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Island Profile: Bennett Karnis is a grilled cheese master and hash brown martyr

Labor Day is game time for short order cook Bennett Karnis and the grill at the Shelter Island Heights Pharmacy is his field of play. Speed, accuracy and skill will deliver the melted cheese and hash browns he is famous for.

“I’ve got to lace up, tape up and put my game face on,” he said.

Bennett, who has been cooking breakfast and lunch at the Pharmacy counter since 1994, is at the heart of one of the Island’s best experiences, a meal eaten with casual acquaintances at an L-shaped counter, while seated on a rotating stool.

The meal, which might include bacon, eggs, toast, sausage, hash browns and lots of melted cheese, is prepared in full view of the diners.

“People love to watch the shredding of the potatoes, the flipping of the burgers and the melting of the cheese,” he said. It’s a tradition enjoyed by generations of Islanders and weekenders — Bennett’s tuna melts and breakfast wraps hold it all together.

Born in Forest Hills, Queens, Bennett was the only child of Olga and Simon Karnis. His parents, who married in 1949, had been hoping for a child for 10 years when Bennett came along, but did not live to see him grow up. His mother died in a car accident when he was 4, and his father died four years later from a stroke.

He was at a sleepaway camp in upstate New York when his cousin came to tell him his father had died. Bennett had started spending summers at Cejwin Camps — a Jewish camp with over 4,000 campers — after his mother passed away. When he was orphaned before he was 9 it became a refuge and a home. He spent 14 summers there.

Immediately after his father’s death, Bennett moved to Bowie, Maryland, to live with cousins on his father’s side, but within eight months he was back in New York. “I didn’t know it at the time, but the cousins who took me were in the process of getting a divorce and they couldn’t keep me,” he said.

He went to another cousin, a family with a daughter who became a sister to him, and lived with them in Merrick, Long Island until he was old enough to head out on his own.

“It was very difficult,” he said. “They were my guardians and took care of me. But the father didn’t make me feel too welcome,” Bennett said. “I had to walk in that house on eggshells.”

“The death of my parents really did a number on me,” he added. “I didn’t do very well in school, but I wanted to be in school because I loved to be around people. By the time I got to 6th grade my desk was outside the classroom. I wouldn’t behave. The only thing in my life that kept me on the straight and narrow was summer camp. It was the Judaism, the friendship, sports, arts and crafts. The counselors and all of the people who took care of you were good people.”

In his last few years at camp, Bennett went to work in the dining hall. He attended Sullivan County Community College (SCCC), studying culinary arts and hotel technology.

In his final year at camp he was promoted to baker. Bennett called one of his instructors from SCCC who came to camp to give him some pointers. “I was good to go for the rest of the season,” he remembered. “The cornbread rose high, I made a nice apple cake, coffee cake with crumbles, birthday cakes for the campers.”

His experience at camp and culinary studies led to a steady stream of restaurant jobs, including four years at Terrace on the Park, a banquet hall in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, where he cooked from 1983 to 1986, and three years at Nautical Mile in Freeport.

“I was a bachelor, rocking and rolling. Work hard, play hard,” he said. “I dated girls, nothing serious.”

He was a chef at the Sheraton LaGuardia when The Doobie Brothers spent the night. While Bennett was closing the kitchen around 10 p.m., the general manager said, “The Doobie Brothers are hungry.”

“Sure, but I’m almost closed, what do they want?” he asked.

“Fifty peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

It was well known that the Doobies were so-named because they liked to smoke things other than tobacco. That night they had a rock-star-sized case of the munchies. “I wrapped 50 sandwiches up, put them in a big box, and off they went,” Bennett said.

In 1992, he got a call from a camp friend, Michael Stone, who was a chef on Shelter Island, inviting him to work with him at the Crescent Beach restaurant that is now known as Sunset Beach. At the time, the restaurant was owned by the Kraus family, and Michael Stone and Bennett began to operate it under the name, Michael’s Crescent Beach.

After a soggy first season that saw rain on 16 of 20 weekends, Bennett had awnings designed and installed, created a mouth-watering menu of ribs and steak, brought in rock bands, and did both bartending and cooking. Business picked up and New York Magazine wrote about them. “No weather could stop us,” Bennett said.

But Michael didn’t share all the trouble he was in. Bills went unpaid. “It got pretty ugly,” he said. Bennett said the final blow came when the owners raised the rent.

Michael moved to California, but Bennett stayed. “On Shelter Island, I never felt safer in my life,” he said. “Like summer camp year-round.”

After Bennett lost Michael’s Crescent Beach, he worked at The Dory, a now defunct restaurant called Duvall’s and at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club. He also bartended at the American Legion Post for 12 years.

In December 1993, he wound up in the hospital with an injured back for 10 days and was discharged right before the holidays. At home, incapacitated, with his friends away, he called the Pharmacy to ask if there was anyone who could deliver his medicine.

“Greg [Ofrias, the co-owner] came right out and brought me the medicine,” Bennett said. “When I got stronger I went in and shook his hand.”

A year later, when Bennett heard that Greg was looking for a short order cook one day a week, he applied, and one day a week eventually grew to three or four.

Prior to Bennett’s reign at the grill, they served a breakfast potato — a small potato sliced into such thick disks that they reduced the heat when they hit the old griddle and didn’t brown much.

Bennett saw a better way. He put butter on the griddle, took a box grater and grated the potato right onto the griddle, one order at a time. “It cooked faster, got nice and brown and it didn’t take the heat away from the griddle. We started calling them hash browns.”

Now the hash browns from the Pharmacy grill are the stuff of lore on Yelp and TripAdvisor. But a warning to those who would try to reproduce this made-to-order delicacy at home — in 24 years, Bennett said he’s had rotator cuff surgery on both shoulders from grating potatoes.

“I have cooked for king and country,” Bennett said. Ewan McGregor, Matt Dillon and the B-52s have sat cheek by jowl with the guy who orders a bacon, egg, and cheese on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and sausage, egg and cheese on Tuesday and Thursday. Saturday his order is a breakfast platter with hash browns.

In 1997, Bennett was a member of the team that won the men’s bowling championship at the American Legion. Teammate Bob Rescigno invited everyone over to celebrate with a dinner of his wife’s homemade pizza and sausage bread. While eating pizza on the deck, Bennett met Bob’s daughter, Robin Rescigno.

They married three years later.

Bennett and Robin live in the same house where they met. ChiChiLee, their friendly and affectionate mutt keeps close by, and for Robin’s birthday every year, Bennett makes a lobster BLT on a toasted Kaiser roll and a fresh-squeezed watermelon juice cocktail. They’ll celebrate their anniversary this year in Maui, where they honeymooned 18 years ago.

Bennett figures he’s fed several generations of Islanders. He takes deep satisfaction in seeing the cycle of Island life play out. “I’ve watched a kid graduate from high school, graduate from college, get a girlfriend, get married and now their kids are engaged to be married,” he said. “A lot of happiness comes with my job.”

Lightning Round

What do you always have with you? A book of photos.

Favorite place on Shelter Island? The golf course at the Shelter Island Country Club.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island? Maui.

What exasperates you? The way people drive. The recklessness.

When was the last time you were afraid? December 2011 for my second cervical spine surgery.

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? A day in October, when it’s cooler and the leaves are changing and it’s our anniversary.

Favorite movie or book? “Casablanca.”

Favorite food? Veal or Chicken Caprina, a thin cutlet with prosciutto and mozzarella — the recipe is from Villa Paul in Hampton Bays.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Robert (Bob) Rescigno, my late father-in-law.