Lunch Under the Cherry Tree
Sunday Lunch at the Scheerer house on the beach in East Hampton might appear as casually thrown together as the guest list, but the meal is meticulously prepared from scratch by Tom Scheerer (Tommy to friends and family). Never fancy, but always delicious; there could be 10 for lunch or 20, it doesn't matter. Tom is prepared and unperturbed.
Tom Scheerer isn't a chef. He is one of America's top decorators. He's worked on notable houses and clubs around the world — he recently completed a re-do of portions of the Maidstone Club and the Lyford Cay Club, among other projects. His work is frequently in design magazines, and a coffee table book, Tom Scheerer Decorates, was published in 2013 by Vendome Press.
Scheerer calls some of his work “cheap and cheerful” but that does a disservice to its deep chic. He is fond of natural materials and thinks nothing of combining a piece from Ikea with a Thonet bentwood masterpiece. If he likes a discontinued wallpaper he has it re-created. He will design a piece of furniture if he can't find something that's just right. And, boy, can he cook!
To say the neighborhood around Georgica Beach surrounding the Scheerers has changed since the family moved in in 1945 would be an understatement. Many nearby houses have been torn down and replaced, driveways have sprouted security gates, and there are now massive cement barriers with iron chains to keep people off the uber-green, dandelion-free sod. These estates have titles. Security cameras abound. In contrast, the Scheerer hedges are a bit shaggy, and the driveway is open and long — in fact, many friends just avail themselves of the parking and head to the beach. It's casual and welcoming.
This summer home on the beach is reminiscent of how they used to be: doors and windows left open, no air-conditioning, a big metal farm pail by the door to rinse the sand from your feet. It is bigger than some, but not as big as most nearby. Upon entering, you walk smack into a Ping-Pong table ready for action. To the left is a cozy, book-lined den, better suited for the colder months. To the right is a dazzlingly white dining room with blue accents. Scheerer's artist sister, Jane, has done painted-drift-wood assemblages that hang over the mantle. The dining table is huge, as it must be to accommodate the hungry hordes when they are unable to dine outside.
It is difficult to tell if the house has influenced Scheerer's taste or if his taste has influenced the house. One thing that has remained constant for years is the striking, pink-coral-painted staircase and a sprightly geranium wallpaper leading to the upstairs. There are some detectable Tom Scheerer touches, though. Note a tiny alcove, the “hat room,” leading to a powder room, painted one of his signature colors, Benjamin Moore's Clinton Brown, and the collection of grab-and-go straw hats hanging on hooks.
Interestingly, the place where everyone usually gathers is a minuscule porch off the kitchen. In another era it was the “maids' porch.” The family squeezes in to this little porch for its best and strongest ocean breezes. Nearby, a vegetable garden is modest, planted and tended by the household. This is not “shabby chic.” It is quite orderly, but still casual and comfortable.
Tom Scheerer makes what he calls “a standard lunch” or “the same old lunch.” It's a variety of dishes on rotation. It could be little Iacono Farm chickens, marinated and fresh off the grill, with a salad, a lentil dish with sausage, vitello tonnato (which he often varies by using either leftover pork or slices of turkey breast in lieu of the classic veal), spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce, or homemade pizza which he makes with lavash bread and a topping more similar to a French pissaladiére, full of spice and anchovies.
Sometimes leftovers from Saturday night's dinner are used. When he makes David Chang's signature pork shoulder coated with sugar and salt then slowly roasted, he'll incorporate the remaining bits and bobs into a Vietnamese fried rice the next day
“The food combinations are important,” he says. “Most people don't get that. For instance, I would never combine Thai with Mexican. Also, the ‘smorgasbord’ style lunch is too much out here. Sometimes you go to someone's house and all they do is open a bunch of containers: quinoa salad, snap peas with sesame seeds, kale salad, tomatoes and mozzarella, sliced beets.”
Scheerer is not a food snob, he's simply firm in his convictions. His meals are almost always one dish with a salad. Guests are never, ever allowed to bring anything except cookies. “I'm not much of a dessert person.”
The Scheerer family bought the house from Ring Lardner, the writer, in 1945, and Tommy Scheerer was drawn to the kitchen at an early age, probably around 7 years old. He began by cooking breakfast for his three sisters while his parents enjoyed the rare luxury of sleeping in. Nowadays, his siblings and nieces and nephews and various significant others are allowed to do a little bit of the shopping or pick some vegetables and herbs from their garden, but the kitchen is his domain.
Like all truly good cooks, he cleans up as he goes, using the cracked marble-topped table in the center as extra counter space, disposing of fresh scraps in a compost bin by the sink. “Table to farm, as we call it,” he says, laughing.
On this particular day he is making a warm lentil salad on a bed of arugula surrounded by sliced tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs. Grilled kielbasa slices go on top along with plenty of fresh herbs. This is accompanied by a brilliant invention he calls “roasted toast,” slices of bread slathered with a spicy-garlicky slurry and baked until crisp but still chewy.
Melon Fantasia is the simple and light dessert: thin slices of honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelon laid out in a flower petal pattern and topped with lime slices and a few grinds of black pepper.
A favorite drink to go along with this summer lunch is a few pitted cherries and a peeled peach tossed in a pitcher and put in the freezer for an hour or so. At serving time, a bottle of Prosecco is poured into the pitcher, and the fruit serves as both ice cubes and delicious flavoring.
The three family dogs, all mutts, are circling the grill and sniffing at the kielbasa. As it is a pretty day, a picnic table under a cherry tree outside the kitchen door has been covered with a faded Indian bedspread and set with flowered plates. Little juice glasses are filled with the fruity Prosecco. About twelve members of the family and a few friends wander up from the beach and tuck in.
The family laughs about one frequent guest who always shows up around the right time and feigns surprise: “Oh! You're just about to eat? You're just sitting down now?” She is beloved and always invited to join.
There is quiet murmuring while they eat. When asked what are some of their favorite “Tommy lunches,” they become animated. “Any salad where he mixes everything up!” pipes up a nephew.
“The lavash pizza!”
“Watermelon and feta!”
Last weekend's pasta had been inspired by a River Cafe recipe, fresh Ligurian pasta with pesto, green beans, and peas. This is a family that gets along, that enjoys each other's company immensely. They are calm and nice, smart and funny, and all impossibly good-looking, with the piercing blue eyes of their matriarch, Idoline, a.k.a. Gogs or Gaga. Every one of them appreciates the outdoor life and each other. They float through the house and the landscape, coming together and separating, gathering to play a game or ride bikes or take a dip in the ocean.”
There is a quote from Tom Scheerer Decorates regarding his philosophy: “In the end, it's all about being able to balance symmetry and asymmetry, deliberation and improvisation, harmony and dissonance. This is the nature of art and craft.”
I'd say it's also the nature and balance of perfectly assembled yet casual meals, family gatherings, and life at the Scheerers. Idoline Scheerer, who her son says is the core of the family, sent me a note after the lunch: “All I can say is that I am the luckiest person in town. I have a big family that loves the ocean and good food. And we are lucky enough to be able to continue what has been going on here since 1945 when the Lardner family handed it over to the Scheerers.”
This is the nature of love.
Tom Scheerer’s Roasted Toast
On this occasion he used a loaf of sourdough whole
wheat bread from Bread Alone, and cut 24 pieces
from the loaf. It was enough to feed 12.
Preheat oven to 350
1 loaf Bread Alone brand bread, each slice cut in half
(you can also use baguettes or any other bread)
1 stick butter, softened
1/4-1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
Chili pepper flakes to taste
Approximately 1/4 cup minced fresh herbs (chives and
rosemary were used for this lunch, dried herbs
are acceptable to Tommy as long as you add
Combine butter, oil, cheese, and rest of ingredients
to make a sludge. Spread this on each slice of bread
then layer them like roof tiles on a baking sheet or
large casserole dish. Bake at 350 for 20 to 30 minutes,
until lightly golden, crisp on the edges but still chewy.
Warm Lentil Salad with Sausage
2 packages kielbasa, cut into chunks and cooked in a
frying pan or on a grill.
2 lbs. French lentils cooked as directed with the
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3/4 cup each celery and carrots
1 bunch fresh thyme
Fresh herbs for garnish, such as scallions and
parsley, chives, and enough arugula to layer
on two large platters
2 pints cherry tomatoes, sliced
12 eggs, hardboiled
Arrange arugula on two large platters, line edges with
tomato slices and quartered eggs. Divide lentils between
the two platters. Top with grilled/fried kielbasa
slices and garnish with lots of fresh herbs. Serve.