Geoffrey Drummond: From the Food Set to the Food Lab

Geoffrey Drummond has trained his sights on something new in the past year: Stony Brook Southampton’s innovative Food Lab
Geoffrey Drummond has surfaced on the Stony Brook Southampton campus as the executive director of Food Lab, which will hold its first conference beginning June 5. Jennifer Landes

If the name Geoffrey Drummond is not familiar, it should be. For years, the East Hampton-based producer and director has provided armchair epicureans the vicarious thrill of watching others perform miraculous feats in the kitchen. From his early work on PBS, first with Jacques Pepin and then with Julia Child, to his latest Emmy-winning series with Eric Ripert, he has channeled his appreciation of all things culinary to introduce Americans to great chefs the world over.

While he still creates shows such as “Avec Eric” for the Cooking Channel, Mr. Drummond has trained his sights on something new in the past year: Stony Brook Southampton’s innovative Food Lab. The initiative, which aims to assist and buttress the region’s budding food entrepreneurs, will hold its first conference from June 5 to 7.

Mr. Drummond recognized potential in the growing popular interest in chefs, first seen in the 1980s. The cooking shows followed, featuring such guests as the legendary Andre Soltner of Lutece, and, in his first television appearance, Emeril Lagasse, who became the breakout star of the Food Network in the 1990s. Mr. Drummond now sees the same promise in independent food and drink production.

“We were the first on a mass level to introduce the idea of celebrity chefs,” he said, not in a “kitchen arena‚” but how they cooked at home for their family and friends. “Two generations away, the whole area of food is still exploding. When you travel somewhere, the questions are where did you eat, what did you eat, as much as what did you see.”

At the same time, more and more Americans are realizing the benefits of eating fresh foods, particularly in places like the East End, where we are so close to their growth and harvest. Mr. Drummond said it was particularly important that the Food Lab encourage efforts to make these foods available to people at all income levels, not just those in the upper brackets.

The Food Lab’s overall mission is to coordinate with its partners, who include Kathleen Masters, director of the Amagansett Food Institute, and Brian Halweil, publisher of Edible East End and related titles, on entrepreneurial and educational activities, drawing also on Mr. Drummond’s media connections. Ms. Masters will continue to provide the institute’s on-campus commercial kitchen to local entrepreneurs, while Mr. Halweil will develop online courses in the field of “edible business,” a term coined by Mr. Drummond to describe this small-scale food industry. Mr. Drummond himself will produce integrated television or web-based programs.

While many groups and individuals have supported the East End’s food producers, often through benefit “tastings,” Mr. Drummond aims for a more active promotion. “I am fascinated with how stuff is done. I want to take that fascination a notch deeper and go beyond the simple box checking off ‘had that, tasted that, stood on that line.’ ” His goal is “to grow the food community outward, to share information and wisdom.”

With so many people, just out of school or looking for a midlife career change, all hoping for a food-related career, giving them the tools to succeed and the reasons why many of them fail is important, said Mr. Drummond.

This region’s rich bounty of fresh produce and seafood has always attracted foodies. Early on, that might have meant picnics with the likes of Pierre Franey and Mr. Pepin, but in the years since, wineries, breweries, James Beard Foundation dinners, and gourmet markets have sprouted like cornstalks in July. More recently still, urban transplants of all ages have joined the community as both growers and marketers of specialty foods tied to locally available ingredients. This is a national trend, but the region’s proximity to New York City makes it especially pronounced and well supported here.

With so much homegrown activity happening, Robert Reeves, associate provost at Stony Brook Southampton, began discussions with Mr. Drummond last year. The school was already offering the old Long Island University food services building as commercial kitchen space through the Amagansett Food Institute’s South Fork Kitchens initiative, and both men thought this could be the nucleus of a much broader effort.

The institute offers its 3,000-square-foot licensed commercial kitchen in four-hour blocks of time. Before it opened, people who wanted to cook and sell food products had to count on the generosity of South Fork restaurants in sharing their kitchens, or drive to Calverton to a similar small-business incubator.

Now, businesses such as Carissa’s Breads, Gula Gula Empanadas, Madeline Picnic Co., and Miss Lady sodas have used or continue to use the space. A cafe in the kitchen serves some of the food made there as well as dishes using fresh produce from the institute’s farm members.

What next month’s conference will do, besides introduce the region to the Food Lab, is bring people together to discuss how to start and grow a food business, the ins and outs of beverage production, farm and agribusiness, seafood and meat, and the social purpose of the food business. The schedule was still in formation earlier this month when Mr. Drummond spoke to The Star.

The participants to date include Amanda Hesser and Jessica Soffer, whose conversation will serve as the keynote event; Florence Fabricant, who will moderate the business panel, and many local and regional entrepreneurs and related distributors of specialty foods, from Andy Arons of Gourmet Garage in the city and Daniel Lubetzky, who founded KIND Snacks, to Sean Barrett of Montauk’s Dock to Dish and Joe Trembly of Joe and Liza’s Ice Cream.

In addition to the talks there will be plenty of opportunities for tastings, including raw bars and Channing Daughters wines, Hampton Coffee at breakfast, nibbles from the South Fork Kitchens Cafe, a chef’s dinner, food trucks, and other sips and samples. Tickets are $259, with a limited number of discounted tickets for farmers, students, and those over 65. Inquiries can be sent to Kathleen.Russo@stonybrook.edu.