A Home for All Seasons
by: Leslie Linsley
photography by: Terry Pommett
When Nancy Cooke and Richard Schafer built their home on Nantucket in 1997 they designed it to perfectly suit their lifestyle.
“We found a piece of property that spoke to us. We loved the serenity and peacefulness it provided and knew we’d enjoy living here in all seasons,” Richard said. “We knew we had to have gardens, a big fireplace, an efficient open kitchen for catering parties, big open rooms that revealed the outdoors and lots of light. ”
That’s why they chose the property far from town on Polpis Road, where they have plenty of room for their passions: cooking and gardening. Their house responds to an organic lifestyle where living and working overlap without boundaries.
“We use every inch of this house,” which includes two bedrooms and a bath upstairs and a separate master suite downstairs, Nancy said.
“In the winter we keep the fireplace going. It’s so warm and welcoming in the center of the house. During the spring, summer and fall we’re in the garden a lot,” she said.
The doors in every room open onto the patios or gardens that can be seen from the open floor plan.
Not everyone has a full-size wood-burning brick oven in their dining room, but anyone who has been to one of Nancy and Richard’s pizza parties understands what fun this can provide. Between 1999 and 2015 the couple catered parties for as few as 10 people and as many as 75.
“Usually we would have up to five different styles of pizzas to serve at each party,” Richard said.
“When designing the house we knew we were going to entertain so we wanted a high counter facing the kitchen, with stools on the outside. In this way, guests are interacting with you as you cook, but it keeps them out of the way,” Nancy said.
The style they were going for was reminiscent of a French or Italian villa built more than a hundred years ago. They achieved this with the materials they used, the oversized stone fireplace and the heavy worn beams on the ceilings.
Nancy grew up in northwest New Jersey where her father had a restaurant. She started working there at the age of 10. Richard grew up in Dallas where he studied ballet until moving to Washington, D.C. Ultimately, they met in New York City, where Richard became a solo dancer with the School of American Ballet under George Balanchine and Nancy received her master’s degree in photography and illustration at New York University.
But when they moved to Nantucket their lives centered on their mutual passion for making and sharing food.
“We’ve been in the catering business for over 24 years,” Richard said. Some of his many jobs include assistant pastry chef at American Seasons; working at Moona, a favorite Nantucket restaurant in the 1990s; American Seasons and Topper’s; and they have both been private chefs to many high-profile clients on the island. Most recently Richard was the maître d’ at The Club Car.
Many know Nancy as “the cookie lady.” Her company, Nantucket Nancy’s Meltdowns, produces a variety of cookies, the most sought after being her chocolate chip.
“All production is done on Nantucket,” she said. “We make the cookies in a local commercial kitchen and then package and deliver them weekly to local specialty stores like Annye’s Whole Foods, the Sconset Café, Nantucket Meat & Fish Market, Flowers On Chestnut, Cowboy’s and others.”
She uses only the finest ingredients such as European chocolate traditionally used for making truffles. Nancy’s raw cookie and paleo cookie are all organic.
“We get many requests to ship off-island, but the cookies are so thin and crisp they are too fragile to mail. We hope to one day solve this problem,” she said.
“Everything in this house tells a story. For example, the beams on the ceilings were hand-picked and made of the same extinct wood used on the exterior of the house. Floor tiles from Provence were used for the kitchen counter-tops, backsplash and flooring. We were determined to work with all local artisans and found the best people for each phase of building,” Richard said as Nancy gathered up the bags of cookies for delivery.
“Mike Foster was our general contractor, Steve Silverio did the tile and slate work, Henry Varian built the fireplace and brick oven, Phil Wattles the painting and Howard Nair created the textured plastering.”
Today Richard spends most of his time in the garden and helps with the cookie business. But ballet is still in his DNA and to satisfy that passion he has a part-time job teaching ballet to children at the Go Figure Barre Studio on Amelia Drive.
“I love doing this and it allows me time for the garden which needs constant attention. The David Austen roses against the house are always in bloom,” he said as he checked the lush leaves of figs and pointed out the fruit that was beginning to bud. “I love watching it all come alive.
From winter to summer it’s somewhat of a miracle. I especially like it in the early morning or early evening. Of course everything has a lifespan so we have to keep replacing things. And the deer love the garden. We keep perfecting the protective fence around the property, but they always seem to find a way in.”
Currently the garden includes a variety of roses, wisteria, hydrangeas, lady’s mantle, lily, peach and apple trees, and naturally, daffodils.
“We add to the variety every year. And of course we do grow herbs for cooking,” Richard said.
Nancy and Richard find it especially satisfying to simply sit under the arbor at the end of the day contemplating what they’ve done and what they will do next. Their life is an ongoing joint venture and they are looking forward to traveling in the future and experiencing different cultures and cuisines. For now they love what they’re doing and they do it well. ///
Leslie Linsley is a nationally-known author of design and decorating books. She writes regularly for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821, and Nantucket Today.