If you can’t wait, I’m still going to do it the way it’s supposed to be done. I believe in feeding people and giving them enough to eat. Not putting some rabbit food out.”

Amanda Hayward does all the baking and desserts, including an outstanding blueberry bread pudding served with homemade ice cream — available in very un-Lowcountry flavors such as blueberry-basil and Guinness. And although her dad swears he doesn’t eat ice cream (“I eat yogurt. I don’t like much sweet stuff.”), he is still proud of her exuberant use of dairy products, in line with family tradition, “If you don’t like butter and the real deal don’t come here.”

Blueberry basil bread pudding is served with homemade coconut ice...

Blueberry basil bread pudding is served with homemade coconut ice cream at Commander Cody's Seafood on Shelter Island. Credit: Raychel Brightman

Amanda and Chloe grew up on Shelter Island, graduated from the Shelter Island school and went to college, unlike their dad who left school in the fourth grade. Amanda, who, in addition to the baking, does much of the cooking at Commander Cody’s, worked in the restaurant business in Las Vegas after graduating from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Chloe went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and is manager of education programs at the Studio Museum in Harlem, to the delight (and chagrin) of her father, who would like her to live closer. “She says there is not enough culture out here for her.”

When Hayward’s marriage to Chloe and Amanda’s mother ended, he marked the transition with a celebration. “I do what I do and I do my best. I’ve got a lot of haters but I’m like a steamroller. I roll them over.” He invited 100 people, dug a pit, and roasted an 88-pound hog on an old bedspring in a ring of fire stoked with charcoal and cherry and hickory wood for flavor. “We partied down. When Jim Hayward gives a party, it’s a party.”

Hayward is known on Shelter Island for the big family events he has catered over the years, including celebrations at the Shelter Island home of Gov. Hugh Carey, who was a friend as well as a customer.

Shelter Islander Esther Hunt, 95, is old enough to have babysat for Jim Hayward (she didn’t) and is a devoted customer. She recently described herself as elated when she heard that Hayward had returned from his annual spring stay in South Carolina and would soon be serving up her favorites at Commander Cody’s. “The salmon is very good, and I love his scallops,” she said. “And the servings are so generous, they can last for two meals.”

It’s tricky to ask an octogenarian to articulate his vision for the future, but for Hayward, well into his eighth decade of cooking, an afterlife with food seems like a foregone conclusion. As a child, Hayward said, “I had to learn to cook in big pots,” a life skill that proved valuable. “For a wedding on Ram Island, I cooked 100 lobsters,” Hayward said. “When I go, [the lobsters] are going to be at the Gate.”

Restaurant Information

COMMANDER CODY'S SEAFOOD: 41 Smith St., Shelter Island; 631-749-1851