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Ruling the Roost

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Kevin Reilly has cooked for 33 years, working his way up from line cook to sous chef, and then executive chef. At the top of the food chain at the Water Club in New York City, he met designer Maria Santini. They clicked, and, after a stint as junior partner at Cafe Barcel in Nyack, Reilly opened their restaurant, Roost, in the tiny hamlet of Sparkill. “It never seems the right time to do something big like this because of the money, but I scratched enough together,” he says. Santini took charge of rehabbing a vacant building. “I knew this was Kevin’s life, so I felt I had to come on board,” she says.

The cuisine and decor reflect their individual talents. Reilly prepares foods that incorporate a mix of Mediterranean and North African flavors, Middle Eastern spices, and hint of Latino. (Maria is a native of Puerto Rico and her mom showed Kevin how to use native ingredients such as chilies and plantains.) Maria selected the décor—contemporary casual so neighborhood residents would feel welcomed. “I knew there had to be a big bar that had enough seats, and where the staff would come to know everyone,” she says. 

They quickly established a rhythm. Maria rises by 7:30 am and handles billing; he gets up a bit later and places orders at markets and from purveyors who call at the restaurant. “We eat breakfast at noon, together,” he says. Six days a week,Kevin prepares dinner with Santini serving as maître d’. On Sundays, he cooks brunch. Their main disagreements center around food. He likes change for instance, and once insisted on removing a salmon dish with fennel and toasted tomatoes in a light broth from the menu. She put it back after many clients said they missed it. Their compromise was that he substituted corn and basil. “I know he needs to be creative, but I also need to tell him what he may not want to hear,” she says. 

They say their partnership works because they’re both passionate about food and have different roles. But they also clearly enjoy each other’s company. On their day off, they venture forth from their West Nyack home to antique and try other restaurants. “I get to spend time with someone I love,” Kevin says. “It’s a tough business. Just being a good chef doesn’t make a good restaurant. But she’s a natural and has helped the business become a success.” 


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