Hamptons Haute founder and chef Christine Clemens wanted to be a brain surgeon when she grew up. That changed one day towards the end of high school.
“I went in [to a pathology lab with a pathologist] and dissected a human brain one day. I was like, ‘I don’t think this is what I should do,’” Clemens said.
Clemens decided to combine her other passions, cooking and party planning, and she hasn’t looked back. She graduated with honors from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and went on to learn the art of fine dining and hospitality first hand at The Ritz Carlton Naples. In 2012 she made the East End party scene even more delicious when she soft-launched Hamptons Haute, a catering and party planning business. Last summer, the company catered the inaugural St. Jude’s Hope in the Hamptons.
Already gearing up for another summer, I caught up with Clemens to talk about juggling her many responsibilities, what makes a successful chef, new additions to her menu and how she spends winters out East.
Long Island Pulse: Last summer was a huge success for you. What did you learn that will help you grow this year?
Christine Clemens: Last summer, I saw what was out there, what everybody was looking for and what they enjoyed at the different events.
Pulse: What was it that they enjoyed?
Clemens: They really liked the farm-to-table. We have such an abundance of local produce, cheeses and bakeries. [Some] bigger catering companies get [produce] from distributors. We go out in the field and actually pick our vegetables and fruits. Bigger caterers don’t have the time to actually do that.
Pulse: Farm-to-table has become such a big trend, something people do seem to be looking for as you said. Why do you think that is?
Clemens: I think there are so many health concerns these days and rather than buying from the distributors, I’m not saying anything against them, but they get their produce from all over the world and don’t know what kind of pesticides have been on it. The local farmers, if it’s growing in their backyard, they don’t use a lot of pesticides, some of them don’t use any…and it’s a much more personal touch because you get to know the farmers. You’ll say, “Oh, this came from Amber Waves. I know that place. I go there.” They get excited telling people where the food came from. I’ve had clients tell their guests, “These mushrooms came from East End Mushroom Company.”
Pulse: What inspired you to go into the food and hospitality industry?
Clemens: I’ve always had a passion for cooking. I loved it, I loved to see people enjoy themselves and throw parties. In this line of work, I get to go into people’s homes, throw a party for them, cook for them and see the appreciation. It’s a really gratifying job. That’s my favorite thing.
Pulse: Before you started your own business, you were able to get hands-on experience in the kitchen at well-known Florida establishments like The Ritz Carlton Naples and Don Ce Sar Beach Resort. What did you learn there?
Clemens: They taught me a lot about the culinary world, such as if something breaks how to fix it. They also taught me how to keep the passion rather than letting everything else get to you. It’s a lot of work. I’ve never walked into work being like, “I hate my job.” Never. There have been days where I’m exhausted, but the day that I walk into work and hate my job is the day that I’ll switch careers.
Pulse: It’s a career that requires you to wear many different hats. You’re not just handling the menu but the party planning as well. How do you juggle it all?
Clemens: Luckily, when I do events I have chefs who work for me. They know my style, they finish everything off. I’ll do the prepping and they’ll heat things up as needed during the event, because I’ll be at the front of the house making sure everything is running smoothly. It’s really important to have a good staff that you can rely on. Everyone thinks you can do it yourself. You can’t.
Pulse: You mentioned the importance of having a passion for the job. How do you create an environment that keeps your staff passionate?
Clemens: They have a voice in everything. If they have something they made at home, I’ll say, “Okay, let’s try it, let’s test it out in the kitchen and see how it works.” It’s a team effort rather than me acting like a drill sergeant. It’s calm. We work cohesively together.
Pulse: For novice party planners out there, what are the keys to throwing the perfect summer Hamptons bash?
Clemens: My mom always taught me the five Ps: proper planning prevents poor performance. I always think of that when we’re booking parties, just making sure the client has everything. The other thing is picking a theme and sticking to it rather than being all across the board. You can’t really do rustic/chic/cowboy/club scene. It’s better just to do a country-chic party or a club night rather than mixing it up too much.
Pulse: It’s the off season in the Hamptons right now. How are you keeping busy?
Clemens: I’m planning events right now. The minute the parties stop is the minute the planning starts for next year.
Pulse: What are some of your favorite Long Island winter activities?
Clemens: I was just at Mecox Bay Dairy checking out their cheeses. We do a lot of exploring. It’s quiet, so we get to enjoy the restaurants we can’t go to in the summer because we’re always so busy. We like to go to the North Fork a lot. We go to see the seals and we do a lot of volunteering.
Pulse: What’s your favorite place to eat out in the Hamptons and what should we order there?
Clemens: Rumba is one of my favorites. They have some amazing tacos. Edgewater does this pistachio gnocchi that is delicious or maybe Lunch for their famous lobster roll.
Pulse: What about your own menu. What is your personal favorite dish on it and why do you love it?
Clemens: I would say, right now, it would probably be our pumpkin ravioli with roasted vegetables. It’s local, it has a lot of vegetables and it’s a very hearty, filling dish.
Pulse: Do you have any new dishes or options people can look forward to?
Clemens: We play a lot in the kitchen. I think one of our newest is a sandwich. We use Carissa’s honey oat loaf and it’s a farmhouse cheddar and spiced apple compote grilled cheese. We’re doing gluten-free mini pizzas. We’re doing a buffalo chicken mini-pizza on a cauliflower crust. We post a lot of our [items] on Instagram. We’re getting our followers excited about our new dishes.