Rosa Ross: All-star chef of Scrimshaw

Rosa Ross, born and educated in Hong Kong

Rosa Ross, born and educated in Hong Kong and from an old Macau family, is the owner and chef at Scrimshaw Restaurant in Greenport. (April 16, 2010) (Credit: Photo by Gordon M. Grant)

Rosa Ross did not grow up knowing how to cook.

Her family, one of the most prominent Portuguese-Asian families in Macau, had moved to Hong Kong in the early 20th century, and almost everything young Rosa de Carvalho ate was cooked by servants. Married in 1961 to English advertising executive Ron Ross, she moved to London where, she recalled, "I would look at my hands and cry. I had never had to do dishes before."

Over the years, those hands, small and blunt and nimble, have catered thousands of parties, demonstrated for thousands of students. For the last five years, they have been cooking most of the meals at Scrimshaw, the windswept restaurant on Greenport's Preston's Wharf.

ON THE MENU

No one would describe Scrimshaw's succinct menu as flashy, but a closer look reveals the imprint of a seasoned chef who has traveled the world, knows who she is and has nothing to prove.

Her Chinese childhood is evident in steamed Cantonese dumplings, densely savory duck-confit spring rolls and a frequent special, Peking duck. The ducks themselves are specially butchered by Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue.

But most of her menu is a testament to her perch right on the water in seafaring Greenport: It features plenty of seafood unencumbered by a chef's need to show off, hence her flag-wavingly classic seafood chowder, an oyster po boy with coleslaw, a flounder stuffed with shrimp, crab and scallops.

SAILING TO GREENPORT

Ross and her husband, Manhattanites and avid sailors, bought a house in East Marion in 1988. The couple became friends with the family that owned the wharf in Greenport, and the souvenir shop at its shoreward end always struck Ross as a perfect location for a restaurant. In 2004, she took the plunge, installing a kitchen and decorating the dining room in a low-key, maritime style. Her husband came up with the name - scrimshaw is carved whale bone - which alluded to both artistry and to Greenport's whaling heritage.

When she opened the restaurant, Ross, now 72, worked the dining room and hired a chef to run the kitchen. "He was very nice," she recalled, "but he had a drinking problem." The next chef, a Frenchman, "was a good cook, but he was arrogant." In 2005, she took over the kitchen and never looked back.

Aside from a short-lived consulting job in the late 1990s, Ross had never worked in a restaurant kitchen. But that was about the only culinary job she hadn't mastered. Since those days in London, crying over her never-to-be-unblemished-again hands, she had made her career as a leading caterer, cooking teacher, lecturer and cookbook author.

CHINESE, BY WAY OF ITALY

Growing up in the cosmopolitan culinary wellspring that was Hong Kong in the '50s, Ross had a profound appreciation for good food. Soon after they married, her husband was posted to Milan and, the day after she arrived in Italy, she met Marcella Hazan, whose husband, Victor, was also in advertising.

In 1962, Marcella Hazan had never taught a cooking class and was 11 years away from publishing her groundbreaking "Classic Italian Cook Book," the work that established her as the foremost authority on Italian food in the United States. Ross became her first student, learning how to shop for food in Milan's markets, and how to prepare it according to the simple precepts of Italian cooking. Ross found that once she understood how cooking worked, she could work backward from her keen sense of taste to figure out how to make almost anything - not only Italian, but Chinese foods of her childhood and the Portuguese-Asian cuisine of her Macanese household.

In the mid '70s, the couple moved to New York and Ross found herself a job in advertising. Some of her colleagues were taking Chinese cooking classes from "Madame Chu." (Grace Zia Chu was one of the first Chinese cooks to teach non-Chinese students.) "They would tell me they made fried rice with bacon and egg," Ross recalled. "I said, 'You paid money to learn that?'" In 1980, Ross established a mobile cooking school, Wok on Wheels. "All I needed was a wok and a cleaver and I would go to people's homes and teach them to cook Chinese."

Wok on Wheels led Ross to a busy catering career and several cookbooks including "Beyond Bok Choy" (Artisan, $14) and "New Wok Cooking" (Potter, $21.99). In 1983, Peter Kump asked her if she would join his cooking school (renamed the Institute for Culinary Education in 2001) as a teacher of Asian cooking. At Kump's, Ross had the opportunity to learn from the best cooking teachers in the world: James Beard for American, Jacques Pepin for French, Diana Kennedy for Mexican.

FUSION CONFUSION

With her Asian upbringing, sojourn in Europe and shoulder-rubbing with the international culinary elite, Rosa Ross could have become an early advocate of fusion cuisine, the combination of multiple traditions in one dish. But she is, constitutionally, a purist. Her menu blends various traditions, but the dishes stand on their own as Chinese (dumplings) American (Santa Fe chili), French (duck-liver pate, cassoulet) and South Asian (a frequent special of Thai seafood curry).

"There's a limit to how much you can mix cuisines before it becomes a mishmash," she said, recalling a recent staff meal cooked by one of her line cooks. "We had some Thai rice stick noodles left over from a pad Thai special, and he made them into a stir-fry with chicken and hoisin sauce. It just didn't work."

Ross' Asian background finds its way into many of Scrimshaw's dishes via her "house salt," a mixture of kosher salt, black pepper, fennel, coriander, cardamom and star anise. In Hong Kong, she said, every restaurant had its own house sauce whose makeup was a closely held secret and whose presence lent every dish a unique "house" savor. At Scrimshaw, there are very few dishes that don't benefit from a sprinkling of house salt. The effect is not jarringly global, but rather subtly redolent of China, South Asia, Italy - and everywhere else that has made its mark on Rosa Ross's palate.

SCRIMSHAW "HOUSE SALT"

This seasoned salt lends a subtle exoticism to meats and fish.

3 1/2 cups kosher salt

5 teaspoons ground coriander seeds

5 teaspoons ground cardamom

4 teaspoons ground black pepper

2 teaspoons ground fennel seed

2 teaspoons ground star anise

Combine all ingredients, and keep a small bowl on hand in the kitchen.

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