Chef Todd Jacobs of Fresh Hamptons may have been born and raised on Long Island, but his ties are to the South. His grandmother, a West Virginia-born and farm-raised woman passed down her cast-iron skillet to the chef—along with a love for farmed ingredients. This treasured vessel, and her philosophy, now shape the way Jacobs cooks.
Long before Jacobs opened his newest spot he was a 15-year-old living in Wantagh whose working mother relied heavily on frozen foods. Like many teenagers, enjoying vegetables didn’t come naturally. Until Jacobs visited Chinatown, that is. That style of cooking—flash steaming or sautéing crates of vegetables like shitake mushrooms, string beans and carrots—left an impression. “Vegetables are delicious, you just need fresh ones,” he said.
The early pioneer of the local food movement began advocating for farms and fishing boats over 25 years ago, well before farm-to-table became every chef’s battle cry. He personally made produce pickups around the entire island for his menus. Since then he’s become even more local. The fruits and vegetables at his Bridgehampton restaurant are pulled mostly from his on-site garden. He also orders hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and fish—often cooking them in cast iron.
This concept was unheard of when Jacobs started to cook and he recalled someone asking him why he insisted on driving to farms from Sagaponack to Calverton collecting veggies. “I had a bad vision of telling my kids, ‘I remember when there used to be these things called farms’ and I didn’t want that to happen,” he said. He wanted people to appreciate where their food came from—just like his grandmother did.
When Jacobs was growing up, breakfast was served in pork fat. His grandmother’s cast-iron skillet—which had a permanent home on the stove burner—was mostly used for bacon and eggs. Her technique involved cooking the bacon and frying farm eggs in sizzling pork grease. Though simple, this still-warm-from-the-coop, delicate egg somehow tasted better when cooked-up in his grandmother’s old, seasoned pan.
Jacobs inherited the skillet, and while he continued to experiment with vegetables, it was culinary school that gave him the ah-ha moment with his beloved pan. “I learned to cook from some of the top French chefs in New York and they all said fish must be cooked in cast iron to get proper searing, especially if leaving the skin on,” said Jacobs. He uses newer cast iron exclusively to cook his fresh-from-the-boat catch, while his family heirloom sees action at home. “It works so well with fish because you put cold fish in a non-cast-iron pan and it cools. Because the cast iron holds so much heat, it makes [fish] brown and crispy.”
Meaty scallops are among his favorite foods to sear on the skillet. When he’s not at the boats, Jacobs buys his from Stuart’s Seafood Market in Amagansett. He gets the pan piping hot, places in the mollusks and turns them only once. “I’ve had customers who’ve had them, bought the same ones from the same place and say that they don’t taste like this. It’s the cast iron.”