It reads like a Who’s Who of top restaurants in the Hamptons. Della Femina. The Star Room. The 1770 House. Cittanuova. Wei Fun. Everyone who’s ever had an incomparable meal at any of these locales, thank Kevin Penner—the chef (or co-chef) and man responsible for opening each of those East End culinary legends. Now a year after opening The Grill on Pantigo in East Hampton, Penner has another hot Hamptons dining spot on his hands.
“The 1770 House was more of a fine-dining, refined, large-wine-list type of restaurant. Cittanuovo, obviously Italian,” Penner says. “The Grill was a chance to do something different than we already had.”
Penner has been setting himself apart in the Hamptons dining scene since George H.W. Bush was in the White House, “but it was never my intention to do this,” he admits. “I did it during college to pay tuition. I studied intellectual history and philosophy, and when I finished studying that I realized there wasn’t a lot I could do with it, so I kept on cooking. It’s my 20th season out here—I intended to stay one.”
We’re thrilled that he did—and equally thrilled that he’ll be joining other top chefs and winemakers at Dan’s Taste of Two Forks on July 16 in Bridgehampton. Fish is the most popular offering at The Grill, and Penner is planning a fluke tartare for Dan’s Taste of Two Forks, showcasing one of the great local ingredients that will be out in force at the event.
“I’m looking forward to promoting what we have out here—local food, local wine. I’ve been out here since 1992, and there’s been a lot of change over that time. Long Island wines, which were mostly really rustic, are now more refined. And with advent of locavores and the appreciation by customers for locally produced and caught foods, this is an event that’s focusing on the right things. I grew up in Iowa and worked on farms in the summer, so the farm-to-table connection—even thought that phrase is overused and abused—there’s something gratifying to seeing it happen.
Your Favorite Thing About Being Part of East End Culinary Culture… My favorite thing is having been part of it for longer than almost anyone else out here. Having opened some of the more iconic places out here and having seen it develop has been pretty gratifying.
Favorite Dish at The Grill on Pantigo… We like to change stuff and sort of stick with the seasons, which means you’re going to change your menu a lot. But I suppose if there’s one dish, it’s one we put on here right after Della Famina closed. I came out and opened Della Famina in 1992, and one of the dishes I had on the menu there was this pan-roasted halibut with potato puree and wild-mushroom broth and fried leeks. It was probably the most popular dish at Della Famina, and it’s popular here.
Food That Defines Summer on Long Island… There’s a food that defines summer that shouldn’t define summer, and that would be lobster. Everybody loves to eat it in the summer, except perhaps me, when they tend to be growing into a new shell—they’re not at their best in the warm water. Tomatoes and corn are two things you see in abundance on every menu, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Favorite Local Ingredient… Balsam Farms grows a green large tomato, a German heirloom variety called Aunt Ruby’s, which is without a doubt one of the best tomatoes I’ve ever had. And I intend to buy as much as he can produce this year.
The Biggest Misconception About Pairing Food and Wine… I’m from the no-rule school. People, for whatever reason, like to make rules, and that probably goes back to the religious foundations of our culture. When it comes to wine, drink what you like. In all likelihood you’re going to lose a dry Riesling when you’re eating a strip steak with a Bordelais sauce, but if you like it by all means go for it. It beats drinking Coca-Cola with it.
A Great Kitchen Story… There have been some interesting incidents over the years, involving some guys who are now respected chefs, who were just fresh out of culinary school when they were with me. At Della Famina I had a cook named Harold Dieterle—he went on to win the first year of Top Chef on Bravo and then open two restaurants in Manhattan, Perilla and Kin Shop. I remember one day being in the kitchen, and Harold was in the weeds as usual, running behind, and he had a Rondeau on four burners—a really big pan—and had the burners on for god knows how long.
Apparently he was going to make a red wine reduction, and he went to put the wine into the almost-glowing pan, and the resulting fireball was something the size of which I’d never seen before—it was an exciting moment in the kitchen. You see stuff like that happen more often than you should.
A Guilty Pleasure… I’m vegan now, so guilty pleasure is a loaded term. If guilt’s involved, I do like foie gras—I don’t eat it, but that would be a good one.
The World Ends Tomorrow. Your Last Meal Will Be… It won’t be vegan! I’m a great fan of Indian and Thai food, which sadly aren’t that well represented out here, so for a last meal I’d have to get on a plane to fly to one of those places.
When You Get to Foodie Heaven, the Guy at the Gate Says…While you’re here, you don’t have to cook.
Dan’s Taste of Two Forks is Saturday, July 16, in Sayre Park in Bridgehampton, NY. For more info and to purchase tickets, click here.