Once a Busboy, Soon the Owner

What Cafe Max customers do demand is fish, and lots of it, “very moist and very fresh,” purchased directly from Gosman’s in Montauk
“If people want crazy froufrou cuisine, they can go to other places,” according to Sami Krasniqi, left, who is taking over Cafe Max from Max and Nancy Weintraub. Morgan McGivern

    After 23 years at the helm of Cafe Max, Max Weintraub has turned over the wheel to Sami Krasniqi, who began his restaurant career at the iconic eatery as a dishwasher two weeks after it opened. But not much, if anything, has changed. Mr. Weintraub is still involved from afar and has inked a deal with Mr. Krasniqi in which the two share in profits.

    “I don’t want to be intrusive,” Mr. Weintraub said last week on one of his few recent visits to the restaurant that he and his wife, Nancy, tended for so long. Mr. Weintraub occasionally shows up to butcher meat or answer questions the new proprietor might have about maintenance or insurance.

    One thing Mr. Krasniqi doesn’t need help with is cooking. He worked his way up over the years, doing just about any job necessary, from busboy to runner, till finally becoming Mr. Weintraub’s sous chef.

    Mr. Krasniqi emigrated here from Kosovo and was introduced to the Weintraubs by his uncle, Tasim Kastrati, the longtime maitre d’ at Gordon’s in Amagansett.

    After experimenting with a change in menu once he took over last winter, Mr. Krasniqi said, he “was put in my place by my customers who don’t want any change.” He tried “to freshen it up with a little Mediterranean” but found that the clientele balked at “too much spice or esoteric cooking.”

    The customer base is made up of a mix of Maidstone Club members, who have followed Mr. Weintraub since he was a sous chef there after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, and former patrons of Mr. Weintraub’s restaurant at the Maidstone Arms, which he ran in the 1980s.

    What Cafe Max customers do demand is fish, and lots of it, “very moist and very fresh,” purchased directly from Gosman’s in Montauk. Mr. Krasniqi buys a few pieces of many varieties — up to 15 kinds at any time, from gray sole to swordfish to striped bass. He’d rather “run out of something” than serve a dish that wasn’t straight off a boat.

    The kitchen is gearing up for scallop season, which begins Monday. “That first week we do more than 60 percent in scallops,” said Mr. Krasniqi, who is happy to prepare them any style a customer desires — plain, in garlic and oil or a beurre blanc, deep fried, Provencal. “If we have the ingredients, we accommodate.” And that goes for the preparation of other fish. “So far I haven’t said no to anyone.”

    “If people want crazy froufrou cuisine, they can go to other places,” Mr. Krasniqi said. Indeed, a decade ago when a Zagat’s diner declared the restaurant to be “unHamptons,” the moniker stuck, and Mr. Krasniqi’s apron is emblazoned with it.

    He once received some sage advice from a marketing man: “If you can’t describe your restaurant in one sentence, you’re going to fail.” His description is of a no-frills seafood joint that provides comfort food to locals. And, of course, weekenders.

    Leonard Goodman, who was eating dinner there last week, remarked that he has followed Mr. Weintraub for more than 30 years. “We always come when we’re out; we gravitate to a place that feels like home,” he said, also referring to the “warmth” generated by the cedar-clad walls, the intimate dimensions of the 44-seat space, and the welcoming staff.

    Continuing in an unpretentious vein, Mr. Krasniqi declared, “We don’t raise the prices in summer the way most places do.” Like many restaurants that stay open in the off-season, Cafe Max offers a heavily discounted prix fixe menu. Even on Friday nights, $18 gets diners a two-course meal. “As much as food costs are going through the roof,” said Mr. Krasniqi, “we still want to offer our customer value.”

    Mr. Krasniqi is grateful to have been handed the reins. While Mr. Weintraub could have gone with another chef, he knew “that I wasn’t going to change” the formula. Then there’s the familial factor. “Max is like a father to me,” he said of his mentor. “There’s an enormous amount of trust.”

    Mr. Krasniqi has followed Mr. Weintraub in more ways than one. In 2007 the younger chef left Cafe Max to take over the kitchen at the Maidstone Arms, where Mr. Weintraub had worked 20 years before. When the new owner purchased the inn, she bought out Mr. Krasniqi’s lease, as had happened to Mr. Weintraub a generation prior. He then went on to open Andrra, a Mediterranean-style boite in Springs, before selling his share to his brother.

    As for the Weintraubs, “We miss it,” said Nancy, who ran the front of the house and bought the wine for which the restaurant received 10 Wine Spectator Awards. “We never had children; this was our baby in a way.”

    Yet, for Max, after years of toil he’s content now with a simple routine of going to the gym and doing yard work. Even reading the newspaper is a new pleasure, something that his long days in the kitchen didn’t allow. When he does come into his creation, he gazes around proudly at what he built. These days the children of his former Maidstone Club patrons are bringing in their families.