Chef Steve Cardello serves up farm-to-table dishes at Relish.
Since he was a little boy at his great-aunt Rosie’s Christmas Eve feasts, chef Steve Cardello has lived for the food that gathered his family together. He recalls his relatives cooking and enjoying the fruits of their labor on many occasions, the dinner table always a centerpiece to his memories, and the food they shared, a staple in his upbringing. Now, a husband and a father, Cardello shares his passion for family and food at the dinner tables of many families, as people gather and celebrate amongst the friendly fare he serves up at his Kings Park restaurant, Relish.
A local pioneer in the farm-to-table movement on Long Island, Cardello opened the doors of Relish in September 2011. Located on the main strip of 25A in Kings Park and settled within a residential hub of the North Shore, Relish is welcoming in the tastes of many, with a menu that covers a vast appetite at fair prices. Using the best in locally sourced, super-fresh and top-quality products, Cardello highlights his restaurant’s philosophy, “We put the best possible product for the fairest price on the plate day in and day out. People come because of that. We put out fresh, creatively prepared food and serve it in a clean, warm, welcoming environment.”
Relish is a comfy space, with bright-pear-green cushioned booths and an old-fashioned bluestone counter area where guests can sit and read the paper, sip on coffee, have a bite to eat or sample one of the dozen homemade milkshakes that are being prepared right before them. Cardello’s wife, Jessica, a familiar friendly face, is almost always there greeting customers at the door, many of which she knows and calls by name. The sense of family is evident, from the warm atmosphere and cozy, chatter-filled dining room to the quote on the back of each staff member’s shirt, “Food, Family, Life.”
Occupying the space formerly operating as Mrs. Brown’s, Cardello knew that he didn’t want to stray too far from the diner-style establishment that the locals had welcomed into their community. “The neighborhood and the building really helped dictate the direction initially. We operated under the old name for two months so I could get a feel for what was and wasn’t working, what was possible and also what the neighborhood was looking for in a local restaurant.
“The neighborhood has really embraced us. I am so thankful for all of our customers, but I am especially thankful for and have formed some special relationships with our regulars. I love seeing the same people three-four-five times a week.”
Cardello can often be seen running food from the kitchen straight to his diners; with a larger-than-life smile, he is proud to be serving up food that is done his way: “Keep it simple.” he says. “Use good ingredients, respect the ingredients and their producers, and don’t take yourself too seriously. I do what I want. I do my food how I want it, and I make changes when I feel like it. I don’t answer to anyone but my guests.”
And his guests answer back, with nearly two years of strong business under their belt, Relish is truly Cardello’s dream come true. “Owning a restaurant has been a goal of mine for as long as I can remember,” he admits proudly. “Luckily for me I have a wife who has always been supportive and shared the same dream as me. Working with Jessica has been a godsend. Besides being able to see her every day, I have her as a partner in business that has the same vision and voice. She keeps the troops in line. I am truly blessed to work with some amazing, passionate, dedicated, hardworking people. Same goes for our guests; they are so supportive and loyal. They really keep us on our toes. It’s so nice to see something we have worked so hard at being received in such a positive way.”
Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, Relish has an ever-changing array of dishes that give a spin to classic fare, created with products as local as they can come, Cardello prides himself on the relationships he develops with local producers, farmers, artisans and the like, with connections as local as down the street, where Cardello frequents the Kings Park Farmers Market. “I think in the beginning they thought I was nuts! I would show up at the market in my little Toyota Camry and leave with every possible square inch of the car loaded with whatever I could get my hands on. I have driven back to the restaurant with watermelons on my lap, not being able to see out of the back or side windows,” he laughs. “When the market is in full swing, we take full advantage. I shop on Sunday, and our specials are developed out of what comes back. I also work the local produce into our staple dishes: heirloom tomatoes on burgers and sandwiches; local lettuces in salads; melons, berries and stone fruits on pancakes and in desserts. It allows my menu to follow the seasons.” Also a big supporter of Raleigh’s Poultry Farm for eggs, turkey, chicken and honey, Cardello admits he is in talks with local farmers about purchasing a locally raised heritage pig. He has a local guy who digs clams and connections with farmers who are growing in greenhouses that allow for local greens through the winter months. Cardello has also been known to trade meals for local goods, with customers stopping by with everything from foraged watercress to items from their own gardens.
A graduate of the French Culinary Institute with a résumé that spans from Quogue to Manhattan, Cardello cites his former executive chef position at Bayport’s Grey Horse Tavern as his biggest learning experience. He names his grandparents as his biggest culinary influences and refers to Tom Colicchio, Mario Batali and Rick Bayless as his current culinary inspirations. “I have always felt a strong sense of ownership and responsibility for my restaurants. I say ‘my restaurants’ because I ran them as if they were my own. I put everything I had into them and when I could no longer do that, I moved on.”
Cardello sort of stumbled upon his Relish opportunity; he deems it as “right place, right time. I wasn’t actively looking for a restaurant but always knew that when the right opportunity presented itself I had to be ready to jump. I hooked up with Don Brown, my partner, who was looking to get out of the business while I was looking to get in. I pitched him my ideas and asked him to hang on while I made the changes necessary to get us to the next level. He did, and I did, and here we are. I might add that I had a two-month-old daughter at home at the time.” Now nearly two years old, Cardello’s daughter, Lily, keeps him focused on the prize, “I would like to continue to refine and perfect Relish. To increase what we produce in-house, like ice cream, sorbet, sausages and smoked meats. I’d like us to be greener; waste less. To take better care of our employees. For myself, I look forward to spending more time with my wife and daughter!”