Cooking without Compromise

It’s not what he expected when he took a job manning a salad station in Northport. All James Tchinnis was looking for was a break from the frantic life of a cook who’d bounced around the boroughs for years. After the last NYC restaurant he worked in closed, the Commack native considered it a sign he should slow down, move back in with his parents in Northport and recharge. He figured after six months—a year tops—he’d save enough cash to head back. But on his first day it became less about cooking and more about a girl.

After spending the better part of the 90s living the “pirate life” of a cook, a lifestyle described in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, the lower pressure job at what was then called the Bayview Bistro was perfect. “That place changed my life,” Tchinnis says. “It’s where I met my wife who was working as a waitress.” That “year max” turned into nine and he eventually bought the place with partners and changed the name to Bistro 44. But the trouble with being a part owner—even when your part is that of the chef—is compromising. “Them telling me what to cook was the demise,” Tchinnis says. “Let me do what I want to do and it will work. But they didn’t believe in it.” Fortunately Julie, his wife, did so they went restaurant shopping.

They bought an 800-square-foot soup joint in Huntington. Tchinnis walked in, made the owner an offer and two days later he owned the bones of what became Swallow. “I wanted to do small plates because that’s how my wife and I eat out,” he says.

“When we go to a restaurant we just get a bunch of appetizers.” The concept is simple yet radical: A cozy neighborhood space where guests sit around the small exposed kitchen and talk with the chefs who are cooking their food. “While people are waiting I’ll take a spoon out of a pan and say ‘open your mouth’ and stick mac and cheese in their mouth,” Tchinnis says. The menu is a mix of his Italian (osso buco ravioli) and Greek (moussaka) background with twists on American dishes like chicken and waffles, tuna tartar, mac and cheese and steaks with chimichurri sauce, but all on a smaller scale.

The experiment worked, though he’s not surprised. “We’re going to cook the food we want and we’re going to do what we believe in. And when you believe in something, it’s passion, it’s not going to fail,” Tchinnis says. Vindicated, Tchinnis is working harder than ever opening Swallow East in Montauk while expanding the Huntington location to 50 seats. Still the key remains the same: “With Swallow [Julie] believed in me—that’s all I really needed was her to believe in me.”

Where the Chefs Eat:
Living and working in Huntington Village, one of the busiest restaurant scenes on Long Island, has advantages: You never have to walk too far for a good meal. When he eats out, Tchinnis usually finds himself with a plate of sushi at Kashi Japanese or tacos at Besito.