It was a few hours before Southfork Kitchen was to open for the first time since a fire on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and it was high time for finishing touches. As staff polished wineglasses in the dining room or prepped organic vegetables in the kitchen, the owner, Bruce Buschel, was putting in a partition—re-purposed wooden planters—between a table and a service station.
The scene last Thursday—the start of the holiday weekend, the midpoint of the summer season—was promising: there were 61 dinner reservations “and a pretty nice walk-in” crowd expected at Southfork, a Bridgehampton restaurant that serves sustainable seafood and produce. “Over the weekend, it’s closer to 100,” Mr. Buschel said, so he was hoping for a relatively stress-free reopening.
“Stress-free” is hardly what the summer of 2011 has been for Mr. Buschel, a first-time restaurateur who blogs about the experience for The New York Times, and his staff.
On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, he recalled, “We were, as they say, cooking,” as the new restaurant made its summer-season debut. “We had, like, 100 people here. It was a walk in the park.” The next day, there were about 100 reservations and 20-plus people already seated when Chef Joe Isodori smelled a strange kind of smoke. The Bridgehampton Fire Department was called, diners evacuated with cocktails in hand, and the back of the kitchen was hacked open to extinguish a small blaze caused by two metal screws supporting a shelf behind the stove that had grown hot and ignited insulation.
No one was hurt, an upstairs staff apartment was deemed habitable that very night, and the restaurant was allowed to serve drinks immediately—just not to cook in the kitchen. It took only a day and a half to repair the damage and make the wall more fireproof. It took a full 29 days to cut through the kind of red tape that Mr. Buschel had already had to untangle in the months preceding Southfork’s initial opening in October 2010.
In a June blog entry, he recounted one encounter with a Southampton Town Hall official:
“Let me get this straight. In order to get a permit to close the wall, you want us to close the wall.”
“And then open the wall for each inspector to see inside the wall.”
“And then you will give us a permit to close the wall?”
Last Thursday Mr. Buschel gestured with a screw gun toward a young woman walking through the dining room. “She’s back,” he said, nodding at her. “We’ve got faithful people.” The restaurant employs some 30 staff members, and the jury is still out on whether Mr. Buschel’s insurance will cover the interruption in their employment, as well as many other losses, including the loss of any potential business, and of the carefully selected fish and produce—none of it frozen—that had to be given away.
“Restaurant people are never really comfortable outside of restaurants,” Mr. Buschel wrote in his blog shortly after the fire. “Especially on a holiday. Especially on a holiday on the first night of summer in the Hamptons. And here they were, watching their summers go up in smoke.”
“We lost a dishwasher and a bartender to the layoff,” Mr. Buschel said on Monday, “but gained a server, a hostess, two bartenders, and a back runner. All told, we came out ahead.” He added, “The weekend went fine. The nights are longer, from 6 through 11, so we can serve more guests.”
Last Thursday, he carried a piece of sprinkler pipe along with the screw gun as he walked around fiddling with this and that. Much of the restaurant’s decor derives from the old Wild Rose, which preceded it, and Mr. Buschel liked the look of the old sprinklers so much that they were incorporated into a coat rack, a chandelier and handrails in the restrooms. “They used to call it cheap. Now they call it recycling,” he said. Old wooden doors serve as tables, the walls are made of reclaimed red cypress, the hemlock floors used to be in fire stations in upstate New York.
“Eliot’s back,” Mr. Buschel said, waving the screw gun toward a young man swinging into the kitchen door. The chefs worked on the restaurant’s garden, designed by Paul Hamilton of EECO Farm, while the kitchen was out of commission. In addition to produce and herbs for the kitchen, the garden contains stones quarried from the Wild Rose. “It’s kind of like the slow food movement,” Mr. Buschel said of the effort “to use everything we could find” on the property—“you use every bit of the animal.”