Osteria Leana Chef Lets the Food be Food

PETER VAN DER MIJE’S culinary career began with the most humble of beginnings: “I needed a job working nights [in college]…I started as a dishwasher.”

After receiving nearly unanimous rave reviews since opening Oyster Bay’s Osteria Leana last year, it’s safe to say he’s come a long way. That humility has become a trademark of both the man and the restaurant he runs.

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After working his way out of the dish-pit, Van Der Mije quickly grew to love everything the kitchen has to offer. “It’s a lot about camaraderie in the kitchen and that’s what drew me to it. And then the artistic side of it and the high pressure, those elements were really attractive to me. I never thought of myself as a nine-to-five type of guy. I’ve always liked physical, hard labor. Restaurants do provide that.”

After graduating from culinary school and completing an externship at The Square, a two Michelin star restaurant in London, he returned stateside to work under some of the finest chefs in the country, including Marcus Samuelsson and Jean Georges.

When Van Der Mije and his wife moved to Long Island five years ago, they grew tired of making long trips to Brooklyn and Long Island City for nice dinners and decided to set up their own shop here. Between time spent under numerous chefs and a stint as a personal chef, Van Der Mije had cooked just about every cuisine. But when it came to his first restaurant in his new adopted home, he chose something that felt like home: Italian.

“It’s comfort food for me. My grandmother was Italian and she was one of the first people to encourage me to cook, she had that influence on me. She taught me the proper way to cook and cut tomatoes and showed me what she was doing in the kitchen.”

This “proper way of cooking” is the backbone of Osteria Leana’s philosophy. Everyone knows Italian, but not everyone knows proper Italian. “We wanted to do something that was approachable and also had a hint of sophistication to it. Italian cuisine has been simplified with the industrialization of food. Now anyone can cook Italian food. It’s canned red sauce, dried pasta and Parmesan cheese; this combination appeals to everybody. However, this is only the recent version of Italian food. Historically, Italian food was farm-to-table with excellent techniques. That’s what we are trying to do.”

Hence Van Der Mije eschews drowning dishes in unnecessary ingredients—or adjectives—for refined simplicity. Osteria Leana’s clam dish is simply described as “locally sourced Little Neck clams with a touch of fresh tomato;” roasted chicken as “organic chicken with glazed carrots.”

“It’s about…the process of cooking, really bringing out the flavors and getting the best food you can possibly find. Creativity should come third. Just let the foods be foods. Let the products speak for themselves. I think chefs have gotten away from that and people have kind of grown tired of that. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to put too many different flavors on a plate, it masks different things that you’re trying to put together. For me it’s all about simplicity and great flavors that explode in your mouth. We really try to keep it simple here.”

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