In the past year, three highly rated Long Island restaurants lost a basic ingredient in their recipes: the chef.
So what's the impact when the big toque leaves?
"It depends on the restaurant," said Bret Thorn, senior food editor of Nation's Restaurant News, the trade publication. "And how much its identity is pegged to a particular chef."
But, Thorn observed, "It's not just a chef, even a high-profile chef, who runs the kitchen ... in theory, the chef has a staff with the experience to prepare the food, day-in, day-out."
Sometimes, it's a single dish that becomes the primary attraction. And the restaurant owner or owners may have the most influence.
Finally, however, the loyalty of the clientele plays the pivotal role in the restaurant's future, determining whether what made them regulars still exists.
Whether replacing a chef is the hardest problem for a restaurant owner is debatable, especially in a tough economy. "There are many difficult decisions restaurant owners have to make every day," Thorn said.
This is how three of those decisions were made.
George Echeverria, a partner and executive chef at Amicale, cut his ties to Amicale late last year. Echeverria's former partner, Gonzalo Moreno, now is the sole owner. Echeverria currently is executive chef at Andiamo, a new Italian restaurant in Mineola
Moreno promoted Nery Aguirre, sous chef under Echeverria, to the executive chef position. "I've changed the menu very little in three months," Aguirre said. But he's working on a new menu to be unveiled shortly. Aguirre said he intends to keep to the restaurant's French-continental-New American style.
Based on a recent visit, the quality has stayed at the same level. Recommended dishes include an appetizer of grilled octopus and jumbo lump crabmeat with grilled chorizo sausage, pistachio-dusted St. Peter's fish, striped bass with blue-potato hash, Black Angus filet mignon au poivre and seared duck breast with raspberry glaze.
Luigi Q stands for owner Luigi Quarta. He visits farms and markets in the morning. He's almost always in either the dining room or the kitchen. Who decides the day's specials? "Me," said the hospitable Quarta, a chef with long experience here and abroad.
And while there officially has been a change in executive chef at Luigi Q, there's no doubt about whose cuisine you're eating. Here's one case where the identity of the restaurant is defined by the owner.
Pastor Alfaro, who had been chef here for about six years, exited to go to BiVio, the new Italian restaurant in Huntington. Quarta chose Rico Bermeo, one of Alfaro's three predecessors during Luigi Q's 11-year run, to come back and succeed him. It has been a smooth transition. The food remains exceptional, even better than its original three-star rating.
Recent specials included glistening cuttlefish dressed with olive oil, lemon and lime; scallops with cabbage; cod Livornese; pork tenderloin with mushrooms and rosemary; quail on spinach; and rabbit with Gorgonzola-laced polenta.
Liz Keschl is the owner of Perfecto Mundo. When executive chef Steven Del Lima left, Keschl, in effect, went with a chef-by-committee kitchen. It lasted several months.
"I waited a while and continued with the basic kitchen staff," she said. "And I continued to oversee the kitchen," the single mother of four said. "I'm running this thing by myself" -- meaning kitchen, dining room and business office. "It was a matter of who fell into place."
Alex Cantu did.
He was the sous chef and sauté specialist under Del Lima, who's now chef at Vitae in Huntington. Cantu also cooked at Maize Cantina, the excellent eatery that preceded Perfecto Mundo at the address. "I thought he was the best cook here," Keschl said.
Under Cantu, the menu at the Latin-fusion restaurant hasn't changed. Neither has the quality. Cantu's recent preparations included a fine seafood paella, roasted corn-and-lobster chowder, "pulled" beef arepa, coriander-crusted pork tenderloin, and the house's still-popular churros with cinnamon sugar and chocolate sauce.
Where they are now
Following the career of a chef who goes from promising to prominence is one way to decide where you're dining out. Here are updates about some of Long Island's high-profile celebrity chefs, current and former.
Gerry Hayden, executive chef at The North Fork Table & Inn in Southold, is a finalist in the James Beard Awards competition for best chef in the northeast for the second straight year. He formerly was chef at Aureole and Amuse in Manhattan, and also cooked at Tribeca Grill and The River Cafe.
Cornelius Gallagher currently is chef-owner of the Asian-themed Dragonfly in Manhattan. His Long Island career began at La Plage in Wading River and continued at the Bohlsen Restaurant Group, where he was corporate chef, overseeing eateries such as Verace in Islip and Prime in Huntington. In addition, he was the creative force behind the menu at the new four-star Monsoon in Babylon. Gallagher also was executive chef at Oceana in Manhattan.
Tom Schaudel's Long Island resume currently includes CoolFish in Syosset, A Lure in Southold, A Mano in Mattituck and his newest, Jewel in Melville. Schaudel's restaurants over the years have included Jedediah's in Jamesport, Tease and Lemongrass in Roslyn, PassionFish in Woodbury, Downtown Grille & Wine Bar in Montauk, and 107 Forest in Locust Valley.
James McDevitt received a "best new chef" honor in 1999 from Food & Wine magazine for his work at the now-closed Hapa in Scottsdale, Ariz. Locally, he has been executive chef at the 3-star Four Food Studio & Cocktail Salon in Melville and was named an All-Star chef in a Newsday series for his cooking there. McDevitt then moved on to spearhead Two Steak & Sushi Den in New Hyde Park, one of 2010's top restaurants, which recently closed. McDevitt is now executive chef at Two's successor, K.Pacho Cocina and Tequila.