John Kowalenko: The Art of Surfing, Blending and Eating - Summer 2004
John Kowalenko has been passionate about surfing for as long as he can remember. It is certainly appropriate since he has been riding the waves throughout his life. He has been a part of the Hamptons in one way or another since the 1970's. "The Hamptons was different then, but I was always drawn to it because it always had a certain magic to me," he explained.
Kowalenko, with his wife and chef Cheryl Stair, own the Art of Eating caterers and event planners in Amagansett. His seemingly haphazard path to founding Art of Eating, has taken some fascinating turns and held on to key constants: music, food, fun and people.
In 1970, he opened and ran a surf shop for five years in Hampton Bays. Around the same time he started bartending at the Oak Beach Inn which he affectionately refers to as "OBI" as if to imply that you have to know this institution if you are over age 35. He quickly became known as the "blender drink" guy because his frozen blender drinks were out of this world, according to friends and foodies. He began organizing surf shows at the beach and parties at the Oak Beach Inn. It was just natural for him to bring people together and he was good at it. "I guess this was the beginning of my event planning career," Kowalenko admits.
Not to miss any wave that comes his way, he started the New York State Skateboarding Association (in the mid-'70s) when skateboarding became a hot national sport. Skateboarding contests that he organized soon followed, drawing hundreds of people, "I also used the association as a vehicle to promote my surf shows," he explains. Every opportunity was used to bring one or all his ventures to the next level or to identify a new venture.
Acting as a talent agent in 1976, he brought a top skateboarder to an audition for a SureTM deodorant commercial. In the end, it was Kowalenko they wanted on-camera and he was cast in a national commercial, "Take it Off with Confidence" which ran on-air for three years. Armed with a bigger bank account from the commercial, Kowalenko went to college for a while and then other restaurant and bartending gigs followed.
In 1980 he was back in Westhampton. Other bars, concerts, promotions and business ventures followed. A trailblazer, he was also selling health food before it was a national obsession. "Mixed fruits, smoothies, rice cakes, we sold it all from the surf shop," says Kowalenko. In 1983 he moved to Florida and ran a restaurant and jazz club in Tampa Bay. It was shortly after that he joined JP Hotel (Ritz-Carlton, Holiday Inn, Marriott Hotels) in a more traditional job as director of marketing and sales, where he traveled the U.S. promoting the company's properties.
One weekend in 1983 he was asked to help out at a restaurant in Westhampton for the weekend. He is adamant about never changing his recipes, particularly for his famous blender drinks, but took a chance that would change his life forever. His wife, Cheryl Stair was working at the time as a sous chef at the restaurant. I was immediately drawn to her," says Kowlaenko. "We were talking here and there that weekend when she asked me to make her one of my blender drinks. The only problem was I did not have all the right ingredients. I threw some stuff together-whatever was around---and tried anyway."
Stair, not one to mince words, took one sip and said, "I can't drink this, it's disgusting." They were married in the Hamptons after an eight-month whirlwind courtship, commuting between the Hamptons and Florida, and then ultimately settling in Florida together.
In Florida, Stair became known for what Kowalenko calls Florida French cuisine. "She has always been an artist, a perfectionist," according to Kowalenko. "That is what she brought to the table from the beginning when we formed Art of Eating together." She is the chef, the designer for the most part and I focus on the business side—the logistics, finances, and marketing.
One of the more challenging waves Kowalenko had to ride was a major health battle with he was told he had advanced stage skin cancer. "It was definitely from all the years in the sun, surfing," he says. "I was told I had three or four years to live. But I was persistent in exploring every option for treatment available and felt diet was a key factor in my recovery."
He slowed down a bit after that, left Florida permanently for the Hamptons with Stair. He used the time to reflect and then opened Art of Eating. Originally, the company was based in Sag Harbor, then Shelter Island, and now on Montauk Highway in Amagansett.
Although Art of Eating has always done event planning as well as catering, Kowalenko says that many people did not know about this side of their business. "We just started Hampton Event Management and Production,” he explains. "So it will be clearer to our clients and others that we are not just about food." He is quick to give credit to his staff for the company's success. "Without them, Cheryl and I would not be able to do what we do best." He is obviously dedicated to his team.
Kowalenko and Stair are also committed to helping those less fortunate. He has been the operations director for Share our Strength's annual Taste of the Nation event in the Hamptons. In addition, he and Stair have contributed food and event planning expertise to Taste of the Hamptons, The Child Development Center, Taste of Summer, Planned Parenthood, East End AIDS Wellness, Group for the South Fork, The Nature Conservancy, Bay Street Theater, Guild Hall and Long Island University.
The waves don't appear to be slowing down for Kowalenko; he's still moving fast, working seven days a week, especially during the hectic summer months. But the Art of Eating is also doing business in Manhattan and throughout Long Island year-round.
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