Jun. 21--By his own reckoning, Tom Schaudel is not Long Island's best chef, but he is, unquestionably, the most conspicuous.
He is seemingly everywhere - performing cooking demos at the mall, organizing charity events, playing with his rock band, blending his own wine, publishing an annual list of the year's 10 worst customers and, most frequently, opening yet another restaurant.
Over the course of a 24-year career, Schaudel, 53, has founded many of Long Island's most illustrious eateries, including Panama Hatties in Dix Hills, 107 Forest Avenue in Locust Valley, Lemongrass, Tease (both in Roslyn) and the loosely affiliated "fish" restaurants: his flagship CoolFish in Syosset, AngelFish in Long Beach, RockFish in Huntington and PassionFish, which recently moved from Woodbury to Westhampton Beach.
His favorite suffix testifies to an emphasis on fish, and his cooking style is an exuberant blend of Asian and Italian influences married to local ingredients. The flavors are bold, the platings tend toward the ornate and vertical.
Diners who don't know the difference between Col. Sanders and Mario Batali will ask, "Is that the new Tom Schaudel place?" Serious diners have been known to ask him for his autograph. He's wildly articulate, completely indiscreet and unfailingly quotable.
Detractors may attribute Schaudel's success to all the publicity he receives, a view disputed by Morris Sendor, publisher of the annual "Great Restaurants of Long Island."
"Yes, he gets his name in the paper, but he's extremely innovative and not afraid to take chances," Sendor observed. He also noted Schaudel's involvement in every element of his restaurants. "Tom does everything - from creating the menu to designing the room and choosing the furnishings, putting together a wine list and training the staff."
Schaudel's 22-year-old daughter, Courtney, who has worked in her dad's restaurants since she was 10, attributes his success to an utter lack of pretension. "People come in the restaurant and ask me to point out the chef. They don't expect this guy in jeans with long hair who's covered in tattoos."
And although Schaudel jokes that it's been years since he's seen his toes, he is a pretty sexy chef, with his long gray hair, bright blue eyes and easy masculinity.
Last week saw the opening of the Jedediah Hawkins Inn & Restaurant in Jamesport, an exquisitely restored property in the middle of the North Fork's burgeoning wine country. Schaudel, a partner in the venture, is executive chef of the restaurant, Jedediah's. He calls the project "a personal statement, my little jewel box, my footprint in a budding Napa Valley."
The restaurant's menu, elegant and heavily reliant on local produce, was conceived by Schaudel and chef de cuisine Michael Ross, most recently of Fiddleheads in Oyster Bay, to whom Schaudel will hand over the reins once the kitchen is up and running.
Schaudel has a lot of experience in handing off. At the moment, he owns five restaurants and consults on two others. In fact, a number of notable "Schaudel places" have actually been consulting jobs, among them Meritage in Roslyn, the two PassionFish, Tease's second incarnation in Port Washington and that site's subsequent occupants, Louis & Marxx and now The Wreck.
Surprisingly, it seems that the seven restaurants haven't taken him away from his golf game or stopped him from taking a recent weeklong wine-tasting trip through Italy.
"He has more free time than guys with fewer restaurants," observed Michael Meehan, another fixture on the Long Island dining scene who is chef at Lori Restaurant & Wine Bar in Southampton. A longtime friend and admirer, Meehan thinks he knows why: "He looks for the best people, he trusts people, and he delegates."
Schaudel attributes his freedom from cooking and managing to a cohesive team that includes his chefs (Danny Heaney at CoolFish, Dave Salony at the Mansion, David Livingston at AngelFish, Kelly Joyce at RockFish); his sister Ann May, who oversees CoolFish; longtime manager Diane Flynn; bar and wine manager Mark Scordo and "the Rafaels of the world." (Rafael Cardoza, the pastry chef at CoolFish, epitomizes for Schaudel the dozens of mostly Spanish-speaking workers who began as dishwashers and have now assumed positions of responsibility in his kitchens.)
Tom Schaudel, The Delegator, is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Before CoolFish opened in 2000, "I was a seven-day-a-week guy," he said. Up until then, he had been involved with one, maybe two places at a time, none of them terribly big, none of them consistently busy. CoolFish was on a different scale.
"We went from 65 seats in the middle of nowhere - Locust Valley - to 150 on Jericho Turnpike," he recalled. "The day we opened for business, I had to put three people on the phone for reservations."
The success of CoolFish gave Schaudel a financial cushion for the first time, and within two years he was able to hire an executive chef, a move that freed him to begin consulting in earnest.
"The upside to consulting is that you make money but don't have the financial exposure," he said. "The downside is that the owners don't necessarily listen to you."
Having lieutenants in the kitchen also allowed Schaudel to be more of a presence in the dining room, a role that suits his skills as a raconteur. He has a bottomless store of tales. Like the one about the time his kitchen ran out of propane gas for the stoves and he prevailed upon the owner of the diner across the street to let him use the kitchen. "Things were actually running smoothly until it started to rain. Then we had to put garbage bags over the waitstaff - we cut out eyeholes so they could see. Only one lady complained - she said her mashed potatoes were soggy."
Rock star wannabe
Born in Queens in 1953, Schaudel moved to Carle Place when he was 4 years old. He wasn't an avid student, expending far more energy playing the guitar than on studying. By 18, though, he had realized he would never "make it as a guitarist in a big way." This was probably due not only to fearless self-examination but to his acquaintanceship with two local kids, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, musical prodigies who went on to be regarded as among the country's most virtuosic guitarists. (Schaudel still plays guitar in two bands: "I'm in the twilight of a mediocre career as a rock star.")
At age 15, he took a job as a dishwasher at the Sir Loin Steak Pub in Carle Place. Owner Sidney Solomon took Schaudel under his wing and within three weeks he was made a line cook and found that certain aspects of the job - performing for an audience, getting waitresses to pay attention to him - satisfied some of his unrequited rock-star needs. A guidance counselor at Carle Place High School suggested that the bright but not academically inclined Schaudel apply to the Culinary Institute of America, then in New Haven, Conn., and he spent the next two years learning the rudiments of classical cooking.
After the CIA, Schaudel banged around the Island for a decade. In 1983, he, Sandy Curti and Marty Smith opened Panama Hatties in a strip mall in Dix Hills. It was a popular, rollicking place - much less formal than it has become under subsequent chefs - and gave him the wherewithal in 1986 to open, again with Curti and Smith, Spring Close House (now the Laundry) in East Hampton.
After establishing one more East End restaurant, Downtown Grille and Wine Bar in Montauk, Schaudel headed back up Island. In 1992, he opened 107 Forest Avenue in Locust Valley, and in January 1994 it got a three-star review from Newsday's Peter Gianotti. "This is when it started for me in a big way," he said. 107 Forest Avenue (which eventually was rechristened 107 Ocean Bistro) inaugurated a string of openings, renamings, closings and relocations all over Nassau County.
CoolFish, opened in 2000, was, according to Michael Meehan, "Tom's home run. That's what put him on the map."
Schaudel says that CoolFish marked the moment when he started thinking like a restaurateur, and not a chef. "When I was a chef, I gave people what I wanted. When I began to think like a restaurateur, I gave them what they wanted. That's when I started to make money."
One thing his customers want is to see "chef Tom," and so Schaudel spends quite a lot of time shuttling between restaurants - a process made more enjoyable by his Ford Explorer, Porsche Boxster and vintage Mercedes 450SL. He also maintains a busy roster of guest appearances and benefit dinners and, for the past five years, has been contributing "Tom's Top Ten," an annotated list of the year's worst customers, to the annual "Great Restaurants of Long Island," a feature that publisher Sendor says is the magazine's most popular. (See the most recent at http://www .greatrestaurantsmag.com/LI/ article_view/60/.)
Sendor's affection for Schaudel is boundless. "He is one of the most giving people I know, of himself and of his cooking." Among the many charitable events Schaudel has been involved with, Sendor singled out the event at The Carltun in East Meadow that Schaudel organized (along with The Carltun's owner, Anthony Capetola) after 9/11, which raised more than $50,000 for firefighters' widows and children.
Committed to Long Island
Sendor's wife and partner, Rosalie, noted that Schaudel is "the biggest supporter of Long Island products - produce and especially wine." For years, his wine lists have promoted Long Island wines - by the bottle and by the glass - and his goal at Jedediah's is to feature at least one selection from every local winery. With the help of the winemakers at Paumanok Vineyards, Schaudel created his own proprietary "Tom Schaudel Chef's Reserve" line, which includes a cabernet sauvignon, a merlot and a chardonnay.
Schaudel's generosity extends to other restaurateurs as well. A few months ago he got a call from a friend of his, the accountant for a restaurant, LL Dent, poised to open in Carle Place. The owners, mother Lillian and daughter Leisa Dent, were new to the restaurant business. Could Tom give them a bit of advice?
"Tom invited us to dinner at CoolFish," Lillian said, "and talked to us about basic stuff, how things should be done." Soon after that first meeting, Schaudel began to drop by LL Dent to chat. The night it opened, and for four nights thereafter, he was in the kitchen, acting as expediter - the "conductor" who calls the orders as they're brought in from the dining room.
Lillian Dent won't forget the favor: "We call him our guardian angel.
MANGO BBQ SHRIMP WITH CORN-CILANTRO SAUTE AND BASIL OIL
Tom Schaudel created this dish for 107 Ocean Bistro and it has gone on to grace the menu at CoolFish. Here's an adaptation for home cooks.
4 wooden skewers
1 bunch basil, washed
1 cup olive oil
1 cup barbecue sauce
1/2 cup pureed mango (from 1 cup of chunks)
2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined
6 ears fresh sweet corn
1 small bunch cilantro, washed and chopped
Pinch each of salt, pepper and sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1. Soak skewers in cold water. Combine basil and oil in blender and puree until smooth. Let oil steep for 1 hour. Strain through a fine strainer and set aside. Combine barbecue sauce and mango puree and set aside.
2. Divide shrimp into 4 portions and thread onto skewers. Take corn kernels off cob with a knife and place in a mixing bowl. Toss corn with cilantro and season with salt, pepper and sugar.
3. Grill shrimp on skewers until pink, about 3 minutes on each side. Brush with the barbecue-mango sauce. Meanwhile, heat butter in saucepan and saute the corn mixture on medium heat until heated through.
4. Place hot corn in center of plate. Top with shrimp and decorate around the corn with basil oil. Makes 4 servings.
OLIVE OIL AND ALMOND CAKE
Schaudel uses this moist cake as a base for various desserts. At Jedediah's he serves it with a compote of figs and Armagnac.
1/2 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
5 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup olive oil
3/4 cup sugar
12 ounces almond paste, mashed smooth
Zest of 3 lemons
Optional: Cointreau or triple sec
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter a 8 1/2-inch loaf pan. In a small bowl, combine flour and baking powder and mix thoroughly with a fork.
2. With an electric mixer, beat butter, oil and sugar until fluffy. Add the almond paste and lemon zest and continue beating until smooth. Beat in eggs 1 at a time until they are well incorporated. Mix in flour mixture until it disappears.
3. Pour into the buttered loaf pan and bake until a wooden skewer poked into the center comes out smooth, about 45 minutes. If desired, brush the top with a few tablespoons of Cointreau or triple sec. When cool enough to handle, remove from pan, then cool completely on a rack. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
"When people who live on the South Shore want a good meal, they go to the North Shore. When people on the North Shore want a good meal, they go to Manhattan. When people in Manhattan want a good meal, they go to Paris. When people in Paris want a good meal, they go to Hong Kong. When people in Hong Kong want a good meal ... they go to Mars."
"I'm in a rock band called Hurricane, but at this point - I'm in my mid-50s - we should probably be downgraded to a tropical depression."
"I haven't eaten at home since 1968."