Shaun Hergatt and I, it turns out, know people in common. For a solid 10 minutes, leaning up against the wall, we trade ancient names from an ancient past, relics from the restaurant world.
Restaurant people like to do this. It’s proof that our histories are long, that our street cred is real. We have suffered for our successes. We have toiled hard and long to be able to sit and enjoy dinner after all of this, now comfortably on the other side.
It is sometimes hard to recall, in the hazy, sunset evenings of life out east, what life out west used to look like. By out west, I mostly mean New York City. Hergatt is six years my senior. A native of Australia, he was 17 when he began an apprenticeship in Cairns’ Crystal Twig, which then parlayed itself into a bunch of different gigs, including Atelier (and a James Beard nod for Best New Chef), SHO Shaun Hergatt, and Juni.
He accumulated Michelin stars along the way. In the mid-2000s, when I was palling around New York as a sommelier under Laurent Tourondel and David Chang — during a time when money was everywhere and dining was extremely high-concept — Hergatt was the one to watch.
On a recent night at The Surf Lodge, the however-unlikely temporary new home of this Michelin-starred chef, Hergatt and I reminisced about life in the glossy New York of a decade ago. We didn’t know each other then, but we might as well have — there was a scene that came back to us in waves. Ironed tablecloths, sonorous music, conceptual restaurants, epic spaces that told their own stories. That New York could not have been further from this Montauk.
As the sun sank into Fort Pond, and the waifs flowed past in their caftans, the night seemed to contain a certain nonspecific magic. The Surf Lodge has been around for a decade already, and it is an amorphous place. When I first came, during that inaugural summer, it was fedoras and flannel (thank you, gods of time). The Surf Lodge, it seems, will roll with the punches.
Shaun Hergatt is here, for all of it. Don’t compare his work now to his work then. The food, say, of SHO Shaun Hergatt was of a time and place. High-concept, I told him, and I think I was right. The Surf Lodge’s food is decidedly not that, but low-concept is no longer pejorative. On the night we ate, it was tacos and bites, a tuna poké that popped with wasabi tobiko, a globe of burrata surrounded by marinated tomatoes, nearly fist-sized shrimp, a lobster salad garnished with pea tendrils.
Hergatt wants, he said, for the menu to appeal to everyone. Montauk has a specific palate and aesthetic, one that reminds him of his native Australia. Guests come to eat a little, dance a little, and retreat back to the beach — or vice-versa. Food is not meant to be excessive, nor decadent. It is not meant to be needlessly challenging. And that is ok.
The result, it turns out, is a full house, even on a Monday following a holiday weekend. All around, tables have food on them; share plates, small plates, all kinds of plates. The point is, people are showing up, and they’re showing up not just for the music, or for the pretty Instagram photos. They’re showing up for the food, too. On weekends, The Surf Lodge is churning out over 600 covers, sophisticated-but-still-understated food for whomever is hungry enough (and, I guess, lucky enough to get through the door).
The way we eat has changed since the good old days, when Chef Hergatt and I were back in the city. I’m sure it will change again by the time I’m staring down the barrel of my 50s (that’s in 10 years, in case you’re keeping track). For now, The Surf Lodge — under Hergatt’s watchful eye — is serving the kind of food that people out here want to eat. That’s much of the battle won.