A staple in the Port Jefferson community is heading to the small screen, sharing their story on the Food Network’s newest series, “Chef Boot Camp,” to air on at 10 p.m. on Thursday, April 8.
Under the guidance of chef Cliff Crooks, culinary director of a global restaurant brand, the show takes struggling chefs from family owned businesses and helps their techniques.
In its season premiere, a local bar and eatery is stepping up to the plate — with chef Andrew Seeley of Tara Inn.
“They take a troubled chef, that’s a good chef, but who needs technique to help a place that’s struggling in the area,” he said. “Prepandemic and now, this area is not what it used to be.”
But Seeley said thanks to the new apartments soon to be developed in Upper Port, the inn has “an amazing opportunity here.”
According to the Food Network, Crooks will put a trio of underperforming chefs each episode through a grueling series of challenges to test their real-world culinary skills and fitness for the role.
With their jobs on the line, these chefs will attempt to not only survive but thrive in “Chef Boot Camp” and prove to their owners they have the talent and passion that it takes to succeed.
Owners Tara and Kate Higgins also joined in on the episode, where they offered tips that Seeley needed to work on.
“The chef spends time with you, teaches you techniques and kind of puts you to the test to see what you can do and what you can’t,” he said.
Kate, a Port Jefferson Station resident, said last summer the bar received a phone call from a producer with the Food Network. She didn’t believe the message, but called them back to find out they were interested in featuring her family’s spot in their new show.
“I thought it was a joke,” she said. “I’m not even sure how she found us, but I’m happy they did.”
From July on, Seeley and the Higgins family talked with producers and got ready to film at two locations — in Manhattan and New Jersey — in November. This week’s episode is the first one to kick off the season, where Seeley and the bar’s owners will be featured in the hour-long show.
The Food Network said in a statement that Crooks assesses the three featured chefs’ skills in the kitchen and addresses their areas for improvement.
After an introduction to each chef that reveals what brought them to boot camp, Crooks gets a firsthand look and taste of one of their signature dishes to begin to understand what the issues may be.
Next, the chefs must demonstrate fundamental cooking techniques of a classic dish, which they must create on time and to Crooks’ satisfaction, showing their skills, knowledge and ability in the kitchen.
Then, the chefs must bring it altogether — working a fast-paced, live dinner service at one of Crooks’ restaurants, and then, finally, whipping up a creative, new dish for their restaurant owners to demonstrate their growth and progress from boot camp.
Seeley has been working at Tara Inn for a year and a half, but his experience comes from a hands-on approach.
He said when he was a child, he would come to Tara’s with his grandmother and enjoy their famous $1 burgers. He spent his young adulthood visiting the bar scene with friends.
After a move to Florida, he owned several food trucks, but due to some unfortunate family problems, he had to forfeit them, eventually moving back north.
Now living in Wantagh — and commuting to Port Jeff — Seeley would come into the inn for lunch, according to Kate. She was looking for someone to help with a few shifts, and he asked if he could join the team.
“Sometimes hiring customers doesn’t necessarily go well,” she said. “But he started on Sundays, it was a five-hour shift, and three weeks later, he was working six days a week.”
An emotional experience heading back into the kitchen, Seeley said joining Tara’s brought his love for cooking to a whole new level.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “They’ve adopted me as their little brother.”
Tara Higgins said her father, Joe, opened Tara Inn in 1977. Now 90 years old, he has passed the responsibility to Kate, but all eight of his children have worked at the bar at some point in their lives.
“It’s part of who we are,” she said.
Tara, a Port Jefferson resident, village judge and attorney at the Suffolk County Supreme Court in Riverhead, said the inn has always been a labor of love.
“Not just having Andrew work here, but having him be on our team, is such a weight off of our shoulders,” she said.
Located at 1519 Main St., and known for their inexpensive but filling bar food —the former $1 burger now costs $2 — Seeley said there’s more to Tara Inn than the food and drinks.
“It’s also the guests that come in here,” he said. “When you come here, you’re coming into a place that has been around for so long it’s a legacy.”
The motto the Higgins family has held for 43 years is what keeps Seeley going.
“My favorite thing they say here is, ‘We don’t have customers, we have guests,’” he said.
Tara added the vibe of the inn has always been like their living room — a place to get together, share a meal and a beverage, and just hangout.
“I think people believe that just because we’ve been here 43 years means that we’re going to be here for another 43,” Kate said. “And that’s not going to be the case if we don’t continue to get local support.”
Joe Higgins is happy that after four decades, people still stop into Tara’s.
“Dad was saying that he feels sorry for the local people that don’t realize this gem is in their own backyard,” Tara said. “And it’s true. You know, I used to say the only place to go that’s cheaper is McDonald’s, and now we’re cheaper than McDonald’s and the food is much better.”
And now thanks to “Chef Boot Camp,” Seeley might have a few new tricks up his sleeve.
Although he can’t give away too much, he said on the episode he works on his seasoning and plating techniques.
But in the end, no matter how cheap the food — and how delicious it is — people come back to Tara Inn for its welcoming attitude.
Father offered more advice when Kate took over.
“Dad said to me, ‘You have an opportunity to be good to people and to help people,’” she said.