People often ask, in the rare moments that it is possible to pin down chef Alex Lee for an interview, why he left the glitz, glamour and spotlight of being chef de cuisine at Daniel (as in Boulud) for the Glen Oaks Country Club a little over a decade ago. Why, when his star could reach no bounds, would he be possessed enough to walk away from the fame and sequester himself in his native Long Island?
To Lee, the answer was simple: “The people.”
And not just his family, he means, although it was the pull of his family that brought the prodigal back. This unassuming master chef was used to giving himself wholeheartedly to his staff but wanted also to give just as much of himself to his wife, children, relatives and friends. Friends like those at the Rottkamp Brothers Farm, third-generation farmers who grow a mere five miles down from the club.
“Good food is in the hands of the farmers, people who cook frequently, artisans and those who raise animals the proper way. I have a deep respect for that,” says Lee. “Whatever I don’t grow here, I just call them up and they’ll pick it. Everything we get has dirt on it, which the cooks appreciate. It takes time to clean and prep but, oh, is it worth it.”
I ask if he misses the variety of places like the Union Square Market. “I was one of the first guys to go to that market, but I can get everything here. I use a lot of the same purveyors I used at Daniel for fish and meats.”
The fecundity of the island’s soil is alluring to him for its infinite promise. “You can’t get some of the stuff here out there,” he says. “Everything I get now is local. Some ingredients, you just can’t transport very well. For example, zucchini flowers. Not all of them grow into zucchinis — only the females — and in my garden, I can harvest so many of the tender blossoms and try so many things.”
The pleasure of having such a surplus lights up his eyes like a pilot on a burner. “I look into the history of plants I have in abundance. Risotto, frittata…what did the Italians do? In the Phillipines, somebody would make a great corn soup with them. I had it like that once, and it was delicious. In France, you make beignets with a glass of rosé.” His hands rise to shape the dishes he has yet to make.
“On Long Island, with my garden, I get to ask myself, ‘what do I do with all of that?’” The answer is swift. “Crab-stuffed zucchini flowers, breaded and cooked crispy with a homemade basil tartar, heirloom cherry tomatoes and a 150-year-old balsamic.”
It is here on Long Island, a land of pastoral tradition, that Lee has the abundance and free rein that allows his creativity to flourish. In his garden, the earth calls to him as strongly as the people he returned for.
“I derive great pleasure from the simple things. Roasting a perfect chicken. Stuffing zucchini flowers, using everything in my garden.”
However, the joy he experiences is nothing compared to those of the privileged recipients of his “simple things.” Another boon for our unsung Long Island. Your move, Manhattan.