Copperhill’s Greg Kearns Makes Illustrious Homecoming

Some say you can never go home again—too much has changed since you left. But what if it’s precisely that change that you’re looking for? What if you not only encouraged the change but became its driving force? This was chef Greg Kearns’ mindset when he returned to his hometown of Williston Park to revitalize La Marmite—a highly esteemed restaurant that stood for more than 40 years. With a fresh vision, Kearns transformed the 1904 farmhouse into the acclaimed modern American dining establishment, Copperhill.

“We knew to get where we wanted to get, we needed to blow it up and rebrand,” Kearns said. “The business is so hard and it’s so many hours and it’s so much work. If you’re working that hard for somebody else’s ideas, it doesn’t make any sense.”

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During his hiatus from Long Island, Kearns embarked on a culinary journey that landed him back home as a different person and a superb chef. Although he was always interested in drawing and painting, he never dabbled in the art of cooking until a watershed trip to Spain prior to his senior year at Boston College (where he was studying accounting). “That was a life changer for me. It spun my world around. I fell in love with food there, how seriously they took it. And I realized that food was maybe an option I could take.”

After graduating, he took a line cook job in Philadelphia and immediately “knew for sure” he was in the right place. He studied at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and worked at West End Café in Carle Place (where he met his wife Bari) before returning to the city while Bari followed her career in fashion. There, Kearns became an instructor at the French Culinary Institute. Although a teaching role was not in his planned career trajectory, the job became an instrumental learning process. “I got to hone my skill in managing people, which is probably one of the harder things. Figuring people out was a huge thing for me.”

When Kearns set his eyes on opening his own restaurant, he quickly realized Manhattan was not the place to break ground on his dream. “I was ready to take my next step. We started looking at spaces in the city. We thought about jumping off that ledge, got close a couple times…The deeper we got into it, the more we realized the Long Island angle felt better for us. It was less of a rat race, so our focus moved out here.”

Fortuitous timing would see the proprietors of La Marmite looking to sell their longtime restaurant. Kearns already had a relationship with the owners as his parents were regulars. “They were ready to cash out so we jumped at this. The reality is this would most likely [have become] a TD Bank or a CVS. They were happy to give it to people who were going to love it.”

Kearns did indeed love it but knew from the start that change was imperative—the long-standing restaurant needed a head-to-toe makeover. “It had been a restaurant for 40-some-odd years and had not really changed the menu in that time, didn’t change the décor. [The owners’] great advice to me was, ‘Make it your own.’”

Two years ago, (after a summer of renovation) Copperhill opened. Kearns looked at his new restaurant as a blank canvas, one that, for the first time in his life, he was able to paint with a palette of his own. “Let’s have the restaurant that if we lived in this town, we would want here. That’s the lens we put everything through. We figure if we do that and that’s always our motivation, we won’t please everyone, but chances are we’ll please most of them.”

So what does that restaurant look like? One with no agenda except serving quality, modern American food. This approach allows Kearns to eschew anything that would handcuff him to a specific theme or cuisine. “We don’t get stuck and say, ‘That’s successful, we can’t take it off the menu.’ We definitely try to introduce people to food that they may not have had before, or ingredients or wine varietals. But we’re not trying to scare anybody. We’re trying to be as populous as we can. That, for us, is the scope of it…We want that dining experience that’s not the Italian restaurant where you know what you’re going to get before you get in the car.”

That includes a menu that changes wholesale about six times a year, a process that Kearns said, “keeps us motivated in the back.” The fall menu included everything from ahi tuna tostada to ramen carbonara. Equally content is the front of the house, a place in which Bari now finds herself firmly entrenched. After switching careers, she firmly and summarily helms Copperhill as general manager, a far cry from her former life in fashion but a transition she gladly made. “What was compelling to me was to work with someone who was about to live out their dream. It’s not all the time that people get the freedom and the opportunity to do that,” she said. “Is it easy? Absolutely not—everyday is a different challenge…But when we come out the other side, we know we’ll have built a business and a reputation to be proud of.”

The public response says there is plenty to be proud of already. “People are happy,” the chef added. “They’re appreciative. We get so many, ‘Thank you for having a place like this.’ That’s amazing. That’s the best thing you could have. That keeps us going.”