The Magnificent 7
by: Marianne R. Stanton and Joshua Balling
In her eighth season as chef de cuisine at The Boarding House, Erin Zircher has firmly established her reputation as one of the island’s top chefs, and one of the few women who run the kitchen of a restaurant on Nantucket of this caliber.
Hailing from the Midwest, Zircher knew early on she wanted a career as a chef, and headed off to the New England Culinary Institute in Essex, Vermont, which coincidentally is where the owners of The Boarding House, Seth and Angela Raynor, also met. Upon graduation from NECI in 2001, Zircher moved to Boston to work for Ana Sortun at Oleana, named Best Chef in the Northeast by the James Beard Foundation in 2005, and whose Turkish-inspired restaurant is one of the top-rated dining spots in New England.
“When I graduated I asked Chef Michel, one of the founders of NECI, where I should go next and he said, ‘You need to go work with Ana.’ She has great discipline, and is a great mentor to young chefs, encouraging them to travel and to read,” Zircher said.
It was the beginning of a creative culinary journey that continues for Zircher today, and is reflected in the dishes she turns out at The Boarding House.
The carrot soup being served this spring is spiced with ras el hanout, an exotic blend of up to 50 spices used in Moroccan dishes and encountered by Zircher in her travels there this winter. A lamb dish at The Boarding House is rubbed with a spice mix called baharat, which combines dried mint, oregano, cinnamon and nutmeg. It also sneaks in and flavors Zircher’s fried chicken. Za’atar flavors the flatbreads Zircher serves, and the salt-cod fritters on the menu this year are from her travels to the Iberian peninsula, where she tried salt-cod dishes in every iteration wherever she went. Working in a restaurant in a tourist location, she said she has to be cognizant that most diners aren’t looking for the full-on spicing that eastern Mediterranean cuisine boasts, so a light hand is used with exotic spices to enhance the flavor of each dish and tantalize the palate.
“My heart definitely lies with the Mediterranean sensibilities of cooking. We rarely use butter, unless we feel that it is essential to the final result of a dish. Almost everything we make gets a little fresh lemon at some point, and good olive oil is always on hand. I love the layers and depth that come from the spices of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, but again we try to use restraint ... we try.”
This season she is also experimenting with argon oil, from the nut of the argon tree grown in Morocco. Most women might be familiar with argon oil as used in hair products, but in Morocco it is served along with olive oil at the table.
While she’s well versed in the cuisine of the Mediterranean, where the ingredients really speak for themselves, Zircher also had the opportunity to spend six months cooking in coastal France after she left Oleana. It is there where she developed the chef ’s passion for visiting the local markets and fishmongers and choosing ultra-fresh produce and ingredients.
“Living in France and working alongside Ana Sortun helped shape me as a chef and food-lover. These two experiences have also helped in my mind- set of thinking seasonally and sustainably about cooking. Having maintained my friendship with Ana has allowed me to spend winters helping at Oleana, and two additional winters helping out at their new bakery, Sofra,” said Zircher, who takes advantage every winter of the closing of The Boarding House for four months to travel, explore new places and hone her skills.
Last winter she traveled all over Sicily, and this year she and general manager Jane Stoddard went to Spain and Morocco after a November trip to San Francisco and the Napa Valley with the Raynors and other chefs from The Pearl and Corazon del Mar to experience new culinary adventures and meet some of the winemakers whose wine they serve at the Raynors’ restaurants.
Come April, however, she was back in the kitchen at The Boarding House, planning the spring menu.
“I feel that at The Boarding House we stay true to who we are, where we are and where we’ve been. Each year more and more local products are showing up and it’s becoming really exciting to cook on Nantucket,” Zircher said.
All Kovalencik & Matt Zadorozny
All Kovalencik is the chef with the longest tenure on Nantucket, having worked on-island for 40 years at over a dozen restaurants. Old-timers will remember names like The Sandpiper on Main Street; The Dockside on Steamboat Wharf; Schell’s Steak House, now The Muse; The Mad Hatter; The India House, when chef Peter Wallace left; and The Roadhouse (where the late author Frank Conroy mentions him as an anonymous chef in his volume about Nantucket, “Time and Tide”). All also worked for five years at The Ships Inn when John and Bar Krebs owned it, for two years with Michael Shannon at The Club Car, The Summer House, The Boarding House with Jim Perelman before the Raynors bought it, 21 Federal, The North Wharf Fish House (now 12 Degrees East), Off Centre Café with Liz Holland, West Creek Café and finally Company of the Cauldron with Steve McCluskey 22 years ago before he bought it from Steve in 1989.
Thoroughly at home in the warm and inviting space that is the Cauldron on India Street, All works with his chef de cuisine, Matt Zadorozny, to turn out a week’s worth of set menus where they can plan a full three- to four-course meal. This allows complete chef control of the entire dining experience from start to finish, with sommelier Mark Anderwald helping out by suggesting the wines.
“Our weekly menus are posted on our website and available at the restaurant on Friday, usually by 5 o’clock,” All said. “I’ve kept all the past menus on my computer with notes from each night’s service. I start working on the next week’s menu so Matt and I can fine-tune them.”
A recent menu this spring started with lobster agnolotti with spring asparagus soup and local sorrel, followed by mustard greens with torn frisée and goat cheese, Cara Cara orange segments and toasted pepitas. The main course was a grilled duBreton pork chop with bacon-onion jam, cauliflower couscous, toasted almonds and oven-dried black grapes. Dessert was a warm chocolate cake with salty peanut ice cream and rhubarb preserve.
Every menu is thoughtfully prepared with special attention to flavor pairings and use of natural ingredients and fresh organic produce and meats. This year Liz Holland, formerly of Daily Breads, is consulting with the Cauldron on artisanal breads and desserts. Dining here is like attend- ing an intimate dinner party with special care and attention paid to each aspect of the dining experience from the time Andrea Kovalencik greets you at the door to the meal itself, while soft harp music played by Mary Keller in the background fills the air.
Zadorozny and Kovalencik have worked together for 10 years at the Cauldron and this is his fifth year as chef de cuisine. He first started out on the island next door at DeMarco for three seasons, learning the craft of making handmade pastas and northern Italian specialties. A student of fine cuisine, Zadorozny has traveled extensively over the winters, immers- ing himself in new experiences. He’s worked in the kitchen of Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York City, at Ambrosia in Boston and spent winters cooking in Northern Italy and South America. This winter he was in Argentina working with Chef Diego Felix at Casa Felix, before heading to Denver to work with chef Scott Parker at Table 6.
In 1995, Fred Bisaillon’s first job after culinary school was as an omelet cook in The White Elephant Hotel’s Regatta restaurant. He spent three summers there, before moving on to hotel and resort kitchens in Colorado, California, Bermuda and the Bahamas.
Fast forward a little more than a decade, and Bisaillon has returned to the kitchen of the White Elephant’s restaurant. It’s now the Brant Point Grill, and he’s now the executive chef.
Bisaillon, in his third season at the BPG, described his cuisine on the steak-and-seafood-laden menu as “comfort food taken to the next level.” Two of the signature menu items he’s developed recently are clear evidence of that. His Lobster Bloody Mary, created at the urging of his girlfriend Denise Corson, an island bartender, landed him a spot on the “Today” show. The early buzz this year is about Bisaillon’s Benedict Burger, an eight-ounce, all-natural Meyer beef patty with smoked pork loin, a sunny- side-up egg, tomato bearnaise sauce, fried garlic and zucchini pickles from his grandmother’s recipe.
“The Lobster Bloody Mary took on a life of its own. It started as a Mother’s Day special, and the guests just kept requesting it. We couldn’t take it off the menu. My girlfriend loves Bloody Marys, and we started talking about it over the winter. She’d had shrimp in them before, so I said ‘what if I use a quarter-pound of lobster, heirloom tomatoes, and charge enough to make up the cost?’ It got picked up by UrbanDaddy.com, and then we were asked to be on the ‘Today’ show.”
The Benedict Burger, created at the urging of Bisaillon’s friend Doug Sheare, also an island bartender, is garnering a similar reputation. “Bartenders, the waitstaff have all been coming in, and they’re just laughing because it’s so good. It’s so bad for you, but I’m your chef, not your doctor,” Bisaillon said with a laugh.
Classically trained in the French style with Italian influences, Bisaillon prides himself and his staff on the quality and freshness of the dishes that come out of the Brant Point Grill’s kitchen.
“We make as much right here as possible. We make our own pickles, our own burger buns, the challah breads for French toast. It’s great to have a large enough staff to do that,” he said.
“This restaurant is a little different than the others I’ve worked at culinary-wise. We get a lot of families, and food that invokes memories is great. Many of these are the same dishes you had growing up, but maybe I’m taking out an ingredient and putting in something else. It goes over really well. It’s the type of cuisine that will never really die.
“Familiar flavors are good for everybody. Some restaurants, even on this island, you have no idea what you’re going to get when you walk through the door, and that’s what you’re looking for, a new food experience. Here, you know exactly what you’re looking for. Lobster and steak will never be out of style. This is a destination. You’re here for the view, the steak, a great glass of wine, and maybe some oysters.”
Growing up in Troy, N.Y., Bisaillon started developing his culinary sensibilities early on.
“The food in my life growing up was very, very simple, but it was fresh. Dinners were three or four of us around the table, up to 10 people if we had more family over. It was a big bowl of fresh corn on the cob or tomatoes out of my mom’s garden. My dad would get in a bushel of littleneck clams and steam them. That’s all there was.”
He got his professional start early as well, working for a friend’s uncle Joe Forget in his catering business. It was then he knew he’d found his calling. “I was working a 10-hour day for 20 bucks and a case of Heineken, and it was awesome, just being a chef, and seeing how cool a guy Joe was. He took me under his wing, I think because he saw how much I cared about it. Of course, it was pretty cheap labor for him too,” he said with a laugh. It was obviously worth the effort. He’s since cooked at some of the finest hotel kitchens in the world, and worked with the biggest chefs in the business at charity events and food and wine festivals, including Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Bobby Flay, Jasper White and others. Bisaillon compared his kitchen to a symphony orchestra when describing his style in overseeing a staff of nearly 30 at the height of the season. “I try to be firm on standards, not on people. As an executive chef, you’re not playing an instrument. You are the maestro. You play an instrument, you’re done. I tell all the managers coming up through the ranks in hotel kitchens, ‘You’ve got to start being maestro, and stop playing the tuba.’ If I jump on to the sauté line, everything else is going to break down.”
When your dining room is among the most elegant on the island, and its outdoor seating has unsurpassed views of Nantucket Harbor, the food better be exceptional just to measure up.
The cuisine of Topper’s executive chef Kyle Zachary is exactly that, with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients cooked in a “modern New England” style. “The menu really changes with the seasons, but there are certainly old classics I’m not taking off the menu, the lobster crabcake, for example,” said Zachary, now in his first full season overseeing the Topper’s kitchen. “One of the dishes I’m really excited about right now is the St. Canut Farm’s Milk Fed Piglet, served with rhubarb, onions and mustard spaetzle. The loin is slowly cooked, the belly is cooked confit, and both are quickly seared to crisp the skin. “I’ve always been kind of driven by seasonal vegetables more than proteins. I like to try to have what most people consider the side dishes share the spotlight, and bring them up to the same level. Often you’ll see a pork dish with onions prepared in different ways, or a veal dish with carrots prepared in different ways. I really try to use different kinds of vegetables, and different kinds of textures.”
Zachary is no stranger to Topper’s and the Wauwinet. He spent time in the kitchen as a sous chef in 2005 and 2006, in between stints at the Wheatley Hotel in the Berkshires and a Marriott hotel in Berlin. He’s also cooked at Tangerine in Philadelphia, Alinea in Chicago, the Winnetu Inn on Martha’s Vineyard and most recently, the Intercontinental Hotel in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Zachary, who graduated from The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia, described his culinary sensibilities as driven by freshness and quality, and his menus – for the dining room and the outdoor deck – as a mixture of classic and approachable.
“My food is very seasonal and ingredient-driven. I try to use modern techniques to get the best out of the ingredients, and present them in a way that’s elegant and I hope interesting to the guests,” he said.
“I source the ingredients from wherever I can get the best. Some come from right here on the island, like Bartlett’s Farm. I’ll go as far as Ohio, to The Chef’s Garden (a sustainable grower of heirloom and specialty greens and vegetables), to get some ingredients. I try to get as much from Massachusetts as possible.
“I think we’re evolving. I don’t think we’re sticking to old traditions. We now have two styles of food. The inside menu in the dining room is classical (early-summer selections included Hudson Valley Foie Gras Terrine with rabbit rillettes, beets, strawberry mostrada and pistachio; and Butter Poached Lobster), and the outside uses the same high-quality ingredients, but they’re prepared in a more comfortable, approachable way (A Nantucket Mushrooms Croque Monsieur, Duck Fat Fries and a “Lazy Lobster Bake”). It gives the guest options.”
Zachary grew up in Indiana, and began cooking as a teenager because restaurants were where he could find a job. It turned into so much more, and he soon realized he was truly enjoying himself.
“I’ve been in restaurants since I was 15 years old. I was lucky to find something I really loved doing at a very young age. There are a lot of people still trying to find what they like to do,” he said.
Zachary oversees a kitchen staff of about 20 at the height of the season, and is responsible for breakfast, lunch and dinner menus for the upscale inn on the island’s east end.
“I consider my kitchen style a coaching style. I do my best to motivate my staff. I love to be hands-on. I love to cook. I hate sitting in the office. I like to lead by doing. Eyes are always on me.”
Two of those eyes belong to his wife Barbara, Topper’s mâitre d’.
“She understands what I do, the long hours, the high stress. She’s my biggest supporter, and my toughest critic,” Zachary said with a laugh. “Her attention to detail is way beyond mine.”
Chef Robert Boslow has been on the island cooking for over a decade, but it wasn’t until he ended up at the trendy hot spot LoLa 41 that people began asking repeatedly who was turning out the marvelous food from the kitchen.
A shy man, Boslow tends to deflect the accolades he has been receiving recently and really didn’t want to be interviewed for this article, though photographer Terry Pommett did manage to get him to pose for a portrait last fall. Since that was taken, Boslow has gone on to open Pazzo with Marco Coelho and his team, and the reviews have been nothing short of spectacular.
Boslow would rather let his food speak for him than talk to a reporter. Where to begin? Take the LoLa menu for starters. While the sushi is prepared by a whole different set of people with the requisite culinary skills, the small and large plates on the LoLa menu are Boslow’s creations. A number of island restaurants serve a version of fancy mac and cheese. LoLa’s is one of the best. Boslow uses a four-cheese blend to attain flavor and gooeyness, and for an especially indulgent version, adds sautéed spinach and chunks of bacon.
The rest of his menu is a blend of flavors. You can get a steak or a piece of fish. A spring addition of grilled Atlantic salmon is cooked to perfection with a charred roasted tomato sauce spooned atop.
There are pastas. Handmade potato gnocchi, one of Boslow’s specialties, is topped with a rich, deeply-flavored Bolognese sauce with shards of Grana padano.
Boslow also likes to do rice and noodle bowls with some vegetables and protein. And then there are the burgers: Beef with a foie gras dipping sauce and tuna with a creamy wasabi and sunomono relish. You’d have to be pretty picky eater not to find something you liked on the menu at both LoLa 41 and Pazzo.
For the opening of Pazzo, Boslow took a culinary field trip to Italy for research before creating his menu of foods from the sunny Mediterranean. Turn to page 35 to read all about Boslow’s work at Pazzo.
Boslow’s success is by no means overnight. He started on Nantucket over a decade ago when he was chef and partner in West Creek Café from 2000-2005, where he developed a passion for handmade pasta and fresh-baked bread, which he has built on over the years. His partner at West Creek, Jamie O’Connell, has joined Boslow at Pazzo as the pastry chef, where her skills as a baker are showcased nightly on the dessert menu. From there he worked at other island locations until the opportunity to work at LoLa 41 presented itself. That success begat Lolaburger, the fast-food luxe burger and truffle fries joint on “The Strip” at Steamboat Wharf. From there it was on to Pazzo.
This summer marks Mark Gottwald’s 21st year as chef and owner of the charming and romantic Ships Inn on Fair Street. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Gottwald knew early on that he wanted to be a chef. After graduating from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, he studied first at the Baltimore International School of Culinary Arts before attending La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris.
Gottwald spent his early years working in French restaurants in the States: La Petite Marmite in Palm Beach, Florida, Le Cirque in New York City and L’Orangerie and Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Los Angeles, before he and his wife Ellie bought the Ships Inn property, renovated it and started spending summers on the island, cooking and running the inn and raising their two daughters, Grace and Rose - both Nantucket natives and now college students at Northeastern University and Vanderbilt, respectively.
Gottwald’s food bears the stamp of a classically-trained French chef, but the dishes are a bit simpler and more accessible. An appetizer of grilled Chatham sea scallops is served with a black truffle hollandaise, sautéed halibut comes with a lobster cognac sauce and a grilled local flounder comes with a porcini gratin and homemade potato risotto. Gottwald catches much of the fish served in his restaurant from his own boat, the F/V Forelle, as he possesses the requisite commercial fisherman’s license.
The Ships Inn is open from late spring through Columbus Day. It’s a favorite for romantic dinners with its soft lighting and candlelight shimmering off the pale peach walls. The dory bar with its cozy ambiance is a good spot for a pre-theater nibble or late night cocktail.
In the off-season the Gottwalds live on the West Coast where they’ve both been involved in the entertainment industry. For the last 10 years Mark has been involved as a producer of films and shows for cable TV on HBO and Cinemax. Ellie has also acted in a number of films. Mark is also the founder of a software firm that specializes in interactive advertising.