East End Eats: The Best Kept Secret

A little jewel of a cafe
It may be fall, but there is still time for the “farm to table” Nordic salad at the South Fork Kitchens Cafe. Laura Donnelly

South Fork
Kitchens Cafe

Student Center
Stony Brook University
239 Montauk Highway
Open from 11-2 Weekdays

A few weeks ago a friend asked if I would like to sample some of the best, freshest, cheapest food available, in other words, one of the best-kept secrets on the East End. How is it I didn’t know of this special place, this little jewel of a cafe, open five days a week for lunch? One reason could be that it is essentially a Russian nesting doll.

Within the big college of Stony Brook University is the Southampton campus. Inside the campus grounds is the Student Center. Within the Student Center is the Amagansett Food Institute, the nonprofit membership organization made up of farmers and food producers. And the baby nesting doll within is South Fork Kitchens, with a cafe open to faculty, students — a-a-a-a-a-and the public! (This is not to be confused with the short-lived Southfork Kitchen that operated briefly where Fresh is now on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike. If you Google it, you will go nowhere.)

The Amagansett Food Institute was founded in 2009. The South Fork Kitchens Cafe opened in June to faculty, and in the fall to students and visitors. The kitchen itself is a 3,000-square-foot operation, big enough for four businesses at a time to produce their wares. It is available in shifts, 24/7.

A commercial kitchen for local chefs and entrepreneurs has been sorely lacking out here for decades. If you wanted to start a little spiced-nut or granola or soda pop company, you would have to borrow a restaurant or church’s Suffolk County Health Department-approved kitchen for your production.

If you’ve ever had a delicious Gula Gula empanada, or a picnic of tartines and salads from Madeline Picnic Co., or a dreamy loaf of sourdough bread from Carissa’s Breads, this is where it was born. Your fish from Dock to Dish is filleted here and Miss Lady root beer and cream soda are created here. 

Carissa Waechter of Carissa’s Breads is the coordinator and head chef of South Fork Kitchens. A classically trained pastry chef who has worked with David Burke and Daniel Boulud, she runs a clean and happy operation. On one visit, her brother and sister-in-law were helping out — on their vacation. On another visit, Nick from Quail Hill was stirring sourdough starter and formed loaves in wicker baskets. Cooking for the cafe is Jack Formica, who came to the Institute on a marketing internship — until they discovered he can cook.

The food served at the cafe is sourced from many local farms: Quail Hill, Amber Waves, Open Minded Organics, Mecox Bay Dairy, Green Thumb, Balsam, Sang Lee, and more. The farmers and producers coming in and out of the kitchen end up buying from one another. One farmer will come in to process peppers, another will take the leftovers. When Sean Barrett comes in to fillet fish for Dock to Dish, some of that fish will appear on the cafe’s menu. Maddy Storch and her sister Heather Doherty stop by to bake zucchini bread for their family’s Green Thumb farm. Carissa gets suet and lard from Mecox Bay Dairy and renders it for pie dough.

The menu changes daily, depending on what Jack finds available. The prices are staggeringly low. Salads and sandwiches average $6 or $7, soups are $5, side dishes $3. How does a grilled Gruyere cheese with butternut squash puree and shredded Brussels sprouts sound? Nordic salad with black kale, barley, dill, shaved fennel, and carrots in a citrus dressing? How about a slice of sweet potato pie to top it all off — for $2.50 per slice!

It is not quite a restaurant, but it is so much more than a college cafeteria. They serve the kind of food you’d get at a friend’s house, a friend who is a great cook and has access to all the best organic produce, meats, cheeses, and eggs out here. They average about 40 to 50 students and faculty daily, and while there are not a lot of tables and chairs yet, business is starting to pick up. Those in the know show up regularly; a group of women from a local nail salon, for instance. And yours truly from now on.

Along with your meal, you can pick up North Fork potato chips, Miss Lady sodas, and items produced in their kitchen such as Tembatoo granola (delicious) and candied walnuts from Nutsz (addictive). Some of the extra produce and eggs not used by the kitchen is available for purchase from a little refrigerator in the cafe. Carissa’s breads play a starring role on the menu and in the kitchen, and I never leave without a few loaves, freshly branded by a hot poker in the shape of a C.

So the cat’s out of the bag. If you want to try one of the best, freshest, and most affordable lunches around, try the South Fork Kitchens Cafe, open from 11 to 2, five days a week. See you there!