A Casual Venue for Contemporary Art

Over the years, Colin Ambrose, the restaurateur, has developed relationships with hundreds of artists, many of whom are regulars at Little Estia
Colin Ambrose, above, the owner and chef of Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor, has a longstanding relationship with the region’s artists. Barbara Thomas, below, will exhibit paintings of vegetables from her garden, including a variety of carrots, at the restaurant during April and May. Photos Morgan McGivern and Gary Mamay

Slow food, sustainable agriculture, organic farming, and farm-to-table are terms that are so ubiquitous in the ever-expanding culinary world that hardly a restaurant opens today that doesn’t tout its use of locally sourced organic ingredients.

Several chefs on the East End were early proponents of those practices before they became commonplace, among them Colin Ambrose, who purchased Estia in Amagansett in 1991 and planted a two-acre organic garden close by, on the property of Lorne Michaels, the producer of “Saturday Night Live,” which provided produce for the restaurant.

“One of the reasons I felt so comfortable going to Amagansett in 1991 was that I had just finished reading a book called ‘Striper’ by John Cole,” Mr. Ambrose said. The late Mr. Cole, a noted conservationist and the longtime editor of The Maine Times, grew up on Long Island and worked for years as a commercial fisherman on the South Fork, where he befriended many baymen, artists (among them Jackson Pollock), and writers.

Within two years, Estia began showcasing the work of local artists. It continued to do so until 1998, when Mr. Ambrose sold it and opened Estia’s Little Kitchen on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike. As they have been for many years, art and food are intertwined in his restaurants. (He opened a second in Darien, Conn., three years ago.)

“When I bought Estia’s Little Kitchen, I wanted to work hard on making its imagery tight with the striped bass,” he said, “because the striper story has always been a fundamental part of my connection to this community.” Two bass weathervanes by Bill King spin outside the restaurant. A large installation by Ross Watts of bass swimming in front of a haul seine spans a wooden fence in the backyard. A scrimshaw surfboard by Peter Spacek, etched with an image of what baymen call the “money fish,” hangs from the ceiling of one of the dining rooms.

Over the years the restaurateur has developed relationships with hundreds of artists, many of whom are regulars at Little Estia, and he now has a collection of some 120 artworks. “I call a lot of the work cheeseburger art, because many of the customers who are artists tend to eat cheeseburgers. John Torreano loves my cheeseburgers, Jim Gingerich likes to have a cheeseburger and a beer, Dan Rizzie prefers it in a salad with blue cheese and no bun.”

While Mr. Ambrose has always had art on his walls, he decided last year to mount recurrent exhibitions. On a recent Friday morning the walls featured photographs by Mansell Ambrose, his daughter, and watercolors by Mr. Torreano. “It’s a two-man show,” he said, “and what’s interesting about it is that it has accomplished my goal, which is to bring my garden into the restaurant for the winter.”

Last summer, Ms. Ambrose managed the raised beds in the garden, which grew the flowers for the restaurant’s tables. She photographed the garden, so that summer’s table flowers are winter’s wallflowers. Mr. Torreano’s photographs of the Sunburst squash bed were the basis for his watercolors.

The next exhibition, which will be on view from April 8 through June 1, will feature paintings by Barbara Thomas of Springs, a friend of Mr. Ambrose’s who has been painting local gardens and landscapes since the mid-’80s and growing vegetables herself for the past four years — carrots, kale, eggplant, acorn squash, cabbage, and more. For the show at Little Estia, she will exhibit a series of new paintings of the vegetables she has grown, working sometimes from photographs, sometimes from life.

“After I painted the red beets and red cabbage, I made some borscht,” said the artist. “Colin would have been proud of me. I felt like I really had a relationship with the vegetables through growing them, painting them, cooking them, eating them, and having them become compost.” She paints her subjects against solid backgrounds that complement their colors and bring out their brilliance, rather than in a garden or landscape.

Mr. Ambrose thinks of the disparate people who have threaded through his restaurants and his life as strings being sewn together into a community patchwork quilt. In June, that quilt will come to a new level of engagement with art and food, when the restaurant will host an exhibition, auction, and garden party fund-raiser to benefit Springs Seedlings and Project Most.

Project Most was founded in East Hampton in 2000 as a small program serving children at the John Marshall Elementary School. While the organization has grown, it remains dedicated to providing children a range of after-school enrichment activities, one of which is Springs Seedlings, a garden classroom and greenhouse at the Springs School. Joe Realmuto, the chef at Nick and Toni’s, and Bryan Futterman, late of Foody’s and now also at Nick and Toni’s, were among the founders of the program, which gives kids a place to go when classes end where they can grow, harvest, and taste food raised sustainably.

“We’re hoping that as the event starts to simmer and come to a boil, we’ll not only be selling tickets to the event and selling artwork,” said Mr. Ambrose. “We’ll also draw attention to the fact that kids in Springs have an opportunity after school to learn about growing food, to taste green beans off the vine, to study herbs and learn the differences between them. The idea is to support Project Most’s commitment to the edible schoolyard.”