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Shelter Island Profile: Ashley Knight — From dancer to diner

Are conventional amusements scarce on Shelter Island in the middle of winter?
Are conventional amusements scarce on Shelter Island in the middle of winter?

Are conventional amusements scarce on Shelter Island in the middle of winter?

Not according to Ashley Knight, owner and manager of The Islander.

Ashley and Chris Chobor, her partner in life, never lack for entertainment at their Midway Road home, they said. For one thing, they are expecting a baby in April, and according to Ashley, the child is quite a squirmer, a phenomenon that is an endless source of fascination for both of them.

And then there’s snow. “The first snowfall is my favorite day of the year because it’s a day Chris and I get to be together,” she said. “He has a plow on his truck and we drive around.”

Ashley grew up in Berwyn, Pennsylvania where her parents, John and Barbara Knight, still live. Her brother and sister live near her parents, building families of their own.

When Ashley was about three years old, she began dancing and her talent was evident early. Her childhood was dominated by tap, jazz and ballet, including competitions.

When she was 15 she studied at Jacob’s Pillow, the prestigious dance school in the Berkshires. “Dance was my whole world growing up,” she said.

Accepted to a competitive dance program at the University of Arizona, Ashley was ready to go west when out of the blue she got an acceptance letter from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

It’s a long way from Arizona to Pennsylvania and, worried about the distance, Ashley’s mother had applied to James Madison University on her behalf. Ashley visited JMU on a glorious Virginia spring day, and chose it over Arizona. She graduated in 2008 with a double major in dance and business.

While in college, Ashley worked summers in the Hamptons for a nanny service. She had never heard of Shelter Island when she was sent to interview for a job with Karen Lawson, Chris’s sister, taking care of Karen’s three children.

Chris happened to be visiting his sister when Ashley came to interview. “He was in his work boots and shorts, looking like a carpenter,” Ashley said, “and he told Karen to hire me.”

Until she came to Shelter Island, performing with a dance company was her life’s ambition. As she spent more time with Chris and became comfortable on Shelter Island, her goals shifted.

“How did I end up out here? You just have to let things happen,” she said.

Today she teaches students of all ages in five classes at MainStage Dance Academy in Greenport, as well as classes at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on the Island.

In 2011 Ashley and Chris took over a beloved Island diner owned by Pat and Steve Lenox. Initially their plan was to operate it as a bar, but during the month between signing the contract and actually taking possession, they had a change of heart and mind.

They spent the month observing the business Pat and Steve had built, talking to them, looking at the building and realized it would be a mistake to shut down a thriving diner when they were not sure the Island needed another bar.

“I don’t think either one of us ever thought we would own or operate a diner in our lifetime,” Ashley said. “But it’s what happened.”

In addition to renaming it The Islander, Ashley and Chris made it their own by commissioning an ambitious mural to cover all four walls, wrapping the dining room in a panorama of beach scenes, boating, fishing and ferry-riding. The idea for the mural came when they found themselves comforted by scenes of crabs and fish on cheerful blue walls in a basement cafeteria of a hospital where they were standing vigil for a loved one who was dying.

Ashley knew that Catherine Brigham had the artistic talent to pull it off, and Chris had the idea to orient the murals to follow the geography of the Island, with the North Ferry on one side, South Ferry on the other. It was Catherine’s first mural; she had just five days to complete it while the restaurant was closed for renovations.

The first day she painted an even, solid band of blue over a band of yellow and another band of blue all the way around the dining room, a technique that made the entire painting a coherent whole — every scene held together visually by the continuous bands of color. She projected images of the North Ferry, Taylor’s Island and South Ferry on the walls to create roughs, filled in details and did freehand sketches of all the other scenes.

She started on a Monday morning and finished Friday at 6 p.m., in time to celebrate an obvious success. It was a bold decorating decision and one that might have given pause to someone more risk averse. “You just have to go for it,” Ashley said. “You can’t analyze things too much.”

The first summer Ashley and Chris ran the diner they worked together, even though Chris worked full-time running his own construction company. “We are both strong personalities,” Ashley said. “Come fall, we took a step back and said we want this to work but we want our relationship to work.”

Now Ashley runs the business and is manager and cook. She also takes a Friday night shift as a waitress.

The breakfast quesadilla and burrito are the most requested items on the menu, along with the Mickey Mouse pancakes. For dinner, pot roast and baby back ribs are popular.

They have “a gift for making burgers.” Ashley said, “We get happy families. People are relaxed when they come here.”

The couple has been together for nine years, a relationship that Ashley describes as a complete commitment. “If this baby ever wanted us to get married, we would,” she said. “We are tied.”

Their house on Midway Road has worn a sporty blue tarp for many months while they put on a second story, a project that seemed to grow in scope and ambition the more they worked on it. “We thought it would be easy,” Ashley said. “At this point, there is a 12 by 6-foot piece of wall left ­— the only part of the original house that’s still there.”

Happily, the interior renovations are complete. “I enjoy the comforts of home,”she said. “I used to be a social butterfly, but I got so comfortable here that I like staying home.”

Ashley Knight Lightning Round

What do you always have with you?  Nothing, because I lose everything — phone, my keys. We both got rings a year and a half ago and took bets on how soon we would have to replace mine. I haven’t lost it yet.

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  Wades Beach

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?  Philadelphia, seeing my family.

Last time you were elated?  Yesterday, feeling the baby kicking. Someone gave me a pair of baby socks and looking at them made me happy for an hour.

What exasperates you?  My dogs. They don’t leave my side. The other day I was taking a bath and the big dog got the door open. She rested her head on the edge of the tub and just stared at me.

Favorite food?  Pasta.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  Matt Mattox, my dance teacher at Jacob’s Pillow. Taught me life skills but also respect.