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New ideas for an Island institution

ANNABELLE WOODWARD PHOTO Catch of the Day. The Pridwin’s Chef Swainson Brown in the kitchen with a freshly-caught striped bass.
Catch of the Day. The Pridwin’s Chef Swainson Brown in the kitchen with a freshly-caught striped bass.

At 3 p.m. on a Monday, The Pridwin Hotel’s kitchen is a place of good spirits, wit, jokes and energy, as the staff prepares for the dinner shift. A sign by the dishwashing station reads, “Please DO NOT put sharp knives in this water, Duja is very fond of his fingers.”

So far the sign is working, with Duja’s digits intact.

Head Chef Swainson Brown, 37, tells a visitor about his dream of getting a $3,000, “next level” pasta roller for the kitchen, while showing a small garden behind the restaurant, where he grows thyme, chocolate mint and strawberries.

“Well, sort of strawberries,” the chef said. “We used to have strawberries but then the deer come and eat them. Less strawberries now.”

The staff is, he said, dedicated to revamping The Pridwin into a fine-dining hotel restaurant on Shelter Island, crafting what he calls “elegant, rustic and honest” dishes to entice customers to come back again and again.

Mr. Brown has served as the head chef at The Pridwin since 2014. Born and raised in Jamaica, he started cooking as a youngster and “totally fell in love with it.”

Moving to the United States when he was 15, he attended high school in Brooklyn where he met Barbara Joseph, a teacher who encouraged him to seriously consider a career in the culinary arts and apply to the CCAP, or the Careers through the Culinary Arts Program.

He entered a cooking competition through the program, won a scholarship to the New York Restaurant School and found jobs in some of the finest hotels and restaurants in the city, such as Country, The National and The Writing Room. Working under renowned chefs and mentors Doug Saltis and Andrew Chase, he refined his understanding of classic, French-based cooking.

A cook’s life is often seen as romantic and high paying, when the truth is, for the most part, it’s neither. Entry level cooks in the state are paid an average of about $24,300 a year, according to the New York State Department of Labor, and experienced cooks can expect an average salary of about $62,700.

The hours are long and the working conditions include heaping portions of stress in close quarters, day after day.

But there is no shortage of work, with the U.S. Department of Labor statistics forecasting that the opportunities for chefs and cooks will grow 10 percent from now until 2026, faster than the average of all occupations.

And after observing the camaraderie and the pride that is part of The Pridwin’s kitchen culture, it’s easy to see why money is not the greatest motivator to join the profession.

While working at an upscale New York City restaurant four years ago, The Pridwin’s general manager asked Mr. Brown if he could come do some consulting to help get the restaurant back on track.

“The Pridwin had a sort of bad reputation then,” the chef said. “People didn’t come for the food. They came for the scene.”

Mr. Brown explained that big city restaurateurs who try to import a fine-dining experience on Shelter Island run into many obstacles, with the primary challenge of regularly finding fresh ingredients.

“In the city, you can get fresh stuff delivered every day,” he said. “Here, sometimes you can only get deliveries three times a week.”

When Mr. Brown arrived on the Island, he resolved to meet that challenge head-on. Among a long list of initiatives, he has on-boarded a new pastry chef for baking delicacies, but also to make ice creams, sorbets and most of the breads in-house.

One of The Pridwin’s owners, Gregg Petry, goes fishing in Montauk twice a week to catch striped bass for the “Pridwin Caught Striped Bass” dish.

The ultimate goal, the chef said, is to make “fresh everything.”

Customers have taken notice. On The Pridwin’s busiest night, the kitchen can serve up to 220 people. The clientele consists of hotel guests and Island regulars who come for dishes like the “Truffle Potato Gnocchi” and the “Crescent Farms Duck Breast and Sausage,” which features three different styles of duck on one plate. The most popular dish is the “Roast Chicken Under a Brick.”

“It’s simple,” the chef said. “Chicken, mashed potatoes and carrots. There’s nothing crazy about it, but it’s just really done well. It’s super delicious.”

The dinner menu changes every night, but Mr. Brown’s chicken dish remains constant.

One day down the line, Mr. Brown dreams of owning his own restaurant but doesn’t plan on going anywhere soon.

“People are embracing us now because we’re doing great quality consistently,” the chef said. “We’ve changed the way people view us. It’s no longer just about the view.”