Martha’s Vineyard has no shortage of restaurants and behind each one, there’s a top-of-the-line chef. The Times decided to get to know these epicurean wonders and are presenting our findings in a weekly series.
There’s something very welcoming about a restaurant with wainscoting, bookshelves, and French doors. Park it in the middle of a farm, and you almost feel as if you’re dining in a cottage in the English countryside. New this summer are chickens, two goats, and executive chef, James McDonough. On the Island since 1996, McDonough long ago mastered local cuisine, and he delights in the herbs and veggies grown right on the premises. Once the two teenaged goats come of age, watch for menu items featuring chevremade right in his kitchen.
How did you come to be on the Island?
In 1996 I answered an ad in The New York Times for an executive chef for the Beach Plum Inn. I had just come up from the Caribbean. My wife and I were down in St. Thomas for four years. We had our first two children and realized we needed help, so we came back to the States and I met with Paul Darrow [then owner of the Beach Plum Inn]. Funny enough, he’d gotten my résumé and had eaten at three restaurants that I worked at over the years pretty much at the time I was there — including in St. Thomas. All those coincidences led us to the thought that there was something going on and maybe we should meet. So, we met in New York City and he went through the rest of his interviews and I got the job.
How and when did you start cooking?
At age 14. I started out dishwashing at a small mom and pop place and pretty much right from the get-go started cooking to help them out — as most dishwashers do. By age 17, my senior year, I was pretty much running the place — opening and closing it. I don’t want to overplay that. It was an eatery more than a restaurant. Short order stuff.
But, I just fell into it. I love the adrenaline of cooking. I love the challenge of it, the fast pace of it.
How did you come to be working at Lambert’s Cove Inn?
[Owners] Scott and Kell approached me last summer with the idea of maybe working here. I helped them out a little bit last summer. Over the winter we talked about it. When I left Beach Plum, after 16 years of the 80-hour week, seven months on, five months off, I yearned for a more normal pace of life. And so I resigned there actually on New Years’ Day three years ago and hooked up with Jean Dupon, who was developing La Cave (in Vineyard Haven). I spent two years working with him — breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but I was able to set it up and hire and train staff and develop the menu so I was able to leave at five o’clock and come home and have a balanced life.
In that time frame, Jean was looking to sell, so things were a little unsure how much longer he would run it.
Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?
Oh, my gosh, yes! One that stands out more than anything else was when I was apprenticing at La Fromagerie my first year. It took me six months to work myself up to where I could be trusted to work on the line. One of the things the executive chef there, Imon, did was to teach me to make the paté en croute. It was a three-day process. It was a really wonderful experience. However, the first time I was allowed to do it on my own — you start it out at 450 degrees and when the top begins to brown you turn it down to 350 — I forgot to turn it down. I burnt six of them, which is about 80 orders. I took two days to get it to that point. Needless to say, Imon was not happy with me. There was absolutely nothing you could do to salvage it. It was a lesson I will never forget.
Is there a dish or meal you prepared that was part of a very special occasion?
That same paté we entered into a food show at the New York Coliseum in 1982 and it won a blue ribbon. Imon came to trust me to make them again, and I mastered them. I came in on my own time just to spend extra time with these things.
What’s the best single bite you ate in the last week?
My wife makes this homemade pizza with fresh garden vegetables, feta cheese, basil, garlic, and local greens. For something I don’t do — for something I really enjoy because I’m not doing it — it’s that.
Favorite dish on your menu?
Just one? Grilled pesto-crusted Atlantic salmon, tri-colored vegetable orzo, and heirloom tomato ragout. [The ragout] is kind of light and simple. The basil comes right from our garden.
Favorite dish you cook for your wife for a romantic evening at home?
Steamed Menemsha lobster.
What are your top five indispensable ingredients?
Extra virgin olive oil, garlic, tomato, house-made demi-glacé, and sea salt.
Your favorite kitchen tool?
My Vita-Prep (commercial food processor). It’s just so versatile for mixtures like soups and sauces.
Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, etc., describe the perfect Martha’s Vineyard feast.
Bouillabaisse. I use a mélange of all the seafood that comes right from here — lobsters, little necks, scallops, striped bass, mussels. Island tomatoes, Island herbs. Accompanying that, a salad of mixed greens. For dessert, fresh mint from the garden and fresh berries with a white Chantilly cream.
What is your idea of a perfect day off on Martha’s Vineyard?
Pack the cooler and go to the beach. Surfing. Swimming. My wife and kids, picnic, cooler, beach all day.
If it could be anywhere in the world, where would you open your second restaurant?
St. Thomas. I’d go back down to the Caribbean. I miss it — parts of it. One of the major reasons for leaving was having the two kids and all the trials and tribulations of that. Getting all the things you needed. It doesn’t have to be St. Thomas. Any of those places down there.
What would you be if you weren’t a chef?
You know, I never really thought about that. Something with my hands. Something creative. I could see myself in landscaping. If I had a pipe-dream it would be as a professional surfer. I love the ocean, but never had the talent for that. So, a gardener or landscaper.