Topping Rose House’s chef de cuisine, Kyle Koenig, decided that food was his passion early in life. His high school mentor set him on a course from his hometown of Denton, Texas, to the bountiful Napa Valley. The foodie road led him to Manhattan’s top eateries where he honed his culinary chops as a sous chef at fine dining establishments, from the highly-acclaimed Clu, to The Oak Room and Colicchio & Sons. Kyle talks to Haute Living about pig roasts, locally-sourced produce and keeping humble at the Bridgehampton restaurant, where he’s recently taken the reigns.
When did you know you wanted to become a chef?
I had a pretty big food upbringing in Texas. My mother’s family was largely comprised of big farmers and had 150 acres of land with cattle. I spent most summers working in a huge garden on my father’s side; we planted everything from okra and string beans to pecans. My grandfather made sausage and stored it in a huge freezer, and people would stop by to buy them. By the time I got out of high school, I knew what I wanted to be: a chef. I hadn’t done so well in academics except in a class called food science technology, which brought me academic honors. My teacher, Miss Edmonson, said that working with food might be something I would want to pursue.
How did your early experiences inform your work at Topping Rose House?
Right before I went to The Culinary Institute of America, I worked for Hannah’s in Denton, Texas. Chef Sheena Croft, who is still running the restaurant, was the first to show me the French Laundry and Aquavit (where Marcus Samuelsson was the chef at the time) cookbooks, and was very into farm-to-table. She had a bunch of growers working for her. Then, I interned with Thomas Keller in Napa at Bouchon restaurant. On my days off I would drive down to Berkeley to visit my friend who worked at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse.
Tell us about the menu at Topping Rose House.
At Topping Rose House we get most of the produce from the one-acre farm on our property. It’s incredible to have a farm just 100 feet from the kitchen. Our farmer Jeff and I go back and forth on what we will plant for the next season. We plant in a way that will allow us a continual bounty. For instance, we may plant beets in one area, and then two weeks later seed another area so that we have an ongoing second crop. We also work with six to seven other local farms that have no problem walking in our back door and saying, “Look what I’ve got.” We check out the local fishermen and see what they’ve caught. It’s about seeing what’s freshest. Usually, protein comes secondary to vegetables.
Can you describe your signature dish?
I don’t like to repeat dishes year after year, but one that I am proud of is a Wagyu beef Carpaccio with Calabrian aioli, sea beans, pickled ramps, baby radishes and fried oysters. I love surf and turf dishes, particularly beef with oysters. I love the idea of fried, hot oysters and cold beef. The mineral content of oysters pairs nicely with beef.
Can you elaborate on your pig roast?
It started because we have this beautiful grill with a rotisserie. We wanted to do a theme like a fish fry or clambake, but we decided to stick with the pig roast, which now can be sold out the entire summer. This year we are starting on Father’s Day for the weekly Sunday roast. We set up big tables on the lawn and serve in-season veggies, sausages and potato salad from Mary Lee farms.
What sets Topping Rose House apart from other restaurants in the Hamptons?
We have a gorgeous location, a beautiful dining room with a lot of art by Christine Campbell and an impeccable wine program run by my wife, Jessica. She has one of the most amazing palate’s I have ever come across and perfectly pairs wines with the dishes. Also, although it is a fine dining restaurant, Topping Rose House isn’t stuffy. We set tables under the orchard where guests can kick their shoes off and walk on the grass. We accommodate those special dinners with Dom Pérignon and a tasting menu, but we also are a place where someone can come in for a local beer and a hamburger and sit at the bar.
What is your greatest pet peeve in the kitchen?
Ego! I’ve got some great dishwashers who can teach me plenty. Learning from each other and not having any sort of ego creates a better place to work. I am very proud of the environment that I have created with my team. We’re all very passionate, and it translates to a higher level of cooking. For example, we recently discussed how to prepare white asparagus. Instead of grilling it and adding egg truffle vinaigrette, we all came up with a soup. I always try to get the newest cook involved. Another pet peeve of mine is a dirty kitchen. At Topping Rose our kitchen sparkles today as much as it did on the day we opened.