Magical Dining in a Room with a View

by: Marianne R. Stanton

photography by: Terry Pommett

One of the true LUXURIES of summer for those who appreciate FINE FOOD is leaning back in one’s chair at GALLEY BEACH, gazing across the stretch of sand to the blue waters of Nantucket Sound as sailboats drift across the horizon while enjoying a glass of rosé, a lobster salad, and the feeling that nothing else in the world matters, except this moment.

The only thing possibly better is savoring this experience at sunset, when the sky toward the west turns shades of peach and pink, orange and magenta with occasional streaks of purple as the sun dips below the horizon, ending another perfect Nantucket summer day.

David Silva, manager and co-owner of Galley Beach, has refined the experience at his family-owned restaurant over the years, taking cues from trips to St. Barths and the south of France, making it the premier beach-dining experience, not only on Nantucket, but some say in the Northeast.

Six years ago Silva and his brother Geoff, who owned the restaurant together, decided to take on some significant renovations that would both update and expand the space by replacing the awning-covered main dining room with a wooden roof and expanding the inside bar as well as creating a new subterranean wine cellar and a second level for offices.

“Many of our regular longtime customers were anxious about it, afraid we’d ruin it,” said Silva of the private club turned public restaurant. “We have a lot of people who always come here for their anniversary, birthday and other special occasions.”

But the response to the finished product, which opened in the summer of 2008, was overwhelmingly positive. Silva’s wife Eliza is an interior designer and used her skills to create an elegant space reminiscent of the old Galley but updated for the 21st century. It also received a new name: Galley Beach.

Two years ago, Silva, also the wine director for the restaurant, turned up the level of dining at Galley Beach a few notches when he brought in Neil Ferguson as executive chef, replacing long-time chef Scott Osif, who had expressed a desire to move on. The two met through the Nantucket New School, where both of their children were enrolled.

Ferguson, who made a conscious decision to leave the rat race of the city behind and moved to the island with his wife Shelley and young son Archie in 2010, has shaken up a menu that had been all too predictable, and somewhat stodgy.

From the U.K., but classically-trained in France, Ferguson had hit all the high notes for a chef, having worked in New York and with Britain’s star chef Gordon Ramsay for nine years in London, and prior to that in Burgundy at L’Esperance and then with the legendary Alain Passard at L’Arpege in Paris.

“Going to France is kind of like finishing school for a chef,” Ferguson said. It can also be very intimidating. French chefs are known for running their kitchens with military precision, discipline and exacting high standards for every element of food that comes out of their kitchens.

After close to 10 years of living and working in fast-paced London at half a dozen twoand three-star Michelin restaurants including Aubergine and Claridge’s Hotel, Ferguson felt it was time to cross the channel and head to the source of inspiration for all great chefs: France.

His first foray into a French kitchen was in the Burgundian town of Vézelay at L’Esperance, a Relais & Châteaux property.

“Working and living in Vézelay was just what I needed for my head. I submerged myself in day-to-day French provincial living,” Ferguson said. Being part of the team in a top restaurant and going to the boulangerie for fresh bread daily, watching an old Frenchwoman argue with the baker over variances in a baguette, taking in the aroma of crushed grapes permeating the air during wine-making season, and tapping into the daily rhythms of life in the French countryside, where part of one’s everyday routine centers around the planning of and anticipation of lunch and dinner, made Ferguson pause and take stock of the importance of living each day to its fullest.

“Living in France I could see, feel and be immersed in a culture where everything revolves around the pleasure of the table and people gather to break bread together. It’s a huge part of living a good life,” he said.

Ferguson stayed at L’Esperance for more than a year, and then it was on to the big time in Paris where he met Alain Passard. Life there, for a chef, was even better.

“I’ve never been happier cooking than when I was living in Paris,” Ferguson said fondly of his time in the City of Light. “I can’t remember when I enjoyed cooking so much as I did back then. It was so important for me to hold my own with my cooking when I went there. I just kept my mouth shut and let my work do the talking.”

After he gained the respect of Passard and the rest of the kitchen, he began to work on his verbal skills. He is fluent in French today.

Every great master passes on bits of wisdom that extend beyond mere technique. From Passard, Ferguson learned the importance of the provenance of his raw materials.

“We were cooking with incredible ingredients, and when you’re doing that on a regular basis, you don’t really need to do much with the food. He taught me how to cook with all five senses,” he said. “He didn’t like to put things in the oven because you couldn’t see how they were cooking the way you can on the stovetop. He used to say, ‘Le four est aveugle,’ meaning ‘the oven is blind’.”

Working for the exacting Passard for a year opened doors down the road for Ferguson.

“Once you’ve worked for a great chef like Alain Passard, your next job is just a phone call away. It was really a wonderful year for my career,” Ferguson remembers fondly.

From Paris he went back to London to work at the Michelin three-star Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and ended up as the executive chef at The Connaught Hotel before Ramsay sent him to the States in 2006 to open up Gordon Ramsay at The London, in New York City.

“Working for Gordon Ramsay I learned the importance of attention to detail. The big lesson was that lots of small details make up the big picture. Whether it’s with the food, or the elements in the dining room, it’s important to walk around and keep your eyes open to everything that’s going on in your restaurant,” Ferguson said.

Though much has been written about the mercurial Ramsay, whose television shows “Kitchen Nightmares” and “Hell’s Kitchen” portray him as an ill-mannered bully, Ferguson has nothing bad to say about his former mentor.

“He is very supportive of those close to him,” he said. Likewise, Ramsay has had kind words for him as well. While in London, Ferguson met his future wife,

Shelley, who hails from the Boston area. She introduced him to Nantucket when she suggested the island as their wedding site. The were married here and within a year had left New York and the successful restaurant he was running, relocating to Nantucket for a simpler life and the goal of opening their own place.

With no suitable properties available, Ferguson was recruited by Silva. The two are still looking for a place to open which would operate on a longer season than Galley Beach. But in the meantime, Ferguson is enjoying discovering the pleasures of living on Nantucket and running the island’s premier beachfront restaurant.

Ferguson’s philosophy about food is fairly straightforward. Source great ingredients and employ good techniques in order to elevate the natural flavors of the foods to their fullest.

“It takes great confidence for a chef to say, ‘That’s enough’,” Ferguson said. “When you’re young, in your 20s and 30s, you have all these ideas and feel that you have to put everything on the plate.That’s a mistake.”

Now at 42, he has the experience and confidence to understand what really matters in creating a superb dining experience, while running an energetic kitchen where everyone is happy and focused on creating memorable meals for guests in the dining room.

“You basically give of yourself when you cook for people. Good cooking comes from the heart, through the fingers and onto the plate,” Ferguson said.

That’s a principle he learned from the late Alain Chapel in France. Words to live by. ///

Marianne Stanton is editor and publisher of Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror. She writes frequently about food and travel.

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