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Island Profile: Tom Hashagen, sparking joy, music and food

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Tom Hashagen is never far from a stringed instrument, or a kitchen.
Tom Hashagen is never far from a stringed instrument, or a kitchen.

In 1979 an itinerant guitar-playing chef named Tom Hashagen decided to quit his rambling ways, move to Shelter Island, and stay for good.

He’s brought a lot of joy to the life on the Island since then, cooking, making music, teaching and producing musical events. He’s done all this with the aid of some very specific tools: a mandolin, an ear for musical talent, and a certain way with turkey chili.

Tom, along with his wife, Lisa Shaw, will soon spread some joy on the other side of the moat, presenting mandolinist Mike Marshall and violinist Darol Anger in a performance at the Bay Street Theater on Friday, October 13 at 8 p.m.

More joy arrives on October 21, when Tom creates the white chili, laced with turkey (and some blend of spices known only to him), that has fueled the Shelter Island 5K post-race party for all 18 years of its existence.

The race, which benefits, among other things, patient care for women living with breast cancer, is also known by some zealots as “the run for the chili.”

Tom grew up in Glen Rock, New Jersey in a family with four brothers and sisters. His dad commuted to the city to work for a printing company, and his mom worked near home for an insurance company. He went to Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks and graduated in 1970 with a degree in hotel administration.

He spent most of the next decade traveling with a chef’s crew — a roving team of restaurant workers led by a head chef, who moved from one hotel to another with the seasons. The first year the crew worked at the Clearwater Beach Hotel, a classic grand hotel in Tampa Bay, then on to Cape Cod in the summertime, and to the Allegheny mountains of Pennsylvania.

Over the years he moved up, going from a relief cook who filled in for guys on their days off, to sous chef at the Chatham Bars Inn in Massachusetts.

One day, seemingly out of the blue, while working in Florida, Tom received a letter from James Eklund, the manager of the Shelter Island Yacht Club, inviting him to consider a job as their new chef. Tom’s father had seen the club’s ad in the New York Times, and took it upon himself to send his son’s resume. Tom found out about his dad’s intervention when he got the job.

He rolled off the North Ferry for the first time on May 5, 1979, drove directly to the Yacht Club, and spent six years there.

The decision to leave Florida for Shelter Island was easy. “I was tired of traveling,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to settle down and have a family, that part of my life was missing.”

As he got to know the Island, he realized it was the place for him. “I loved the good food out here and fishing and the isolation of it,” he said. “These are down to earth, hardworking people and I’ve never been afraid of hard work, so I got along.”

He made his living as a chef in the season, and carpentering in the off-season. He also did a stint with the North Ferry Company in the winter of 1981, removing rust from the bottom of a ferryboat at the shipyard.

That job required him to go down into the vessel with a ball-peen hammer in temperatures as low as 15 degrees and remove layers of rust that had been painted over repeatedly. He worked alongside a man who would be convicted (later overturned) of murdering his neighbor with a shotgun —the only official homicide in Shelter Island history.

“He was a little strange,” Tom said, “and yes, he also had a ball-peen hammer.”

Tom had played guitar since the 1960s and picked up the mandolin in 1980 when he began playing in a band on the Island with Paul Shepherd and Penny and John Kerr. One day Penny arrived with a friend named Lisa, and announced “This girl is now in the band.” Tom, who was not enthusiastic about the prospect of Lisa joining the band, let her and everyone else know what he thought.

In spite of the extremely poor first impression they made on each other, Tom made a pass at her soon thereafter at a Valentine’s event at the Legion known as the Cherrypickers Ball, and was delighted to get a positive response.

Their first child, Sara, was born in their home on Marc Street about a year later. Lisa was attended by a barefoot midwife who Tom drove from her place in Baldwin to the Island while Lisa had contractions in the back seat. It was close. Tom and Lisa’s son, Adam, was also born at home, in September of 1983, 17 months after Sara.

As their family grew, Tom and Lisa realized the house they were renting was for sale. Tom remembered a customer and guest he knew from the Yacht Club and Country Club who had told him if he ever needed anything he should ask her. Their benefactor agreed to lend them money for a down payment on the house, they closed in 1983 and started working on it, “eventually changing every wall,” he said.

Sara lives in Winnipeg, with her husband and three children; Lucy, 6, Sam, 4, and Max, 7 months. Adam is engaged to be married next September at Sylvester Manor.

Tom worked as chef at the Gardiner’s Bay Country Club from 1986 to 1989, and then he and Lisa attempted to run their own restaurant for a year and failed. Knowing he needed to start thinking about retirement and benefits, Tom took a job in adult education at BOCES, drawing on his extensive hotel and restaurant experience.

Eventually he went back to school for the certificate he needed to teach 11th and 12th graders about the challenges of the culinary arts, and the joys, “of watching someone eat something very good, that you prepared.”

Starting in 1994 Tom produced a series of concerts in the Shelter Island School auditorium often featuring performers who were about to be very well known, such as Nickel Creek with soon-to-be-stars Chris Thile and Sara Watkins, and Tim and Mollie O’Brien.

The concerts were sponsored by the town at first, and later by the Shelter Island Historical Society. In 2009, Sylvester Manor Farm became the sponsor, and Tom became musical events coordinator for the farm.

Tom is also an active volunteer for the Lions Club, serves on the board of the Shelter Island Library, and is an active member of Grace Presbyterian Church in Water Mill.

He said there have been times in his life when he has struggled with drinking and drugs. “I’m just thankful that when I let go of God, he did not let go of me,” Tom said. “I have a weak faith and a strong God.”

He’s grateful for the joy he’s been able to make. “I think I was blessed with a really good set of taste buds and ear buds,” he said. “I have a common taste, which means that if it tastes good to me, other people like it too. When I hear what I think is good music, then a lot of other people will too.”

Lightning round

What do you always have with you?  A flatpick.

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  Montclair Colony, the old neighborhood there.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?  Barbados

Last time you were elated?  When Sara’s third kid, Max was born.

What exasperates you?  Overregulation.

Favorite movie?  Raiders of the Lost Ark

Favorite food?  Pastrami

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  Tim Keller, who was head of Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

Most respected elected official?  Fred Thiele