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It’s all tomatoes, all the time (plus A FEW EXTRAS) in chef Michael Ayoub’s Southampton garden. (Photo credit: Doug Young)

Michael Ayoub stands in the front yard of his Southampton home, about a third of which, on the right side, is devoted almost entirely to tomato plants. Dozens and dozens of them, as well as a smattering of peppers, lettuces, squashes, some potatoes and sundry herbs. He is surrounded by what appears to be such an incalculable number of staked plants in varying sizes, shapes and heights, they seem like his own personal leafy green army, ready for a food fight like the apple trees in The Wizard of Oz. Only here, the delicious grenades are juicy, seedy and so very ripe.

A wicker basket sits on the ground next to the chef. He has on shorts, but a long, white apron tied around his waist entirely covers his lower extremities, save for his flip-flop-clad feet (hose-able-friendly footwear!). The better to guard against accidental fruit splatter.  

The plant to his left shoots high into the blue summer sky—maybe 10 feet, maybe more. 

“That’s an indeterminate tomato plant,” he states with professorial authority in his Brooklyn accent. He points upward, craning his neck and squinting up through his tomato-red framed glasses. “They just keep growing. A determinate plant breaks its fruit, ripens and then the plant dies.” 

He shrugs as if to say, “Nature—go figure,” pivots behind and plucks a few orange-y little cherry toms, nearly neon in their cheery hue, and gently tosses them into the basket with others of myriad variety. He could fill it 50 times over and he still wouldn’t make much of a dent in the crop.

Ayoub may be better known for his role as the popular pizzaiola from Fornino, his trio of Brooklyn-born pie spots, but if perfecting the iconic crust-sauce-cheese dish is his calling, it’s tomatoes, and the acts of seed-saving, planning, plotting and growing them, that are his marvelous summer muse.   

The fruits of his labor

“It’s all about tomatoes and cheese,” Ayoub laughs. “I have this thing for tomatoes and cheese …”

Ayoub comes across as a pretty easy-going guy, with a steady-as-you-go demeanor that seems far more akin to that of a patient, puttering gardener than of the angry hell-is-a-kitchen, fire-and-brimstone stereotype created by the high-pressure culinary world. But he is, after all, a decades-long pro. 

It all started when he was two, making rugelach with his Aunt Rosie, and he was forged in flour from then on. Eschewing culinary school, Ayoub trained in working kitchens instead of culinary classrooms. One of his earliest jobs, when he was still as green as a garlic scape, was in the kitchen at Baron’s Cove in Sag Harbor in the early ‘70s. 

He learned fast and took to cooking like a tendril to a trellis, and when the opportunity arose to invest in a Bay Ridge restaurant called Skaffles in 1977, he mustered his Brooklyn-born courage along with a down payment and became its owner at the basil-tender age of 20. More followed—notably, his lauded Park Slope spot Cucina—and Ayoub began to make a good name for himself and gather the accolades that accompany such things. 

In the early aughts, when Williamsburg was undeniably on the rise as the hot neighborhood du jour, Ayoub read the tea leaves (or, perhaps, tomato seeds) and predicted that a neo-Naples-style, thin-crust pizza was what people wanted, several years before new-Neopolitan spots like Keste and Motorino made waves. He opened his first Fornino (with its double meaning: It’s the Italian word for “oven” and also his mother’s maiden name) in 2004; two more followed in the borough of Kings after that. 

“Pizza is the common denominator of people,” he reasons. “Everybody eats it, right?”

But while pizza making became Ayoub’s stock and trade, something else was lurking underneath the surface—or, perhaps, just above the crust. 

Mikey Tomato Seed

Southampton has its share of high hedges and homes worth tens of millions, but Ayoub and his wife, Patricia, settled into a sweet two-story bungalow in a modest, quiet neighborhood here where you can hear the crickets at night and the laughter of little kids running through sprinklers in the day. It’s indeed fronted by some pretty high hedges, but they’re a tangle of Rose of Sharon, not prim privet, and their wavy, undulating effect is more storybook than aristocrat. 

In the middle, they part just enough to form a little pergola-supported entryway, leading straight away to Ayoub’s prolific 1,000-square-foot garden of beautiful, flavor-packed, tomatoes, pretty much all of which he starts from seed.

If you’re his lucky neighbor or friend, you may well be on his list of plant receivers. “It’s a connection with people. And I’m proud of them, too.” He’s also supplied them to friends in Remsenburg with a farm, giving them plant varieties that he’s tried and tested for flavor as well as durability. 

“There was this yellow one; it was really, really, really crazy. It grows like a cluster of small little pointed tomatoes. The only problem with it, though, is in between them it doesn’t stay too firm and they wind up getting rotten,” he says. “So, it’s great to look at, but it’s not going to make the cut.”

The garden is a series of long, narrow-ish raised beds, with pea-gravel pathways in between and PVC piping bent from bed to bed to for the vines to latch onto when they reach beyond their tall cages. He grows well over 50 varieties each year, which accumulate into hundreds of pounds harvested weekly at their height—and he knows them all like extended family members. 

Domingo. Big Chief. Girl Girl’s Weird Thing. Sugar Plum. Cherokee Purple. Joacha Jewel. Not Polish.

He keeps multiple Excel spreadsheets to track the names, qualities and success of his plants, whether they’re determinate or indeterminate—which seed-started varieties had staying power and which just aren’t worth the space or the effort. He keeps detailed notes on their size, color, flavor and edible qualities. Clear but simple notations like, “Green with gold blush; good for sauce. Very sweet.”

“One year, I went a little bit too high — I grew 106 cherry tomato plants one year! It’s one thing to grow the tomato plants,  it’s another thing to pick 106 cherry tomato plants. It got to the point where I didn’t even go to the beach anymore. I didn’t go anywhere! It was hours and hours every day. Picking cherry tomatoes.”

Sci High 

It’s hard to imagine, standing among the jungle of vines and fruit, that Ayoub began with just three beds years and years ago; an obsession, you might call it, that just kept growing. “This year it got bigger again,” he says. “Those long beds that are parallel to the driveway, they got six feet longer than they were before.” 

For Ayoub, the attraction to tomatoes is similar to that of many of us who are obsessed with the summer fruit when it’s fresh, local and so ripe its sides split open: There’s simply no flavor like them. Compare any East End summer tomato to an anemic supermarket-sourced number? It’s like the latter isn’t even real food. To wait all year for them is as tough as it is rewarding. 

But there’s another aspect of his mission that keeps him continually fascinated: the science. It was a subject he always loved in school and, once ensconced in the culinary world, another aspect that drew him to pizza. 

“That’s how [Fornino] got the tagline ‘The art and science of pizza.’ More and more, we realize how much science it is. It’s baking. And baking is science,” he says. “Cooks and bakers have nothing in common, really.” 

From the multitudes of tomatoes he grows, 99.9% are started from seed he’s harvested, fermented, dried and saved. Rarely, rarely does he ever buy them, their particular seed-to-fruit differences continuing to entrance Ayoub year after year.

“I had some kids here recently, and as I was cutting the stem off the tomato I handed it to them to smell, kind of as you’d smell a wine cork,” he smiles. “And bang, bang, bang, when you do that you realize how different they all are.” 

He slices open a large garnet red number with green stripes and spoons out a gloopy smattering of the fruit’s inner seeds. “See all that gel that’s around the tomato seed? It actually inhibits the seed from sprouting,” he says. “What happens is you ferment the seed and the gel coating comes right off; you basically wash it off and at that point you dry it on a paper plate, and then they’re ready to go for next year.”  

It’s a process that starts in the spring and hits high-velocity during the summer. Seed-starting, planting, caring (he feeds the plants a worm compost tea he makes for extra vigor), training, harvesting. He makes the tomatoes into a multitude of condiments and dishes—a rich, piquant marmalade, pesto, pasta and pizza sauce and topping. Some of it ends up at the restaurants as specials; an of-the-moment snapshot of the garden for the lucky customer who wanders in hankering pizza. 

Given, prepared or composted. None of it goes to waste. Not on Ayoub’s watch. 

“The tomato plants, they get chopped up and go back into the soil,” he says, looking over his mini-farm of summery fruit. “Nothing goes to waste — nothing goes to waste.” 

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