Blessed with the Best in Bridgehampton
by Dave Davis
On any given weekday starting around 7:30 a.m., if you are driving the posted speed limit along the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike with the windows down and a breeze blowing from east to west, you can usually catch a quick whiff of something cooking, yet no restaurant is in sight.
What you are to find, behind an outcrop of weathered shingle buildings that make up the Bridgehampton Child Care & Recreation Center, is a small kitchen where Chef Doug Gee is diligently preparing the day’s meals for dozens of preschoolers enrolled in the Head Start program, based at “The Center,” and nearby at the Children’s Museum of the East End.
“Mr. Doug” as he is affectionately known, is one of those local anomalies of his generation to be born, raised, and currently working here on the East End, without the typical lineage connecting him to the fishing or farming industry, as is often the case.
The youngest of seven children reared in a Pentecostal household, it was Doug’s mother (Mable) who chose to move the family north from Wimauma, Florida by obtaining secure employment; firmly planting their roots in Southampton. It was an inevitable journey that would not only enhance the family’s future economic outlook, but eventually lay the gastronomic foundation upon which Doug was destined to build.
“I remember as a young kid, when we were finally able to afford our own television,” Doug fondly recalls with a smile, “My mother and I would spend endless hours glued to the set watching Julia Child and Graham Kerr (aka “The Galloping Gourmet”), perform culinary magic before our eyes. We weren’t afraid to try anything new in our kitchen after that.”
Some years later, it was on a high school field trip to France that he would have first-hand exposure to authentic European cooking.
“Quite different than the Southern-style barbecue we’d been raised with. I also remember eating my first croissant at a hotel in Montreal, Canada. It was amazing!” he exclaimed.
It would be those experiences and a few others that eventually brought Doug to the Culinary Arts Program at Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York. From there it was on to the Culinary Institute of America, where he would rise to the top 10 percent of his class, garnering such prestigious honors as the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs award for excellence. Much of his time was spent immersed in the art of pastries and desserts.
“I couldn’t believe all of the things we produced without using butter,” he mused when describing a few of the mouth-watering concoctions they’d created.
Knowing the ins and outs of meal planning is an essential skill that he brings to the job each and every day when preparing meals that must adhere to specific nutritional guidelines established by the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
As a federally-funded program administered through New York State, the program’s primary function is to provide aid for the production of nutritious foods that promote health and wellness in daycare facilities, preschools, and senior centers.
It is within these parameters and those above and beyond that Chef Gee has earned his highest praise.
“Having Mr. Doug at our preschool is truly a blessing. He’s the best!” said Kristina Foster, Site Director for the Head Start program based at The Center. “He not only knows what he is doing as a skilled chef, but takes the time to greet each child when he enters their classroom. He’s an excellent male role model.”
Clearly what sets him apart from many others is the dedication he puts into community-based programming and advocacy. The second “phase” of Doug’s day kicks in around 3 p.m., when on most occasions, he trades in his kitchen whites for jeans and a pressed shirt, ready to address the needs of the after-school children who have begun to arrive.
One of the more natural transitions that he has recently implemented at The Center is an organic vegetable and herb garden, situated directly behind the facility. Recycling a dozen or so wide planks from the property to form raised beds, and surrounding the gardens with fencing, they’re now off and running each spring planting season, ready to harvest throughout the summer (with day campers), and long into autumn.
They’ve even created a flower pollination box to attract bees. It’s a great way for the kids to learn, from start to finish, the effort and attention necessary when maintaining a well-tended garden, before reaping its delicious bounty.
Equally important as the nutrition and recreational facilities available is the exposure to cultural experiences that Bonnie Cannon, The Center’s Director, feels the after-school program must strongly support.
From numerous field trips that include art galleries; both in Manhattan and locally, to recent projects highlighting the contributions of African-Americans and Latinos, there are few stones left unturned when it comes to providing a balanced source of experiences, often with Doug Gee at the helm.
Ms. Cannon could not have been more effusive when discussing what Doug has brought to the table for those at The Center, which primarily serves lower income African-American and Latino youth.
“He plays a key role in making things happen around here. He relates to kids of all ages and provide for them in so many ways,” she says. “I don’t know what we would do without him. We are truly blessed.”
Looking ahead, Chef Doug has a few projects in the works that sound rather appetizing. On tap is a culinary arts class being offered to teens that he hopes to launch sometime this month, in addition to filming three-minute “cooking shorts” that will be posted on various social media platforms. All of this is on top of regular appearances at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton, where he has hosted classes and provided catering services for special functions, most recently honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Seeking out individuals, organizations or businesses to recognize for this quarterly space I call “Season of the Sol” has truly been a gift that keeps on giving, with every column I write. Thank you Doug Gee, for your continued unwavering dedication and commitment to community! We’ve certainly been blessed with the best.
While gathering background information for this column, Doug and I found that we share something in common. Our mothers passed on the same day, April 15, five years apart. I can’t think of a better way to honor the first anniversary of Mable’s passing than by dedicating this column to her.
If you wish to contribute towards future programming and the upcoming transformation of the Bridgehampton Child Care & Recreation Center, your tax deductible donation of any amout would be greatly appreciated. Please visit their website at www.bhccrc.org.