Island Kitchen -July 2013
by: Jen Laskey
photography by: Terry Pommett
What gets you out of bed – and out of the house – in the morning?
These days, the answer may be brunch at Patrick Ridge’s Island Kitchen.
In late May, the talented, young culinary veteran from Le Languedoc opened his own restaurant, and it began, strategically, with breakfast service. Roosting in the former Hen House on Chin’s Way, Island Kitchen started luring Nantucketers back to the convenient mid-island location with classic brunch entrées like eggs Benedict with lemony hollandaise, fresh vegetable and cheese omelets, French toast and bottomless cups of Carrabassett coffee along with more gastronomically-intriguing dishes like soufflé pancakes, polenta with blue cheese and shiitake mushrooms, and breakfast sandwiches made with chorizo, egg, avocado and Manchego cheese.
“We’re doing everything from scratch,” said Ridge, the executive chef and owner of Island Kitchen. “We’ve got fresh-squeezed juices, sliced apples and almond butter, and a hot quinoa cereal. We made these great little caramelized onion and goat-cheese tartlets with bacon and awesome lobster fritters with lobster meat we got in from Nantucket Seafoods.”
The mouthwatering list goes on, and Ridge’s eyes light up at the mention of his favorite breakfast dish on the current menu.
“We’ve got a finnan haddie. It’s smoked haddock and you do it in a cream sauce and serve it over sourdough crostini. It’s a Scottish dish, but it’s always been a very old New England Yankee kind of thing,” he said.
But it’s not just the early bird that catches the worm at Island Kitchen – it’s the night owls too. Ridge’s vision for the opening of the restaurant was a cascading approach: Start with breakfast and get it right. Add lunch and follow it up with a limited late-night menu from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. And then, when breakfast, lunch and late-night are running smoothly, go for full dinner service ... with a catering business on the side (or, more specifically, upstairs).
If you consider the total sum of its parts, Island Kitchen is more than a restaurant. It’s a mini culinary empire. But Ridge explains his vision in more modest terms. “I’m interested in bringing my food to as many people as possible in as many different ways as I can from this building for right now,” he said, smiling. The thought is enough to put a contented rumble in the belly of anyone who is familiar with his cooking.
At this point, Ridge is hoping to maintain the restaurant year-round, but admitted there’s a chance it may end up being seasonal. In the meantime, his wife Nicole is finishing up the semester at the charter school where she teaches Spanish in Norwell, Mass. She’ll be spending the summer on Nantucket, and then returning to the mainland for the school year in the fall. Ridge plans to be back and forth throughout the off-season.
Ridge is young and ambitious, but he’s not one of those brooding, big-ego Anthony Bourdain wanna-be chefs who swears a lot and is tattooed from neck to ankle. In fact, he is quite the opposite. He’s small in stature with a head full of blond curls. He has bright eyes, a big, friendly smile, and no ink on his skin – at least none that’s visible when he’s working in his open kitchen. He also has a sweet face that’s probably been pinched adoringly by little old ladies throughout his life and he seems to have a genuinely sunny disposition, smiling and laughing a lot, even as he’s making serious conversation.
Ridge is not a native Nantucketer, but a transplant who began working summer seasons here about 10 years ago. He co-owns the Island Kitchen building with two partners, but owns the business itself outright. While opening one’s own restaurant may seem like a natural next step after more than two decades working in restaurants and catering and as a private chef, Ridge’s route to the business wasn’t entirely traditional.
Like many young chefs, he started working at local restaurants in his hometown of Cohasset, Mass., when he was 14 years old.
“I progressed as I guess you typically do, from the salad guy to the fry guy, all up through the line,” Ridge said. “By the time I was 18 or 19, I was expediting a pretty decent line at a restaurant in Hingham.”
Around that time, Ridge enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., for formal training. He went on to cook at Aquitaine in Boston and The Red Lion Inn in Cohasset. And then about 10 years ago, the South Shore native came to Nantucket for an interview.
“I got referred to the guys at Languedoc and had a 12-course try-out dinner with them,” Ridge recalled. “And that’s how I got hired.”
He spent his first season on-island as the Languedoc’s sous chef, and was invited back to become the chef de cuisine the following year.
“I worked with a great group of guys over there, Alan (Cunha) and Neil and Ed (Grennan).”
Ridge was especially impressed with their commitment to their business.
“They’re unbelievable at assembling a fantastic team and leading by example. They defy every restaurant’s odds. In an industry that turns over almost every position every year, they’ve retained waitstaff for 10 years, dishwashers for 20. I was lucky enough to work with them for about six years,” said Ridge, who spent his last year helping them open a little food market on the Broad Street “Strip” called Pronto.
Ridge credited his bosses at Le Languedoc with inspiring him to travel and spend each winter doing apprenticeships in Burgundy and Paris to get new perspectives on his craft.
“The Languedoc really kicked off that travel for me,” he said. “They basically said if I wasn’t going to France, I didn’t have a job. They expected me to come back with real ideas that were different every year, and that was a great challenge and value system that they instilled.”
After leaving his chef post at Le Languedoc, Ridge tried catering. As he tells it, he started getting hired to prepare private dinners, and eventually got connected with a prominent island family and became their personal chef. The family typically summered on Nantucket, lived in Chicago during the school year, and traveled often. He spent a year living in Italy with the family and “did a lot of traveling and cooking all through France and Italy.” During his time with them, he prepared food for many different events ranging in size and scope from very relaxed family meals to formal dinner parties with notable academic, civic and financial leaders.
It was while Ridge was in Chicago that his culinary path shifted a bit, and he became interested in the business side of things. He began an undergraduate program in entrepreneurship at DePaul University and kept working with the family as their personal chef while pursuing his bachelor’s degree.
“It was a great gig and I couldn’t have met nicer people,” said Ridge, but he conceded that after five years the excitement around traveling 30 weeks out of the year started to wane and other life events began to take precedence.
Ridge got engaged and returned to Boston. He worked a stint in his family’s construction business. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he recalled. “I knew I didn’t want to do construction. I knew I no longer wanted to be a private chef. I think it encouraged me to come back and do this.”
At that point, he applied to business school at Babson College. He wrote about his plan for Island Kitchen in his application essay, and was accepted into the MBA program. Looking around at the dining room, Ridge smiled and declared, “This is step one.”
Ridge is no longer a chef who just thinks about running the kitchen. He’s the driving force behind a business who must consider the multifaceted aspects of running a restaurant. It’s not just about creating the cuisine and managing the staff. It’s about sourcing good food, procuring it, and financing a venture. “I wanted to make sure I was approaching it with a sharp skill set,” he said, pausing. “And it’s not like I had the means to just walk in and buy something. I had to have a very solid business plan and go out and sell that.”
Ridge looked at 30 different restaurants and had six deals fall apart before Island Kitchen found its home.
“Right up until we got the keys to the building, we were like, ‘This may not happen,’ but I’m super-excited about this spot,” said Ridge, who had wanted to buy the restaurant a year and a half earlier, and started making offers on it then.
Because of the mid-island location and the small size of the space – it seats about 35 inside and 20 on the patio – Ridge said he has a lower cost of doing business than many of the more upscale restaurants downtown.
“My cost per share, in comparison to the rest of the market, is pretty small, and what that will enable me to do is be local- and community-focused and keep my prices low. That’s one of the really exciting things we’re getting to do here,” he said.
When working on the concept for Island Kitchen, Ridge thought a lot about how significantly the dining scene on the island has changed since he first arrived.
“When I first got here, everyone went out to dinner every night,” he said.
But with the new landscape of “phenomenal private homes” and personal chefs today, many people are opting not to eat downtown.
“Why fight traffic and parking to sit in a hot restaurant downtown when you can dine on your deck,” he asked.
Dining on Nantucket has also become more casual.
“When I really looked at the market,” Ridge said, “I realized there was a huge gap between some great fine dining and pub food.”
For this seasoned chef and entrepreneur who wants his restaurant to offer “a fantastic value with great quality food that’s always changing,” that turned out to be the sweet spot.
But it wasn’t just a market-driven choice, Ridge emphasized.
“It’s more about a lifestyle and who I want to be. I don’t want it to be formal. I don’t want tablecloths. I don’t want to put a jacket on. I think in the last five years, I’ve only put a tie on once – and that was when I was getting married,” he said with a laugh. “I want it to be completely friendly and welcoming and laid-back.”
Without doing major renovations, Ridge has cleverly transformed the old Hen House space and given it a bold, new look and feel.
“Before, it looked very ‘breakfast.’ And there were hens everywhere. We spent an entire week just de-henning!” Ridge said.
The interior now has a stripe-on-stripe theme. The rich, dark purple and white walls are accented with yellow, navy blue and lime-green stripes of varying widths. This visual effect extends to the upholstery with navy and white striped cushions lining the long banquettes on the front and back walls. For some, this stripe-centric design element may be reminiscent of the American Color Field abstract painting style that emerged in the 1940s, but when asked what kind of “feel” he was going for, Ridge smiled and said, “I actually told the designer I wanted the place to look like a rugby shirt.”
No, he’s not a rugby fan, but the rugby shirt represents an easygoing vibe.
“I just wanted it to be super-casual,” Ridge said, “so you’d sit down and it’d be totally relaxed.”
He also pointed out that it’s hard to find a design theme that will carry a space through from breakfast all the way to dinner. But he’s pleased with the recommendations his designer made.
“I think it looks like a great breakfast restaurant and I think it’ll look awesome once we pull away the jelly, throw out a flower and dim the lights for dinner,” he said.
Considering the many meals Island Kitchen plans to turn out, the actual kitchen is rather small. But Ridge pointed out that this is all the more reason to be selective about who he’s putting in it. One of the aspects of starting the business that Ridge has been most excited about is assembling his staff.
“The most important thing I think I can say is that at the end of the day this thing has nothing to do with me. It’s all about who I can get in here to help and establish a great team.”
Patty Kennedy Oldham is Island Kitchen’s general manager and her husband Ron is chef de cuisine.
“Ron is a great guy,” Ridge said. “He used to be the chef at The Ropewalk and he’s done a lot of different things with his career. It has been fantastic to have him right next to me in the kitchen because in a small space every set of hands really counts.”
Ridge underscored that Island Kitchen’s menu will change frequently to accommodate the seasonality of ingredients as well as to keep the prices down.
“If you’re cooking with everything at peak season, you’re buying (ingredients) at the top of the supply, and the top of the supply is also the lowest price, so it makes sense to approach it that way,” Ridge said, though he hopes diners won’t get upset that what they had on the menu one week might not be on it the next.
Imbibers will be happy to know that Island Kitchen offers a line of breakfast drinks, including homemade bloody Marys and mimosas made with fresh-squeezed juice, as well as a selection of four different beers and a “short” wine list with 10 to 12 bottles running in the refreshingly affordable $25 to $45 range.
As with the breakfast options, there will always be a mix of both classic dishes and more creative ones for both lunch and dinner, but Ridge intends to keep the menu as laid-back as the restaurant’s vibe.
“You know, I won’t be frothing anything,” he said, smirking. “And if I’m not the hippest guy in town, I’m OK with that. Whatever we do, the idea is to buy the best possible product, touch it as little as possible, and serve it in the best way we can.”
As for the late-night window, Ridge said he will be thrilled if it ends up catering to the restaurant-worker crowd along with the rest of Nantucket’s night owls.
“I hope people will come over after work and grab some food,” he said. For the late-night-eats menu, Ridge’s mind is already spinning with thoughts of hand-cut cheesy fries, fish tacos and meatloaf wrapped in bacon, deep-fried in pork fat, sliced and served on focaccia.
“Each night, it’ll be a very limited menu,” he said. “When it’s out, it’s out. The lights are off. We’re not here.” ///
To learn more about what’s on the menu at ISLAND KITCHEN, visit www.nantucketislandkitchen.com.
Jen Laskey is a contributing writer to Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.