When Franco Sampogna took the helm as executive chef at Jema in Huntington—his first experience cooking in the U.S.—he was quickly introduced to the expectations of local eaters. “They come here and they ask, ‘Where’s the salad? Where’s the fried chicken?’ And then they tell me that every restaurant on Long Island has to have those things.”
To his credit, Sampogna hasn’t wavered in his culinary philosophy since arriving on this side of the Atlantic; nor should he, as his resume speaks for itself. Born in Brazil, Sampogna moved to France as a teen to help family members open a hotel. Eventually, he found himself in the kitchen. “I fell into it, but then my family started bringing me to these restaurants with classic French foods and I thought, ‘this is good,’” Sampogna recalled. “It wasn’t like I woke up one day and [decided] to be a chef. It was slow and then suddenly it became my passion.”
That passion fueled this Brazilian surfer through culinary school before he embarked on a career that has included a string of stops at some of France’s finest Michelin star restaurants, eventually landing at Paris’ Alain Ducasse restaurant at Hôtel Plaza Athénée. When the Plaza closed for renovations, Sampogna booked a gig as chef aboard a private charter yacht. A bit of serendipity would have him serving home shopping guru Joy Mangano while sailing the high seas.
So impressed was Mangano with Sampogna’s culinary prowess that when she rebranded her previous restaurant Porto Vivo, Sampogna was her first call. And he needed little convincing. “I was planning on moving to the States…Then I came here to visit the restaurant and see the size of the project. It was scary.”
Undeterred, Sampogna took on the challenge the only way he knew how. “We cook things that we want to eat in a very refined way…We’re going to have the salads, we’re going to have tomatoes, asparagus, we’re going to have fish grilled on the barbeque and meat grilled on the barbeque. But at wintertime, I want to have comfort food…it gets very cold here, it’s not like Brazil, so we make more warm food.”
If produce isn’t in season, you won’t find it at Jema. The result is a decidedly pared down menu, one created entirely from local ingredients. In January, it consisted of six starters and just five entrées. The scope isn’t just to ensure taste bud satisfaction; it’s also a pragmatic business solution. Jema consists of four floors: a dining room on both the first and third level, a bar in between and a private dining space in the wine cellar. A limited menu guarantees the quality won’t dilute as the number of seats grow. “There’s a lot of thinking besides the dish itself. It’s not only, ‘okay, create the craziest dish.’ We have to make sure that it’s very good—that everyone loves it—and we’re able to send it with the amount of people we have. That’s the balance that we have to keep.”
Sampogna plans to continue in his way of working, as jarring as it may be to some at first. “I want to stay true to myself and the places where I’ve been learning…I learned the classics [at Michelin star restaurants]. We had potato with truffle and beef. That’s it. That’s my philosophy. I want to do simple, yet refined.”
This culinary creed suited him well abroad and is doing the same here. “There’s a lot of people that like what we’re doing. We try not to change. We’re sticking to what we believe.”