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Buzzy O’Keeffe

Bryan Miller - March 2014

Food Arts presents the March 2014 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Michael “Buzzy” O’Keeffe, a New York City visionary who transformed a romantic and whimsical notion—at first his friends and bankers called it “absolutely crazy”—into a world-class restaurant on the then-desolate Brooklyn banks of the East River. The River Café, now in its 35th year, is back on its feet after a meteorological sucker punch courtesy of Hurricane Sandy. It left the nautical establishment obliterated and shuttered for more than a year. “If you live on the water, the fact is you are always vulnerable,” says O’Keeffe, a wry, straight-talking Irishman who spent 12 years haggling with the city for permission to create a restaurant atop an old barge.

A longtime member of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, the Bronx-raised entrepreneur has always been a passionate guardian of the city’s waterways. So it’s no accident that O’Keeffe’s two major restaurants are afloat—the 30 year old Water Club sits on the west bank of the East River.

Diners leaving The River Café late at night might spot him on the pier, casting into the coursing waters for striped bass. The cafe’s meltingly romantic views of the city, with the Oz-like towers of lower Manhattan in the distance, would alone make it a dining destination. (Nearly every evening, couples get engaged there.) But it offers much more.

O’Keeffe is largely underappreciated as a pioneer of what is now called the farm-to-table ethos. From early on, he strove to use The River Café and The Water Club to showcase the best American provender available, much of it local. Toward this end, he recruited a young unknown chef named Larry Forgione for the cafe, and the locavore era was born. Peconic Bay scallops, Pennsylvania morels, New York State venison, Jersey tomatoes, Belon oysters from Maine—all found their way onto the restaurant’s menus, inspiring others to do the same. He was also among the first to champion California wines, especially those from the budding Napa Valley. His stock of American wine is nonpareil.

O’Keeffe provided the stage for a number of prodigious young talents to blossom, among them Charlie Palmer, David Burke, Rick Laakkonen, Rick Moonen, and current chef Brad Steelman.

The measured pace and civilized tone of the cafe reflects O’Keeffe’s unwavering conviction that fine dining is an exercise in mutual respect. He has gently ushered out of the restaurant more than a few whose attitudes or attire detract from that image. His is one of the last restaurants in the city to require men to wear jackets. The extraordinarily consistent contemporary food is stylish and sometimes surprising, but always rooted in American culinary tradition.

“I give the chefs a great amount of freedom,” O’Keeffe says. “And I push them to be their best but make sure they understand what we’re all about.”

“Buzzy always encouraged creativity,” recounts Palmer, the restaurant’s second chef. “That was one of the great draws of the cafe. But he also was always there to remind me to stay true to my American roots.”

During the arduous and frustrating 15 month reconstruction of the restaurant, O’Keeffe continued to pay his core staff, some of whom have been onboard more than 20 years. “Longtime customers are coming back with memories and high expectations,” he observes. “Now we have to be even better.”