Nantucket Chefs Cook at Home -June 2012

by: Leslie Linsley

photography by: Terry Pommett

You’ve heard it many times. Nantucket restaurants are simply the best in the country, maybe even the world. Visitors to the island plan their vacations around favorite restaurants and make their reservations well ahead of their arrival. It’s a known fact that Nantucket has an abundance of exceptional restaurants, always changing to appeal to and surprise even the most sophisticated palates. Using local produce, fresh seafood and naturally-raised meats, island chefs, who are often the restaurant owners themselves, are ahead of the curve and praised by world-renowned tastemakers.

Being in the restaurant business in a sophisticated resort town with a short season is no small feat. It takes intelligence, curiosity, talent, diligence, a love of food and sometimes a sense of humor to keep on top of the game in a highly-competitive business. Tastes are endlessly changing. A good chef with a loyal following knows how to introduce new culinary approaches, tweak flavors to appeal to a fickle customer base and, at the same time, be true to his or her passion. Summer on Nantucket provides an intense atmos- phere for restaurant owners and admittedly it is difficult to find personal time when everyone else is on vacation. These chef/owners are a dedicated group of people who know that an integral part of a good vacation experience is dining out and they want to be sure their restaurants don’t disappoint. Toward this end they are thankful for the down time they enjoy during that short period of time in the winter, after Christmas and before opening day in the spring, when they can take a little time to refresh their repertoire and enjoy eating at home, a luxury they usually cannot afford during the season. Some of the restaurants are open year-round, but things quiet down a bit and the pressure lessens for them as well in the off-season.

The following interviews will give you a rare peek into the private lives of four couples who work together in the island restaurant industry. They have been in business on Nantucket for long enough to have earned a devoted following and impressive reputations for consistently providing a great dining experience. You may be surprised by the elegant but simple meals they prepare and enjoy at home with their families.

Angela and Seth Raynor - The Pearl, The Boarding House, Corazon del Mar

Angela and Seth Raynor believe in old-school hospitality without pretense. The Pearl, on the second floor of an historic house at 12 Federal St., exudes low-key elegance that turns any occasion into a celebration. Featuring seasonal shellfish and seafood, Seth as the executive chef infuses his creative menu with modern translations of exotic flavors. Readers of Travel + Leisure magazine gave his signature entrée – Nantucket Salt and Pepper Wok Fried Lobster – the “World’s Best Lobster Dish” award. The Boarding House on the ground floor of the same building – with its outdoor patio on the corner of Federal and India streets – focuses on natural, organic, local fare. The patio offers the best people-watching place to dine and enjoy a superb bottle of wine in town. The newest of the three, Corazon del Mar at 21 South Water St. is a Latin kitchen with ceviche and raw bar in a welcoming atmosphere. One can only imagine the intense pressure this puts on the Raynors during the season, and yet they are able to maintain their high standards year after year. For the Raynors, there is no “off-season.”

Due to a dedicated passion for the business, during the winter months Seth and Angela travel for inspiration. When they are home they enjoy simple relaxed meals with friends and family. They especially like to cook in their fireplace, and since the winter is scallop season, Seth prepared a Nantucket bay scallop dish with grilled lemons.

With three different restaurant pantries, when asked what she keeps in her own pantry at home, Angela said, “generally a lot of grains and exotic condiments, as well as oils and vinegars.”

“No winter is the same,” she continued. “We do a lot of recipe-testing at home. Adapting for the restaurants is a luxury we enjoy in the winter. Sometimes we change dishes by adding or changing a flavor to make it sexier. We also work on timing so that preparation, cooking and serving our customers is seamless.”

The couple, who met in culinary school, spend all their time focused on food, wine and hospi- tality. “Food is always on our radar. It’s part of our DNA,” Angela said between stopping at a new food emporium and a wine tasting off-island. “I always look for something new to bring back to our restaurant family when I’m away.”

The Raynors think it is important to encourage their younger cooks to learn from other restaurant experiences and in this regard, in the off-season they might set them up with friends who have restaurants in other parts of the country such as Boston or California. “It’s wonderful for our team to increase their experiences and to take pride in being connected with a larger community of food enthusiasts. This can be incredibly rewarding for us,” Angela said.

“Being in the restaurant business is challenging in this very unique community and it’s exciting to be connected to it.”

Wendy and Peter Jannelle - Fifty-Six Union

Fifty-Six Union is one of those places that everyone wishes they had in their neighborhood. As its name suggests, it is located at 56 Union St. just a little way out of town with plenty of parking, a big plus in the summer-time. It offers a comfortable, laid-back, intimate environment where friends always bump into each other. The extensive wine list, with a minimum of 150 bottles from small vineyards around the world, is a big draw and the bar is a convivial place for socializing year-round. The owners, Peter and Wendy Jannelle, describe it as an eclectic bistro with a global menu in a welcoming environment. Indeed, the dressed-up mannequin lounging at a café table on the front patio gives a hint of the playful attitude within.

Peter, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, is head chef and his innovative dishes cater to a loyal clientele. Once you’ve tasted his curried mussels made in silky yellow Thai curry broth or the truffle frites, you will return again and again. Wendy’s the one you see up front, welcoming guests as if they are regulars even if it’s their first visit. While Fifty-Six Union is open year-round, the hours are cut back during the winter months so the Jannelles can refresh and refine the menu each year. And, of course, enjoy some rest and relaxation before their hectic schedule begins anew.

“In the winter I often do the baking, but the summer is too hectic,“ Wendy said.

Their son Andrew is the sous chef and his fiancé Rose can often be found tending bar or waiting tables when she isn’t busy landscaping during the summer season.

“We love her,” Wendy said. “She’s a wonderful addition to our family.”

Having a meal as a family is very special and one of the dishes Peter makes at home is pan-seared salmon and a green salad with as many fresh vegetables as he can find in-season. While they prepared this meal together, Wendy admitted that Peter does all the cooking and cleaning up while she chills out on the sofa with a glass of wine and catches up on “American Idol.”

“He’s good at what he does and he loves it,” she said.

Last summer Wendy and Peter added an Après La Plage (after the beach) menu on the patio and garden, serving light meals from 2 to 6 p.m. along with enticing summer drinks.

“People come in for a late lunch or an early supper with their chil- dren,” Wendy said. “It’s been very successful.”

For a winter dinner at home Peter seared the salmon quickly in a skillet on the stove until caramelized, then finished it in the oven and served it medium rare.

“It should never be overcooked,” he said. Together the Jannelles created a salad based on the seasonal produce in the markets at any given time of the year.

Ruth and Tim Pitts - Centre Street Bistro

Tim and Ruth Pitts, chefs and co-owners of Centre Street Bistro at 29 Centre St., describe their food as honest and uncomplicated. Their innovative dishes are made from local produce and cooked with a minimum of butter, cream and eggs. The unpretentious atmosphere is akin to a cozy café on the Left Bank of Paris. Islanders are positively devoted to their dishes, like their famous baked goat-cheese tart made with only four ingredients, the quesadilla, shrimp pad Thai and soups that change daily.

The couple met on Nantucket while work- ing at DeMarco Restaurant. They did a stint as co-chefs at The Summer House before opening Centre Street in 1997. As a year-round restaurant, Centre Street Bistro has become the “go-to” place for locals and the place where tourists go to feel like an islander.

“Food is an art form,” Ruth said. The menu changes seasonally, sometimes daily depending on what fresh food is available in the markets. “We always have multiple specials,” Ruth continued, “because if there’s suddenly a great batch of avocados we want to make something with them.” In the off-season, the hours are cut back and Ruth and Tim have time to relax and

cook a meal just for family. Since the restaurant is closed Tuesdays, that’s a good night to experiment with dishes at home. Ruth said they never have much in their home refrigerator but they usually have certain staples like milk, yogurt, salsa and some sort of citrus. When asked what they do in their free time, Ruth said, “We don’t have a lot of down time. Our son Jack is in the 10th grade. He’s on the lacrosse team which Tim coaches. Tim also volunteers with Meals On Wheels.”

When they do get away, they might spend a weekend eating their way through Manhattan.

Ruth and Tim’s friends are all in the business as well and they have regular get-togethers with eight couples. “Every other week we go to a different home where that couple is responsible for the entire meal, soup to nuts.” Ruth said. “It’s great fun and we get to experience all kinds of food. Everyone loves food so it’s the main topic of conversation and we all feel very fortunate to be doing what we love in a community that we love.”

“The restaurant is a little quirky,” she added. “We have an identity and it works for us. The intimacy, the fresh food, the favorite dishes that people count on, the whole

Nantucket experience is what we are about. I’m not sure we could survive in another community.”

Tim’s passion for food comes from growing up in Louisiana. From time to time he likes to infuse his dishes with a New Orleans or Mexican flavor. For his at-home dish he chose to make tamales. Like most of the chefs, his meal is an easy one to put together with few ingredients, and like the Bistro’s food, it pleases the palate and the waistline.

Heather and Chris Freeman - Òran Mór

Heather and Chris Freeman own Òran Mór, located up a flight of copper stairs in an historic Nantucket house at 2 South Beach St. The restaurant’s innovative menu is derived from the changing seasons and the bountiful offerings on the island. Òran Mór is known for its handcrafted cocktails, house infusions and specialty spirits served in an intimate bar and three dining rooms. The wine list predominantly features wines from France and small American producers.

Chris is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. and worked for nine seasons at Topper’s at The Wauwinet, and before that as executive chef at The Mayflower Inn in Washington, Conn. His restaurant has been praised in many prestigious magazines and received critical acclaim from Zagat. This winter Chris was invited to take part in the Charleston Seafood Festival, which he said was an awesome experience.

“During the season I’m too busy to do anything else but run the restaurant. In the off-season I might cater at special events, or appear as a guest chef at a country club. I go to about five local wine tastings off-island,” he said.

With a young family of three boys, Chris and Heather tend to take vacations that revolve around family activities like skiing. When asked what he does for fun, Chris said, “The boys play hockey so I’m very much involved with that activity and in November we took a road trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. We do as much outdoors as possible like biking and going to the beach. But my most fun thing to do in the winter is spend the day cooking for our family.”

Depending on the boys’ activities, Chris either cooks a quick one-pot meal or, when they have a leisurely day, he likes to prepare something that requires more time, like the grilled pork tenderloin with littleneck clams, fennel soffritto and polenta he made here. It’s a good time to experiment with different seasonings and dishes.

“I cook with a New England influence,” he said, “and right now, going into our busy season I’m getting excited about all the new growers on the island. They are very responsive to growing specifically for the various restaurants. We’re doing more and more business with Moors End Farm and Pumpkin Pond Farm than ever before. It’s really an organic connection when you can bring the food right from the grower (or fisherman) to the cook to the guest. The entire community is involved.”

When asked what they always have in their refrigerator, Chris said, “shallots because I put them in everything, also salsa and pickled something like a vegetable.” During the season, Chris eats early with his staff of five chefs, but in the winter the Freemans tend to eat later depending on the kids’ activities. In the summer Chris, Heather and the boys sit down to a family meal once a week. 

Leslie Linsley is the author of “Nantucket Island Living (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) and writes the “Home Style” column for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspa- per since 1821.

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