At an age when his contemporaries are winding down their kitchen careers, Tom Schaudel refuses to quit. The chef has racked up more than five decades of experience on Long Island but, at 69, he’s the executive chef at Mill River Country Club in Oyster Bay and he’s just published a second book of “Whining and Dining on Long Island” stories, aptly named “A Second Helping” (iUniverse).
Schaudel is no more famous as the owner of the now-closed Jewel in Melville, Jedediah Hawkins Inn in Jamesport and Coolfish in Jericho (among his greatest hits) than for his darkly comedic take on local dining culture, which he shared in his first book, “Playing with Fire” (Legwork, 2008) and on his Sunday morning WHLI radio show of the same name.
At the Mill River club, he recalls what he's seen over the years from customers in Long Island restaurant dining rooms. There's the diner "who announces to the waitress that she’s a keto-practicing vegan who is also following a gluten-free diet.” Beat. “Then she says, ‘I’ll have the lobster roll.’"
Food intolerances and allergies (to gluten, to garlic, to Mrs. Dash, to bergamot) are a recurrent theme in the book. As is the frugality of certain customers. One story involves a couple who are seated in the dining room and dismayed to learn that they cannot avail themselves of the happy-hour half-priced drinks unless they are in the bar. They order food from the server and then proceed to the bar to buy two beers for the price of one.
Then there's the patron who cancels a Restaurant Week reservation for six people at the last minute, but expects Schaudel to honor the discount if the group comes the following week.
“When I was younger and feistier,” he said, “it did drive me crazy. But after all these years, I get a kick out of the shenanigans. Sometimes I'll just let it happen so that I have a story to tell, something to write about.”
Schaudel finds writing relaxing and, more importantly, creative. The need for creativity also drove his decision to take the job at the club after Jewel was sold (it's now Anthony Scotto's Bijou) and his last restaurant, Kingfish in Westbury, closed during the pandemic. “I don’t think you ever retire from art — from painting or music. That’s how I feel about cooking. At the club, it’s like I’m getting back to my roots. I don’t have to worry about payroll or human resources or government regulations. I come in and my biggest problem is ‘are the tomatoes ripe?' "”
Yet another upside to the new gig is that the club agreed to let him run its wine program. Some of his favorite times at work are sitting at the bar between lunch and dinner, entertaining wine sales reps. Or, during service, when he manages to turn a customer away from a certain overpriced, cult California cabernet sauvignon and onto “one of 30 cabs that are just as good at half the price.”
While Mill River may shield him from some egregious displays of chutzpah mentioned in the book, he concedes that his new customers are pretty much the same as his old customers. “I knew half the membership before I got here — I’ve been feeding them for 20 years.”
And they regularly adhere to one of Schaudel’s cardinal basic truths: “If someone orders their salmon rare, they will send it back as many times as necessary in order to get it cooked all the way through.”