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It’s a particularly hyperactive hour for Gurney’s Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa in Montauk, N.Y. It’s 5 p.m. on July 3 and the resort and spa is hosting four events tonight. Two begin imminently: a 250-person wedding with the bride set to walk down the aisle in 30 minutes and Shark Attack, the infamous midsummer bash thrown by Ben Watts that inevitably dilutes into a blur of slurry socials and rosé. That starts in an hour.
From the Inn’s deck — a sleek stretch of reclaimed wood with stunning panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean — the beach below looks to be dotted with scurrying ants. Milk Studios workers are darting around the sand setting up for Shark Attack, blowing up various inflatables and lugging cases of wine. A cadre of security personnel is barreling down the four flights of stairs to the beach to do a walk-through of the premises. Giddy bridesmaids quickly click across the deck’s lower level. A gaggle of Millennials sporting eyelets and topknots — early Shark Attack arrivals, no doubt — flutter by the deck’s bar upstairs. Unbothered hotel guests sit on plush lounge chairs and nurse their cocktails, taking in the view and salty breeze.
“I’m so sorry,” Seth Levine blurts out as a door from the dining room swings open. “We hit the most insane traffic,” he says jogging over. Levine is the new executive chef at the storied resort. The property was purchased for $25 million last year by developers George Filopoulos and Lloyd Goldman and has been in the process of refurbishment ever since. “It definitely needed a makeover,” Levine chuckles heartily, plopping down on a lounge chair.
Levine now handles all the cuisine at Gurney’s four restaurants: The Seawater Grill, Ocean Café, The Beach Club and The Market. He got the job after he happened to be sitting across from Jennifer Oz LeRoy, Gurney’s newly appointed food and beverage director and daughter of Warner LeRoy, at a dinner at Stella Keitel’s house.
Levine always seems to be in the right place at the right time. His culinary career was launched after similarly serendipitous circumstances. As the story goes, he had been working on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange for Goldman Sachs for seven years, a trajectory he chose out of practicality after graduating from culinary school at Lorenzo de Medici in Florence. Once the market took a nosedive in 2008, Levine decided to quit his job. The very day he left, so he says, Levine was walking home and saw a line snaking out the door of one of his neighborhood boîtes. The line was auditions for Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” cooking challenge show. Out of sheer impulse, Levine got on. “Everyone on line was in a chef coat and I show up in a Brioni suit and pink tie, looking like your regular Wall Street guy.” Three weeks later Levine was filming the show in Los Angeles.
It proved to be a steep learning curve. “I’d cooked privately forever, but I’d never worked in a restaurant before. I didn’t know the terminology that Gordon Ramsay was using and I’m pretending I do. He’s like, ‘Fire this entrée!’ and I’m like, ‘There’s a fire in here?’” Levine was put up for elimination in the first episode. He skated by, getting booted five episodes in. But the show consecrated Levine into the orbit of chef-turned-reality-star pseudo-fame, a relatively new phenomenon at the time. Beloved for his goofy personality, Levine was memorable to viewers and, consequently, to investors. After the show, he went on to open 11 spots (eight restaurants and three quick-food concepts) — most notably Sons of Essex in Manhattan and Georgica in Wainscott, N.Y. There is a running thread throughout his ventures: a focus on seasonality, local sourcing and quirky presentation (at Sons of Essex, a fried chicken meal comes on a silver TV dinner tray). “I love plating in a playful manner. It’s more of an interactive experience for the diner,” Levine smiles. “I like doing some Willy Wonka tricks.”
The menu at Gurney’s is in that same wheelhouse with much of the menu utilizing a degree of molecular gastronomy. For instance, their burrata dish at The Seawater Grill is a play on the classic with heirloom tomatoes skirting a heap of fresh burrata and four seasonings strewn across the far side of the plate for the diner to choose from. There’s a microbasil, a crystallized basil, a balsamic powder and a balsamic “pearl,” a molecular gastronomy technique to create a tiny bead out of the vinegar that bursts in the diner’s mouth.
“We let our customers play with their food,” Levine says. Another exquisite plating is the fluke crudo, also at The Seawater Grill. The fish is cleanly sliced and folded between slivers of watermelon radish, hot pink in color and subtle in flavor. Crystallized fennel, crispy shallot and beet flower petals are scattered over the plate. It’s finished with a grapefruit oil drizzle. “The overall feel of the menu is what I call whimsical, modern American,” Levine says.
Down below by the water is The Beach Club, a smaller, grab-and-go style eatery. Easy-to-eat bites are doled out from an inviting beachside shack, painstakingly furnished to exude a rustic, shabby chic vibe. “We have a lot of things on skewers, things you can eat at the beach,” Levine says. Levine even partnered with Desserts That Matter and DF Mavens to produce custom vegan and nonvegan flavors of gelato and sorbet — sea salt caramel, grapefruit Campari and balsamic panna cotta are among the offerings. “Those have been a huge hit,” he says.
And for those looking for a new take on happy hour, the shack has liquor-infused ice pops in Champagne and peach bellini flavors. “And they really have booze in them! They’re great,” Levine says. “People are licking them and like, ‘I didn’t drink a thing. I don’t know why I feel tipsy…’”
Gurney’s Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa
290 Old Montauk Highway