In kitchens and dining rooms all over the East End, you hear it from people who love fine food: Starr Boggs, the legendary and beloved Hamptons chef who died in March 2022 at the age of 70, was personally responsible for the style of boat/field/barn-to-table cooking that came to define restaurant dining on the East End.
And if you doubt it, consider the crab cake.
“His crab cakes were the best on Long Island, and everybody who worked with him has a slight variation,” says Tim Trill, executive chef at the Westhampton Country Club, who considered Boggs a dear friend and father figure. “I can tell who worked with him over the years, and when they worked with him, by the variations.”
The tip-off, says Trill, is that any Boggs-born facsimile will contain mostly crab. Period. The rest is pretty simple: a little fresh bread crumb, cream, mayonnaise and an egg. He used jumbo lump crab, never pasteurized.
When Boggs died, he was mourned by his family, former girlfriends and business partners. But most of all, he was remembered by the men and women who worked beside him, making those crab cakes and an abundance of other locally sourced dishes.
During his four decades in the Hamptons, many of his most devoted employees left his place to start their own, with Boggs’ encouragement and blessing, leaving his culinary imprint on everything from menus to toque techniques to tales from the kitchen. Boggs may have left the kitchen, but from Shelter Island to Westhampton Beach and beyond, his legacy lingers, like the recipe for those crab cakes.
A boy from the farm
Boggs came from Onandock Creek on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, the oldest of three children. His father and grandfather were farmers, and his brother Joe Boggs says the family called the diversified farm — where they raised everything from cattle to green beans — the Home Place.
“I put his ashes on our grandfather’s farm. He grew up in farming, and he loved the water,” Joe says of his big brother Starr. “It wasn’t great all the time; there was a lot of bad times money-wise.”
Boggs went to William & Mary but dropped out after a year. “By that time, there was nothing on his mind but food,” says Joe. Boggs’ life in the kitchen started by squeezing fresh orange juice at the Williamsburg Inn, the historic five-star hotel built by John D. Rockefeller, and he never looked back.
“Lots of people thought that was great — that he was good enough that he could go from here to Long Island with nothing and build himself up,” says Joe. “He had partners, and they knew talent. He went out and did what he loved.”
Frank Lucas is an East End chef who knew Boggs since they opened scallops together on Nantucket in late ‘70s, and has a new granddaughter whose middle name is Starr. “He was very picky about the quality of whatever we were getting. The clams were from one area of Long Island and a particular size. The oysters were always East Coast oysters,” recalls Lucas.
They worked together for decades, and Lucas, who came up in New York City, remembers how Boggs loved to cook the everyday food he grew up with on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Fried soft-shell crabs, fish soup and flounder were favorites, as were his crab cakes.
“He would only use fresh crabmeat,” says Lucas. “Once we caught the supplier putting pasteurized crab in the bottom of the container and covering it with fresh,” he says. “They stopped doing that.”
Food for the people
Starr Boggs loved cooking for friends. Which included pretty much everybody.
He had a number of signature dishes he was known for, in addition to those remarkable crab cakes. His almond-crusted flounder was a crowd-pleaser that eventually gained a garnish of braised banana, and his roasted swordfish was buttery-soft and yielding.
At his catered parties, he loved to wow guests with an eight-pound side of swordfish that he would roast and slice or cut into steaks five to six inches thick. Boggs once looked up from carving a whole swordfish to see Trill staring in wonderment. “This is going to make me famous, Junior,” Trill remembers Boggs saying with a grin.
In 1981, Susan McAllister, who owned the Inn at Quogue and needed a chef, came looking for Boggs in Florida. Together, they opened The Patio in Westhampton Beach and Boggs opened his own place, Starr Boggs in 1986. By then he was white-hot popular, and in 1992 he opened the Dune Deck on Dune Road, often serving 500 people at Monday night oceanfront clambakes.
While Boggs’ food was de rigueur for the restaurant-devoted and well-heeled of the Hamptons, what he loved most was to cook for friends, and his restaurants were the purest expression of that impulse. At the Dune Deck the same group of local people came to the bar every day, including one quartet called Bob, Bob, Dick and Ed.
“From the local pharmacist, to the judge, to the architect, it was Cheers every day,” says Trill. “As well as Howard Cosell, Susan Lucci, Jordan Belfour, the whole Hamptons mixing pot of that time. The big money got in, but there was always a seat for the locals, even when reservations were three months in advance. If you were Bob, Bob, Dick and Ed, we made room.”
For Trill, cooking alongside Boggs on the line during a busy dinner service was magic. “Oh, for one more night … start with something raw, cook it to order, butter goes in, fillet goes in the flour, making the sauce, everything is made in the pan.”
At Starr Boggs restaurants, dishes were generally cooked to order, remembers Cheryl Stair, owner of The Art of Eating. Stair is now an in-demand, high-end caterer, but when she began to work with Boggs in the ‘80s, it was on the line.
“At the Inn at Quogue, we had these mismatched plates. Starr said he liked that when he reached up for a plate, he never knew what he was getting. He taught us to go with that. To be in the moment. You did not have soup sitting in a tureen somewhere. It was a la minute.”
Honoring bay to farm beauty
“Starr was addicted to beautiful food,” says Trill. “Once he was driving back from Miloski’s [near Riverhead] with a suckling pig he bought for the restaurant, and it smelled so good he had to pull over. He ate half of it. If he got something in his mind, he had to cook it and eat it. He would drive a hundred miles to get the best turkey croquette.”
Jack Clark, executive chef at Daphne’s in Westhampton, says his earliest food memory is of the crème brulée Boggs served poolside at his house in Quogue when Clark was visiting at about 3 years old. Once Clark grew up, he started working for Boggs, went on to chef at restaurants in the city, and in 2019 tried to purchase the Starr Boggs restaurant when Boggs was ready to retire. In homage, Clark currently has a crab cake on the menu at Daphne’s. “Anyone who worked for Starr in this town is probably using the same crab cake technique,” he says.
Clark is not the only chef to come up in Starr’s footsteps with a strong food memory. Beth D’Alesio of Beth’s Café remembers Boggs’ skill at making soups, sauces and stocks. “At the end of one night, when the sauce had been stock, shallots and red wine, I remember taking bread and rubbing it in the pan,” she says. “Oh my god, this is the best thing I ever tasted.”
Lucas worked with Boggs at the Inn at Quogue in the 1980s, when mornings were dedicated to deciding what dinner would be. “Starr would get excited when a new season was coming in; strawberries, asparagus, the good tomatoes. When I worked at the Inn at Quogue we’d go for a drive; to Green Thumb just to get haricots verts, to Wickham’s for fruit, they grew tomatoes for us, to Satur Farm.”
“He was a larger-than-life character, physically, comically,” Clark says. “He was the best thing you’d ever tasted, and the funniest thing you had ever heard.”
Tim Trill remembers sitting around the bar with Boggs and friends one night at the Dune Deck when bartender Billy Flinter asked everyone how they would spend the millions if they won the lottery.
Trill recalls: “Someone said he’d buy a yacht, someone else said they’d go on a trip or buy a big house. But Starr said, ‘I’d buy a fancy restaurant and piss all the money away.’ ”