In the dead of winter on Shelter Island, you don’t particularly expect to find one of the most satisfying, comforting meals on eastern Long Island in the basement of a Legion Hall. But sitting at the old bar in Mitchel Post 281, the sound of bowling balls crashing into pins from the two-lane alley in the next room, it’s exactly what you’ll get from chef Alejandro “Sandy” Bermudez.
He’s been quietly serving three-course meals for $25 a pop at the American Legion at the behest of Legion commander Dave Clark since October of this past year. It is not well-advertised; in fact, pretty much the only way to know about it is to become part of a private Facebook group that reports on local happenings around the rock.
Indeed, when you show up it feels like a convivial locals’ night out—lifetime islander Stephanie Tybaert is behind the bar adeptly slinging drinks, serving the food and occasionally fixing the bowling pins when the old machine gets wonky. Neighbors and old friends catch up over a glass of something or other. Bowlers dash in to grab a beer before the next frame. All the while, Bermudez methodically prepares the meals of the night, all ordered prior via the hall’s dedicated land line or his cell, if the Legion’s line is busy.
The kitchen door is ever open, and you can spy the brawny Bermudez deftly stirring, slicing, pouring and plating if you side-eye to the right from the bar or have a seat at the little tables on the other side of the partitioned room where photos of island veterans and memorial triangle-framed American flags honor the walls.
Each week on the Shelter Island Neighborhood group page, Bermudez posts the appetizer and dinner options, served on Wednesdays and Fridays. Things like hearty ladlings of minestrone, chock-a-block with multiple types of beans and veggies; tuna croquettes and Swiss chard fritters; excellent meatloaf with onion sauce and mashed potatoes; and fork-tender pork loin cooked sous vide, slowly and gently, for four unrushed hours.
His budget is slim, and he makes the most of it with creative ingredients and techniques, trying to make all his regulars happy, like on Fridays when he offers meatless options for the island’s observing Catholics or just vegetarians looking for a night out.
He’s also had to get a bit creative with the hall’s old kitchen appliances, especially when it comes to cooking meat—one of the pricier ingredients to serve. That’s where the sous vide comes in, a chef’s technique where meat is vacuum-sealed in a bag and simmered at a precise temperature in water via a gizmo called an immersion circulator, which keeps the heat at one moderate setting for hours on end.
Bermudez didn’t start out as a chef. Born in Manhattan, he speaks in a thick accent, but not a New York one—his parents transported him to Madrid, his father’s home, when he was just a baby. “I learned to walk on the ship,” he laughs, “That’s why I walk so funny.”
Eventually, he came back to the States to fulfill a dream of becoming a film director. While studying at Emerson College in Boston, he went to work making croissants for a Portuguese restaurant owner to support himself. The chef at that place stopped showing up, and at 21, Bermudez found himself in charge of the entire kitchen. He traded in a director’s chair for a chef’s apron, and has cooked all over the world since, from the East Village to Ohio, Scotland, Peru and, of course, Spain where he apprenticed at the two-Michelin starred Zalacaín in Madrid.
As for Shelter Island: He was looking for a change in 2019, when an ad for a seasonal chef at a little surf and turf spot called the Dory caught his eye; he’s been here pretty much ever since. And if you’re lucky enough to get in one of the last few nights for the season at the Legion, that sous vide pork is worth the ferry fare.
“Red eye gravy is a southern American thing. I first had it in 1992 in Picayune, Mississippi. My friend’s mother made it for me, and I really liked it,” he says.
Bermudez tweaked the traditional recipe, though, from a thick gravy to a lighter, flavor-forward sauce. “The difference between gravy and sauce is gravy is a velouté with flour and liquid – and sauce doesn’t have flour. I prefer sauce! I cook the pork with onions and carrots. For the basic sauce, I use the drippings of the pork loin, the onions and the carrots and combine it with coffee and some spices,” he says. He presses it all through a fine, mesh sieve and blends it, drizzling it atop the velvety-textured pork slices.
“I cater to the locals. I try to think about what they want,” says Bermudez. “It inspires me to try to do something different. It gives me creativity.”
Pork loin sous vide with red eye pea sauce
- 1 3 to 3 1/2 lb pork loin
- 2 medium Spanish onions
- 1/2 lb carrots sliced into 1-inch cubes
- 6 cloves garlic
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tbsp instant coffee (Bermudez swears by Nescafe)
- 2 cups dry red wine
- 1 tbsp butter
- 2 large resealable plastic food storage bags, or vacuum sealing pouches