Clad in an oh-so-correct white chef’s jacket, all starchy and tight, with a do-rag taming his unruly hair, Tom Schaudel, 65, is hopping left and right like the star of a work-out video, inspecting each dish from the open kitchen as it lands on the counter in front of him. It’s lunchtime, and things are flying. While hovering over the food, he also manages to pick up every order-ticket only to slap it back down again with the speed of a texting teenager. Savvy servers swoop in to airlift plates to the safety of customers’ tables.
“Tom,” I shout, “come sit,” and eventually he does, joining me under the starburst baubles that hang from the sky-high ceiling at Jewel, his flagship restaurant off the Long Island Expressway at Exit 49. I want to know why he is working here today ... instead of there, his seven-month-old, 120-seat Kingfish Oyster Bar & Restaurant in Westbury that has everyone buzzing. (Newsday’s Peter M. Gianotti called it a “smart and flavor-packed production.”)
“I am there. I mean, I was there. Last week,” Tom Schaudel said. “I’ll be back tomorrow. But Courtney runs Kingfish now.” Courtney, his 36-year-old daughter, got into the restaurant biz back in the mid ’80s, hanging out at his first place, Panama Hatties in Dix Hills, when she was only 4, he said. “I was younger, too.”
After starting out as a chef, he added numerous restaurants all over Long Island, several with “fish” in the name, most famously Coolfish in Syosset, in 2000. “Fish,” he said, “gets me up in the morning. I love the smell of fresh lemons because they remind me of fish. Kingfish is the direct legacy of Coolfih.” Even the chef at Kingfish, Lenny Campanelli, started out at Coolfish, which closed in 2015.
“I want to be known for working my butt off to create good restaurants.”Tom Schaudel
Fresh produce, shellfish and wine are other things that get Schaudel going. He’s a champion of everything local. “But,” he said, “you can’t do 25 dishes with cauliflower in a three-month season.” He paraphrases Thomas Keller, renowned chef of Napa’s French Laundry and Manhattan’s Per Se, who once said his responsibility as a chef was to use the best ingredients possible, even if they come from hundreds of miles away.
“Local” is closely intertwined with the farm- to-table trend, but while Schaudel swears allegiance to that philosophy, you won’t find any paeans to it on his menus. “I feel no need to let diners know our pigs got a college education before they were slaughtered or that we sang to the fish before tossing them into a pan.”
When it comes to tattoos, another badge of honor among fresh-cut chefs, Schaudel was ahead of the pack: He had them long before the new kids on the block made them standard issue. “I went to culinary school because I needed work. It was that or make a living with my guitar,” he said. “Now, everybody wants to be a chef, with an award for showing up at noon and a spot on The Food Network.” To future chefs, he advised, “Find out if you really like cooking first, then be prepared to peel beets for a while.”
And don’t focus on Manhattan and Brooklyn unless you’re young. “Look,” he said, “we’re all a little self-hating on Long Island when it comes to food,” insisting any restaurant in Nassau or Suffolk is as good as any in New York City “on the same level.” He referenced chef Daniel Boulud’s eponymous, two-Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant. “There is no Daniel out here.”
As for culinary variety, Schaudel said, “It’s the restaurant’s fault if they blame customers for not putting creative stuff on the menu. They can’t buy what isn’t offered, so don’t treat them like hicks.”
Does he miss being a hands-on chef? “I will always love hiding out in the kitchen, but I don’t have time to cook. On the floor, I’m a showman, as flamboyant as I like.” The downside is having to “listen to everybody’s advice about what to do with my restaurants.”
He’d like to strangle the guy whose Aunt Joan makes lasagna as good as his, so good she ought to open a place. “At first, I’m flattered,” he said. “Then I get angry and wonder why he thinks what I’ve been doing all these years is so easy his Aunt Joan could do it.”
On gluten, he is terse: “We put a man on the moon, but now we’re facing an even greater challenge.” On his future, equally succinct: “I want to be a good dad and grandfather and live close to farmland and water. I want to be known for working my butt off to create good restaurants.”
Take that, Aunt Joan.