The Consummate East Ender

by Debbie Bancroft Photographed by Aurora Rose/PMC
Monday, July 9, 2018

To me and all who know her, Toni Ross is the best the East End has to offer— an accomplished artist, restaurateur, founder of the Hayground School and the Hamptons International Film Festival, and devoted mom. The daughter of the late Steve Ross, media visionary and Time Warner CEO, Ross is also a timeless advocate of fellow artists and neighbors. I went to her recent Women Artists: Reshaping the Conversation at her namesake restaurant Nick & Toni’s. The event was also attended by with artists Sally Gall, Laurie Lambrecht, Sotheby’s Lisa Dennison and patroness of the arts Sondra Gilman. I nabbed her for our own conversation after all had scarfed down the restaurant’s legendary pizzas and asked:

When did you start coming out here?

I started coming out when I was about 19, and my father rented a house. But it wasn’t until I met Elaine de Kooning that I spent significant time on the East End. That was in about 1984. Elaine was interested in my artwork and encouraged me to spend a year out East. She helped me find a house and studio. With the community of artists out here it was like having my own private graduate program.

How do you merge your art, food and life?

My art and my restaurants are part of the community I live in. Within that community, I have always had the sense of wanting to be a good neighbor. My work would be very different if I’d remained in New York City, as would my life in the food business. I’m grateful every day for the opportunity to be in such a special and beautiful place.

How have things in the Hamptons changed?

The term “The Hamptons” has come to mean great wealth and excess to many, but that is far from the only thing this community is. The inequities are as great, or greater, than many towns across the country: I just think they are more hidden and sometimes more extreme. As a cofounder of the Hayground School, where upward of 80 percent of the students receive tuition assistance, I am acutely aware of these disparities. I don’t see myself in terms of philanthropy. I see myself as responsive to some of the needs of the community. And, plain and simple, when we are all responsive in this way, it makes for a better community.

Can you talk about the Hayground Chef ’s Dinner, which raises money for the school?

It will be July 29 at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton. We are honoring Chef Jacques Pepin and will have a discussion between Monsieur Pepin and Chef Eric Ripert, with a five-course dinner prepared by star chefs. It’s always a highlight of the season, as it’s intimate and intensely fun.

And your art?

My latest installation, Found Lines, will be at the upcoming “Beautiful Strangers” exhibition at the Berkshire Botanical Garden. It’s a site-responsive piece, and I used gold leaf to highlight the nature of bark on a series of trees. The rest of the summer I’ll be working in my studio in Wainscott, creating new work.

We know that your most legendary restaurant is Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton, but can you talk about your new ventures?

We’re opening a new restaurant, Coche Comedor, in Amagansett in October. It will be a diner-type regional Mexican place, next to our La Fondita.

What is the most brazen thing someone has done to secure a reservation at Nick & Toni’s?

I’ve heard, “I’ve known Toni for a very long time. He is a very good friend of mine.” Or, “I made this reservation months ago,” when we only take reservations 10 days in advance. Or the sweet husband who asked for a reservation on his anniversary. He sent us a copy of his marriage certificate to prove it. That all being said, I wish we could take everyone, all the time!


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