Cross the threshold at Roots Bistro Gourmand, and it is clear that chef co-owners Philippe Corbet and James Orlandi encourage a new vernacular to describe their work—and, they enjoy upending culinary norms. A large black chalkboard posted above the entryway displays the phrase BIS-TRO-NOM-IC Restaurant—spelled out dictionary style—with the definition, “Juxtaposes high end cuisine with humor and accessibility.”
It is hard to put a traditional label on Roots, yet tradition is the foundation of the West Islip eatery. The decor of the 100-year-old former speakeasy evokes a comfortable country farmhouse with ceiling beams, French doors and rustic hardwood floors. Entrées are served on cutting boards with the kind of rich patina that can only come from a working kitchen. Both Corbet and Orlandi trained in classic culinary techniques, honing their craft at world-class restaurants. Even the name of the establishment pays homage to culinary tradition.
“It’s about getting back to the roots of cooking,” says Orlandi, “and, what it really means to be a restaurant, making our own ingredients, everything touched by an actual chef, broken down from the bone, real sauces, nothing frozen, nothing processed, just us creating.”
Yet, key to the experience at Roots is the distinct duality embedded in the restaurant’s DNA. Step into the kitchen and you enter a high-tech laboratory of stainless steel Electrolux appliances where foams, emulsions, vacuum sealing and lecithin are transformational tools. While firmly grounded in the past, Corbet and Orlandi are the very model of ultramodern chefs applying cutting-edge gastronomic techniques—and a touch of alchemy—to infuse traditional dishes with new forms, flavors and textures. They aim to create a culinary oeuvre that shatters traditional assumptions of what a restaurant “should be” and make New Age gastronomy more approachable through a relaxed bistro atmosphere.
The young chefs are intensely serious about their craft but are amiable, easygoing hosts. Corbet is executive chef. A native of the French Alps, he worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and was executive chef at Bouley. He eventually made his way to Long Island’s East End, working at Stone Creek Inn in East Quogue and later as executive chef and managing partner at O’s Food & Wine Bar in St. James. Orlandi is general manager and hails from Babylon. He studied at New York’s Institute for Culinary Education, trained at Jean George’s and later served as sous-chef under Corbet at O’s Food & Wine Bar. It was there the duo decided to create a restaurant that would allow them to explore their culinary passions, and they opened Roots in 2012.
“Techniques have changed from 50 years ago and help us make food better and lighter,” says Corbet. “Bistro is the root of cooking, and the basics have to be perfect, but then we bring a little touch of something special, something different.”
That means classic risotto is transformed into Risotto Lollipops with beet purée, baby arugula, blue cheese, spicy nut powder and cranberry emulsion. Lobster is poached in butter and served with sweet corn puree, potato “coals,” flash-fired Brussels sprouts, acorn squash, black beurre blanc and saffron gel. Bay scallops become a medley of sea and earth dressed with wild mushroom mousse, prosciutto sauce and truffle pesto.
“We stay up to date on everything that’s happening in the culinary world,” says Orlandi. “We have the ability to create the most technical molecular thing that’s on the market right now or to go back to the classic French style if that’s the way we feel.”
Orlandi confesses to being a voracious consumer of new developments in gastronomy. “I do a lot of test recipes and there are a lot of failures, but those are what we learn from,” he says.
“I have all my French knowledge and all the basics, and he’s more like the crazy person,” jokes Corbet.
From the start, Roots established a tradition of using locally sourced ingredients. The restaurant website lists local farms, wineries, butchers and food vendors as “Our Family” and maintains that using available ingredients more efficiently ensures sustainability. Prior to opening, Corbet and Orlandi took several farm tours to establish critical relationships.
Orlandi says their location is ideal. “We source from upstate New York, New Jersey, Eastern Long Island, Connecticut and Rhode Island,” he explains. “We’re right in the center of everything, surrounded by farms.”
These days, local food purveyors seek them out. “We have people growing concord grapes in their backyard that stop by and give us their produce,” says Orlandi. “There’s nothing fresher than someone down the block with their own bees or grapes. It’s never been on a truck before and it’s hand picked.”
A spirit of invention is evident throughout Roots. Bartender Mark Seaman talks passionately about creating seasonal cocktail menus and using the kitchen technology to design his own bitters and cordials. His housemade ginger liqueur starts off sweet, with a warm, spicy finish. “If I can dream it, I can make it,” says Seaman.
Corbet and Orlandi use the chef’s tasting menu as a nightly opportunity to innovate. When a table orders a tasting menu, they brainstorm on the spot, creating a list of proteins and mixing and matching ingredients based on what’s available that night. The four-course tasting menu is custom designed for each table and can lead to several variations on a single evening. Some dishes become specials, and some may be added to future menus. It’s kind of an in-the-moment research and development process that is a leap of faith for the customer and the chef.
“The tasting is very spontaneous,” says Corbet. “The customer needs to trust us.”
Orlandi says they value the feedback of patrons. “We always try our best to get out to the table and see what they enjoyed so that next time we can really customize it.”
While Corbet and Orlandi embrace culinary science, food is surely their art and their medium, and they may be more akin to the modern artists of the late-19th- and early-20th-century who transcended traditional forms in favor of individual experimentation and sensibility. Each plate is a beautifully arranged canvas of color, dimension and texture. Chalkboards placed throughout the dining room feature whimsical illustrations, drawn by Corbet, deconstructing signature entrées.
Orlandi opens a black composition notebook filled with meticulous ink sketches, created by Corbet, depicting menu items. This low-tech notebook is the chef’s whiteboard. Corbet says the sketching process allows him to effectively structure an entrée. “I like to draw a dish when I start thinking about it,” he explains. “It’s a building of flavor and drawing it helps me to visualize what it would look like. When I draw it, I can understand the process of eating it.”
Orlandi sums up their very personal perspective that blends tradition, technology, community and artistry. “It’s really the cultural aspects of food, the creativity of it and our love for it that comes through in the end.”