It’s 5 a.m. Prep time for Kevin Dernbach, chef and co-owner of Maureen’s Kitchen with his sister, Christine Fortier. They open in an hour for all the people who want to feast on their famous baked oatmeal, pistachio pancakes, or French toast croissants. They have new dishes on their specials menu everyday, homemade, in their kitchen every morning.
Maureen’s Kitchen is not just another brunch or breakfast place, it’s one of the best restaurants in Long Island under $25, according to Zagat, a restaurant rating system.
Dernbach dips a chicken into a pot of boiling water to prepare a broth for the soup. A staff member is beating a huge pot filled with thick, creamy white batter for pancakes in the back room.
All of their food is cooked right in front of their customers, behind the bar area. Only a marble tabletop separates the customers from the kitchen.
“It’s really nice to see the food being cook right there,” said Chris Visco, a customer. “I know what they are putting on my plate.”
A man places a newspaper on the table.
“A cup of coffee?” asks the blonde-haired woman in black, behind the counter. The man nods his head and sits down on the cow-printed chairs. She comes over with a cow-spotted mug and pours in the steamy black liquid.
“The owners are the most welcoming people, you come in and it’s like you’re at home having breakfast,” says Wanda Lavista, long-time customer. She comes twice every week and has been coming to Maureen’s Kitchen for 17 years.
Before their new location on 108 Terry Road in Smithtown, they came from a much more humble setting.
“They used to have a store across the street originally and they moved over here, so I’ve been coming that long,” Lavista says.
In 1985, Maureen Dernbach, mother of Kevin and Christine, decided she would leave her old job and open up a restaurant for herself. It started out as a shack with a screen door that could fit only 10 people on the side of Terry Rd. People would sit outside on the steps or on the grass to eat their food when there was not enough room inside.
“My mom got to a point in her life where she was tired of working for other people,” Dernbach says. “She was working at a nice size catering place down in West Islip called La Grange Inn and she worked there for 25 years as a host.”
After her children graduated from high school, she wanted to venture out.
“She went and said ‘let me see what I can do,’ so that’s how she started out so small, and the she built herself up, built her confidence up,” he says.
She had carried the cow theme from Kevin’s father’s heritage in Callicoon, N.Y. He had a cow farm upstate, so she brought it down to Long Island.
That explains the giant cow head sticking out of their new jenkinhead roof and the dozens of cows inside the shop. They even have a glass case with hundreds of ceramic cows for sale.
In 1997, they moved across the street. Maureen’s Kitchen is much larger now and custom-made to look like a 2-story house. Glass windows surround the sides of the building. One half is a seated waiting area and the other side is an eating area.
Besides for the homey feel of the restaurant, customers are drawn to the fresh, homemade quality of the food. They are attracted to the unique combinations and variety on the menus.
“It’s not a fast food resultant, it’s not part of a corporate chain, feels like it’s home cooking,“ says Visco. “It’s kinda like going to your grandmother’s house for food.”
The baked oatmeal recipe has been in the family for generations. Dernbach’s grandmother was the first to come up with the idea. It is made with honey cinnamon apples and steel cut oatmeal.
“It has a tie to an oatmeal cookie with warm milk poured over it’s like you’re dipping oatmeal cookies in it, but it’s really not, it’s like a big bowl of fresh earthy oatmeal” says Dernbach.
Over the years, they have added a few minor tweaks but it maintains his grandmother’s concept.
“We have been in business for 30 years and we have never changed our recipe,” Dernbach says.
Although Dernbach’s mother taught him how to cook, he went to culinary school to perfect his skills. He and his sister work together to create new specials, everyday.
The million-dollar sandwich is another big seller, one of Lavista’s favorites. It is fried chicken cutlet on a flat pita bread with grilled roasted red peppers, fresh spinach, sautéed, marinated sweet Bermuda onions, a couple of fresh mozzarella cheese slices and a balsamic reduction.
“I have even get text messages when they have these on special, they have my phone number,” Lavista giggles.
Maureen’s Kitchen tries to form a relationship with all their customers. Dernbach says “when a customer walks in and you can’t have a smile for them, would you want to go there?” and says that his employees always greet their customers with a good morning.
Dernbach stays true to his roots. Even after the death of his mother, he wants to continue her legacy by recreating her meals for everyone to enjoy.
“The thing with my mom, when she started in her small place, it was really truly blue collar workers going to work and that’s how Maureen’s was really created,” he says, ”to give the average guy that’s going to work to provide for his family, a really good philosophy of a really good hearty home-cooked meal at a really fair price.”
Maureen’s Kitchen, still, follows that same philosophy and it is the reason customers keep coming back.