Lillian and Leisa Dent have always believed you can’t have comfort food without a comfortable setting.
The mother-daughter duo behind LL Dent in Carle Place has cooked up signature Southern fried chicken, catfish and mac and cheese for the past 12 years, attracting patrons from across Long Island, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.
LL Dent is what happens when a mother’s love mixes with a daughter’s passion: Lillian invested $100,000 of her savings in the full-service restaurant after she retired from a 33-year career at Dow Jones & Co., where she worked as a business manager.
“Leisa wanted a restaurant when she first got out of culinary school in 1981, but we just couldn’t afford it,” says Lillian, 77. “So when I retired, I invested because of her.”
The restaurant has been lucrative. It’s the longest-running soul food eatery on Long Island.
And the women are in the midst of one of the busiest times of year: Black History Month sees customers seeking out soulful dishes by the plateful, such as the made-to-order shrimp and grits, as well as Cajun Cornish hen.
“It’s more about people getting together and gathering and talking and laughing. Because that’s how we were in our house,” says Leisa, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.
BEYOND THE PLATE
The influence and importance of family is evident in more than just the menu Leisa came up with, which is largely governed by her parents’ Georgia roots. It’s written — or in this case, hanging — on the walls in the form of intimate 8-by-10 portraits of Leisa’s culinary school graduation and images of her maternal and paternal grandparents.
It’s her grandparents that Leisa can thank for her cooking expertise. After about age 8, Leisa was always in the kitchen with her mother, where she learned to perfect pork chops. And she further honed her craft during the summers, which she spent down South with her grandparents.
Ribs are one of the most popular items on LL Dent’s menu. Leisa modified a recipe from her father, Toby Dent, who would boil and bake his slabs. Leisa says she prefers to bake, grill and smoke hers.
The Dents’ business and menu isn’t the only one on Long Island to be financed and fed by family.
Bobby Ford, owner of BGF Bobby Q’s in Freeport, opened his soul food restaurant in July largely with his savings. It is one of the newest of its kind on Long Island. The restaurant’s website — bbqeastofharlem.com — pays homage to his mother, who moved from South Carolina to Harlem where her family settled in the 1950s. “She passed in 2014 and was unable to see the restaurant open, so I added the ‘east of Harlem’ as a way to pay homage to her first time in New York — kind of a way to come full circle,” Ford said.
The location alone was a risky venture, Ford says.
“We chose to open in an area that was considered a food desert to provide people with hearty home cooking,” says Ford, a Freeport police officer. “I was a bit nervous about sharing what I believed was wonderful and tasty food that my mom, Elizabeth, had prepared for her nine children for so many years.”
BGF Bobby Q’s is primarily a takeout restaurant, but there is counter seating for up to six people. When he isn’t policing the streets, Ford, who learned to cook at age 10, is manning the stove.
“My mom taught us all how to cook meals every time we assisted her in the kitchen,” he says.
As for overcoming the nerves and apprehension he had in becoming a restaurateur, Ford says, “I had to take a leap of faith to show how much faith I had in me.”
He alternates the cooking duties with his sister, Tonya Ford.
“She is also a full-time nurse, so we make it work,” says Ford, 49. “We are a resilient family.”
Some of their most sought-after dishes include lobster mac and cheese, smoked ribs, smoked chicken, Southern fries, oven roasted turkey wings and fried chicken. Dinners are served with two sides.
“People mostly love the mac and cheese with collard greens,” Ford says. “We can’t keep enough of the Southern spicy cabbage, as well as the candied yams, green beans, black-eyed peas and baked beans.”
If the success of the restaurant is any indication, it would appear the Fords’ double duty hasn’t been for naught. He plans to open a full-service restaurant on the Nautical Mile sometime this summer. Ford says he is humbled by the generosity of his patrons.
“Failure sometimes can be your best teacher when you learn from it,” Ford says. “Success shows how much you have benefited from your level of dedication.”
LL Dent is at 221 Old Country Rd., Carle Place; 516-742-0940, lldent.com
BGF Bobby Q’s is at 447 N. Main St., Freeport; 516-544-4407, bbqeastofharlem.com
MORE SOUL-FOOD SPOTS
Brooklyn Fish & Chips
524 Broadway, Amityville
Brother Robinson Genesis Soul Food
143 N. Franklin St., Hempstead
Nana’s Soul Food Kitchen
13A Squaw Lane, Mastic