Angela & Seth Raynor: Living the Dream

Behind the fabulous food of The Pearl and The Boarding House

by: Joshua H. Balling

Seth and Angela Raynor have two successful restaurants and culinary connections with some of the biggest names in the country. What’s next?

Just maybe their own TV show.

It was late. It was hot. It was the height of the season. Seth and Angela Raynor were wrapping up another marathon 18-hour day last summer at The Boarding House and The Pearl, their restaurants that share a rambling, historic building on Federal Street.

Yet any thoughts of calling it a night and heading home to bed were quickly discarded. Instead, they found their way to The Chicken Box nightclub.

The opportunity was too good to pass up. A group of friends and fellow chefs were meeting them there. The list included Daniel Boulud (Cafe Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne), Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin in New York), Michael Schlow (Radius, Via Matta and Great Bay in Boston) and Ming Tsai (Blue Ginger in Wellesley), who were in town to cook dinner for a summer resident who had bid for their services at a charity auction, and the Raynors were anxious to show off their island.

Earlier in the day, they hosted the group for lunch at The Boarding House and dinner at The Pearl.

“We get so much more out of doing these events than we put in. We live in such a generous nation and in such a generous community. It helps us never forget why we’re here.”
Because it was so late, they didn’t spend much time at the bar. They ended up at a house after closing time for an impromptu jam session of musicians and chefs.

“Eric Ripert was there, Suzanne Goin (Lucques in Los Angeles) was there. It was a magical night, just a bunch of people jamming on acoustical instruments well into the night. It’s one I won’t forget very soon,” Seth said.

It was just one of many magical nights the Raynors have experienced over the years. They have developed a vast network of friends and colleagues – some of them the highest-profile names in the restaurant business – not just from running two of the most popular eateries on the island, but also through their dedication to charity work both here and on the mainland.

In addition to numerous island events like the Nantucket Wine Festival and this winter’s Scalloper’s Ball, they’ve cooked at the Spinazzola Foundation’s charity gala in Boston, at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival, and earlier this year at the Gaelic Gourmet Gala benefiting Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration.

“We get so much more out of doing these events than we put in. We live in such a generous nation and in such a generous community. It helps us never forget why we’re here,” Angela said in mid-March, sitting with Seth in the living room of their modest single-story house on edge of the state forest. The front yard is distinguished by a copse of pine trees raggedly sheared off at their bases and a lobster buoy hanging from the eaves of the small front porch. A skateboard leaned against the front door and luggage was strewn across the floor.

The family – their son Nathaniel is 13, daughter Jacq is 11 – was taking off the next day for a late-winter vacation to Mexico, followed by an appearance at the Gaelic Gourmet Gala the night they returned.

They annually cook at six or eight high-end regional or national charity events on the mainland in the off-season.

The payoff, when most of their island colleagues are resting up for another hectic summer on the Nantucket restaurant scene, is the knowledge that they’ve helped a worthy cause and given something back to those less fortunate then they’ve been.

Not to mention the opportunity to hang – and cook – with some very cool people in some very cool places. They’ve partied late into the night with Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali, dined with U2 in Boston last year, and are friends with former J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf.

“That dinner with U2, I sat there the entire time, wanting the clock to slow down, it was such an amazing experience. I still shake my head that it actually, really happened. It was extraordinary,” Angela said.

“But the funny thing was, the conversation was completely normal. We talked about school, about our kids, food and vacations,” Seth chimed in.

But it’s not all about the celebrities. It’s their friends in the industry that they cherish – and rely on – the most.

“Everyone wants to hear about the movie stars, and the heads of industry who come into the restaurants, but nothing is better for our summer interns and our staff then to have Daniel Boulud poking his head into the kitchen,” Angela said. “We always make sure that when a chef comes to the island to do an event, they eat in the restaurant. The opportunities are huge for our staff.”

And it’s great for them too, especially when they head off-island.

“We have so much in common with the people who share our passion. There’s an instant commonality whenever you get together, and time tends to get away from you. You start with lunch, and all of a sudden, it’s 4 a.m. and you’re in Chinatown eating again. It’s not gluttony, it’s enthusiasm,” Angela said.

“No matter where we go, the same thing happens,” Seth said, a grin spreading across his face.

“Non-food people usually can’t keep up with us. The goal is not intoxication, it’s to enjoy the company you’re with, the conversation, the closeness. Intimacy is such a dangerous word because people read into it what they may, but there is such a closeness. No matter how long we go between seeing each other, we always pick right up where we left off. It’s like seeing long-lost friends,” Angela said.

All in all, it’s a lifestyle most people only dream about.

Hollywood thinks so too. The Raynors earlier this year wrapped up the pilot and first episode of a TV show called “R&R” that invites the viewer to tag along on their globe-trotting culinary excursions when they’re not working 20-hour days at The Pearl and The Boarding House. Produced by Herzog Cowen Entertainment, the show is currently being shopped around LA and Angela hopes to see it picked up by one of the cable networks this summer.

“We are insiders and the life we are fortunate enough to lead on Nantucket is what most people dream about all year long,” she said. “We get a lot of opportunities to do things people are interested in and intrigued by, particularly the travel component.”

“R&R” won’t be the Raynors’ first foray into television. Angela’s cooked on Nantucket’s “Morning Show” on Plum TV, and they’ve both appeared on Tsai’s “Simply Ming” on WGBH, the Food Network’s “Best of. . .,” “New England Living” on the WB, and filmed a pilot with Todd English (Olives, Bonfire) that hasn’t been picked up yet.

“The idea for ‘R&R’ is we will travel the world, sometimes with our children, sometimes as a couple, sometimes with chef friends. Everywhere we go, we have a backstage pass through our network of friends. It’s really a very interesting extension of what we do day to day. The information highway that we use is not the norm. It’s not your garden-variety travel guide. It’s the ultimate insider’s guide,” Angela said.

And it’s a lifestyle they never stop living. Even when they’re not working, they’re eating, thinking, talking about food.

“When we’re off, we talk shop. We talk shop every day. We take a non-food vacation, we talk about food. Something will always catch your eye. We’re always picking up ideas,” Seth said.

Angela agreed. “Food is everywhere. That’s one of the things that’s so special about this industry. Whether there’s good service or bad service, good food or bad food, there’s always something to talk about.”

And they’ve got plenty of friends to talk about it with. Their dinner companions on any given night in one of a dozen cities around the country might include Boulud, English or Barbara Lynch (No. 9 Park in Boston). They’ve got Schlow, Tsai and Ken Orringer of Clio and Toro on speed dial.

“You develop these relationships. It’s an industry that is sort of non-traditional. It’s outside the mainstream because of the hours. A night off is a tremendous opportunity. You end up spending this quality time with the people you work with, and who do the same work you do. The support and camaraderie are amazing,” Angela said.

“The industry is really like a club. We all speak the same language and work the same crazy hours. That’s why we try to make every moment count. It’s very important. We pack more into one day off than most people do in a month of days off, just because it’s so rare.”

But as much as they enjoy traveling, Nantucket is home.

“Getting to share Nantucket, it helps us see the island through other people’s eyes. Seeing that enchantment and enthusiasm, even with all the changes, it’s still great. To see that happen to other people, it’s really very special,” Angela said.

And they’re happy to share their Nantucket, both on-island and off. At the wine festival, Seth, Schlow and Tsai bill themselves as “The Three Amigos” and give cooking demonstrations under a tent. On the mainland, they’ve brought bushels of Nantucket bay scallops to benefits for groups ranging from an equestrian therapy foundation to Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“We like to promote Nantucket. That’s why we use Nantucket bay scallops when we do off-island events. Because the fishery is so important to the island, the whole scalloping economy is important,” Seth said. “It’s good to be able to help. I think we used about 40 to 50 pounds at the Gaelic Gala and Spinazzola. We enjoy sharing the Nantucket culture.”

They also support the Culinary Arts Program at Nantucket High School, under the direction of Bob Buccino, using a number of high school interns in the restaurants each summer.

“It’s a huge asset for the island and its restaurants. It provides a great opportunity to give kids a career path that can lead them back to Nantucket. And it helps the restaurants develop skilled staff that already have housing,” Angela said.

Despite the hectic pace, it’s a life they wouldn’t trade for any other.

“We do it because we have fun at these things. We’ve taken some incredible trips. We were part of a trip where 10 chefs were selected by Food Arts magazine and Cointreau to go to Paris. It was breakfast, lunch and dinner at one-star, two-star and three-star restaurants. It was like a gourmet ‘Survivor’,” Angela said.

Food has been a part of both their lives since childhood. Seth, 42, grew up on the Great South Bay of Long Island, N.Y.; Angela, 41, in the Wisconsin farm country. They met at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt.

“My family dinners really helped formulate how I wanted to spend my time. A couple times a year, three generations would get together for meals, and there were 20 people there. It seems like we were always going somewhere to eat,” Seth said.

“And living on the Great South Bay, fish was a very important part of our diet. There was everything from the normal to the unusual. There were eels and flounder roe, rabbit, duck and goose. The family was very connected to what we ate.

“I’m the youngest of four, and I started out helping my sisters make muffins, cakes and pastries, and that naturally evolved into me doing more and more in the kitchen. That carried through college, and I almost graduated, but then a part-time cooking job became a full-time job, and I realized I wanted to go to culinary school.”

Angela followed a similar path. Growing up, she spent almost every Friday night at her grandmother’s house, helping her bake pies and make chicken noodle soup.

A trip to France her sophomore year in high school introduced her to the French commitment to family and food.

“It really opened me up to the passion and reverence the French have for cuisine and the time they spend with family and friends at the table, multi-generationally or in a sidewalk cafe,” she said.

Her first real summer job was slightly

less refined.

“It was tending bar at 18, at this really classic bar called Fred’s on the edge of Lake Katherine in northern Wisconsin. It was kind of a ‘Cheers’ with cheeseheads. The people were really down to earth,” she said.

Like Seth, Angela also found herself distracted in college and ended up in Montpelier.

At NECI, Seth really wanted to learn French cuisine, and it provided his introduction to Nantucket. Through the school, he did two internships with Jean-Charles Berruet at The Chanticleer. Angela’s internships were at Le Ciel Bleu at the Mayfair Regent Hotel in Chicago, and Le Petit Prince in Cabris, France.

After school, Seth headed to Chicago with Angela, because she was familiar with the city, but it wasn’t for him.

He returned to the island, and The Chanticleer. Angela followed, and ended up spending four seasons in the front of the house at the Sconset landmark.

After Seth moved on to stints in the kitchen at 21 Federal and American Seasons, they decided to strike out on their own.

They opened The Boarding House in 1992, and The Pearl followed six years later.

“We skipped a couple steps along the way. We went from being employees and sous chefs to owning our own restaurant. That’s a big leap,” said Seth.

“It was interesting at the beginning. One winter I was the milkman, driving the Hood truck and dropping off milk at the Stop & Shop and the A&P.”

“We were 27 and 28 at the time and very naive about so many things, but our enthusiasm for the island and the project saved us,” Angela said.

These days, Seth pretty much sticks to the kitchen at The Pearl, while Angela is “the greatest floater in the world. She floats through both kitchens and both dining rooms all day and all night. She can handle any problem or situation that might come up,” Seth said.

Two years ago, Angela moved back into the kitchen at The Boarding House when Jason Carroll left for Cinco, but thanks to chef de cuisine Erin Zircher, she’s planning on spending more time out front this season.

“With four levels in the building, I’m always on the move. I joke that I should wear a pedometer. It really is an extraordinary opportunity to do two restaurants in one building. I really can be in two places at one time. It’s one of the only times in life where you can be,” Angela said.

Everything they’ve learned, and everywhere they’ve traveled, is represented in some form or another in the restaurants.

The Boarding House is “a home away from home for people. It’s got an environment that makes people comfortable. I would call the food ‘market cuisine’,” Angela said. “We cook the kind of food that if you could cook really well, you’d probably cook at home. And we showcase the freshest foods of the season.

“We like our food to be not over-manipulated. It’s food that resonates with you. It’s food that’s both delicious and appealing. It’s a French-Italian take on country food, maybe with a little lighter touch,” she said.

“We try to use as much organic food as we can. I like wild salmon. We let the ingredients speak for themselves, and we use good techniques.”

From The Boarding House success, The Pearl was born.

“We decided to do The Pearl because The Boarding House was jamming every night. We were turning away 100 people at the door, and that’s not even counting the people that called for reservations and couldn’t get them,” Angela said.

“It was flattering but depressing. Michael (Molinar) had bought the Chestnut Street building and was going to be moving Flowers in there (from the other half of the Raynors’ Federal Street building). “We thought a lot about doing another restaurant. Angela had to talk me into it at first, even though I did really want to expand. I wanted to do something completely different than the existing restaurant,” Seth said.

Seth calls the menu at The Pearl “coastal cuisine.”

“It’s not as regionally-based as The Boarding House. I use a lot of fish from Nantucket and New England, but because it’s heavily influenced by Asia, I make full use of FedEx and next-day air. I get

fish from Hawaii and Japan. If I order it by 1 p.m., I have it in time for dinner the following day.

“I try to always add the influences from our travels around the world. I have a sneaking suspicion there will be some kind of Mexican dish on the menu this season. I’ve done Costa Rican and Hawaii. My philosophy has always been that the higher quality the ingredients, the less you need to do with it. You let the food speak for itself.”

Through all the craziness, staying grounded is important to the Raynors, and it extends to how they treat their guests at the restaurants.

While she is more than happy to talk about that dinner with U2, or late-night partying with Mario, Emeril and the handful of other celebrity chefs familiar to millions of Americans thanks to the Food Network, Angela politely declines to dish about the celebrities and high-profile executives and media personalities that frequent The Boarding House and The Pearl every summer.

It’s a lesson she learned during her first few years on Nantucket.

“When I was at the Chanticleer, I remember Billy Joel playing the piano one night. One of the busboys, I don’t even think he knew who Billy Joel was, but he knew something special was happening. He went out to the pay phone to call someone. One of the older waiters walked by and hung up the phone. He said ‘we don’t do that here.’ That’s always stuck with me. We give people their space here. I always tell the staff they deserve that,” she said.

“Everyone needs to eat. They are in the restaurant to eat a meal. It’s only food, and we hope it’s good, but that’s why they are there, not to be bothered or put on display. These people are just looking for some down-time. Everybody wants it. They deserve it,” Seth said.

Still, it can get surreal at times. “I’ve seated an NBA basketball star, a famous actor with his kids, and a politician with Secret Service, all in the same room,” Angela said. “You just have to remember they’re just people. Spending time with people you want to be with is vital. That’s what’s great about the restaurants. You can be comfortable, relaxed. I hate pretense.”

The Raynors’ house and home life are also a reflection of that sensibility. The long dining-room table is covered with several layers of food magazines, menu possibilities for both restaurants, hand-written notes about dishes Seth wants to try at The Pearl, and their kids’ school books. Their Jack Russell terrier Brody chases his tail in ever-narrowing concentric circles on a rectangular rug in the living room.

When they aren’t at the restaurants in the summer, or jetting around the country, they’re spending time at the beach with the kids, or relaxing at Angela’s parents’ summer house in Cisco, as far away from the whirlwind their lives have become as possible.

“People are always surprised. It’s really laid back. This is a home. We really live here. I try to focus on making sure the kids have a lot of reality in their lives. That’s why we wanted to live in a year-round neighborhood. Both our children are very grounded,” said Angela, trying to ignore her chirping cellphone and open laptop, two 21st century intrusions into the middle of the one oasis in the Raynors’ lives.