Authors Posts by Joyce Wagner

Joyce Wagner

Joyce Wagner
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Joseph Monteiro, executive chef at Atlantic Fish and Chop House in Edgartown. — Photo Courtesy of Joseph Monteir

The Island 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 we are presenting our findings in an ongoing series.

You can’t miss it. During lunch, it’s a cool oasis. At night, it dazzles. And it’s right on the water. Atlantic Fish & Chop House overlooks the harbor in Edgartown with rooms inside and out that whisper summer comfort and fine cuisine. They major in steak and seafood, and executive chef Joe Monteiro aces both. Short and succinct in conversation, he’s long on creativity when it comes to his cuisine.

How did you come to be on the Island?

I got pursued by the owner of the Atlantic. He made me a job offer. I was between things. He flew me up here in 2010 and we talked. I cooked for him and I had the job.

How and when did you start cooking?

I started cooking with my mom in the kitchen when I was pretty little. We have a huge family and [there was] a lot of work in the kitchen. My dad cooked also. Both of them. One of my uncles owned a restaurant and I used to work with him when I was 13 or 14. I never really did anything, just helped him get the business started. I started washing dishes [professionally] at 17, then started cooking right after and never left.

I went to Bergen [Community College] in Ridgewood, New Jersey, for 22 months of hotel and restaurant management.

Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?

When I first started cooking, I was in charge of most of the station set-up in the restaurant and making all the soups and sauces. I asked one of my new dishwashers to go downstairs and get me flour. The flour bin was in the same room as the Fryolator cleaner. He brought up about five pounds of Fryolator cleaner instead of flour. I made soup and I put it into the cooler. The next morning I walked into the restaurant and the chef took me into the cooler. He said, “I want you to take a look at this.” I walked in there and the thing was bubbling. It looked like a volcano inside of a five-gallon bucket. I couldn’t figure it out for a good while until I really stopped and thought about it. I grabbed the dishwasher and went downstairs with him. I was like, “So where was the flour?” “Right there!” I was like, “Noooo.”

It put me back in the weeds, because I had to make one soup for that day and another for the following day.

Is there a dish or meal you prepared that was part of a very special occasion?

We did a golf tournament in California for a lot of NFL stars. A lot of Hall of Famers, if you will. I golfed with those guys. It was a lot of fun.

What’s the best single bite you ate in the last week?

I don’t remember, to be honest with you. Everything I ate in the past week was pretty good.

Favorite dish on your menu?

My dishes are like kids. I treat them all the same. I love them all equally. But, probably one of our new dishes. We’re increasing our new menu by about 20 percent. A lot of raw, a lot of cooked, a lot of stuff that people on the Island are really not doing. We like to innovate and go to another level.

What do you cook for a romantic evening with your girlfriend?

You need to ask her. She loves food even more than I do. To please her is fairly easy. We’ve been cooking a lot of different stuff. It’s usually me cooking. She sits on the counter and we share wine together. I cook, I make her taste. We keep laughing.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Salt, salt, salt, and salt, and a little more salt. I’m a firm believer that salt brings up the flavor in everything. Without salt everything is just bland. I don’t believe in people seasoning the food for me. If you come to my restaurant and season the food, it tells me that I’m not doing my job. So, I push my people to season everything we do to the limit. Just to the edge where it’s just perfect. Some people seem to think it’s over the edge, but 9.9 times out of 10, I’m right on the money.

Your favorite kitchen tool?

My pencil — which is always behind my ear. I am a pencil freak. Nine times out of ten, if you walk into my restaurant, I will have my pencil behind my ear. All my notes, if I need to mark off tickets, everything is done with a pencil.

Other than that, I think I use about every piece of equipment equally.

Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, etc., describe the perfect M.V. feast.

Maybe different kinds of baked oysters with different stuffs. I cook the way my mood is usually. If I’m very hyper you can tell. My food is very aggressive. If I’m mellow, my food is kind of subtle. If I’m frustrated, sometimes it’s darker than normal. For the most part, my food is very happy.

What is your idea of a perfect day off on Martha’s Vineyard?

I don’t have a lot of those. Sometimes a walk on [my girlfriend’s] private beach. I spend as much time with her as I can.

If it could be anywhere in the world, where would you open your second restaurant?

Maybe Portugal. I’m part Portuguese. [There’s a] lot of seafood influence. A lot of water and stuff like that.

What would you be if you weren’t a chef?

I would probably be a car junkie. I love cars. I would probably be a racecar driver or something like that.

— Alison Shaw

The barbecue season is upon us once again, and Islanders need look no further than local farms and fish markets, and even our own backyards, for ingredients to throw on the grill. We asked local chefs for their tips and takes on what food to grill, where to find it, and preparation how-to’s in order to make the most of the Island’s bountiful harvest.

Max Eagan of Isola

Max Eagan, chief executive chef for the restaurant portion at the new Isola in Edgartown (located in the former Lattanzi’s spot), is an avid fisherman and likes to cook his catch over an open flame. “I keep a small charcoal grill in my Jeep for most of the summer,” he tells us. “You never know when the time comes for a beach lunch, especially as a fisherman.” He prefers charcoal over gas because, “It really makes you connect with the food. You’re cooking more, tending to the coals, controlling heat, and you can always throw some wood chips on there to get a real nice smoky flavor.”

Scup is his first choice for local catch on the grill. They’re easy to catch, prep, season, and can be barbecued whole. “Today,” he says, “I did basil, garlic, crushed red pepper, smoked sea salt, and olive oil.”

Other seafoods found on Max’s grill include clams and scallops. For clams, he recommends, “Dig them, rinse them, and put them on the grill until they pop open. Dip into melted butter and enjoy. Nothing is simpler, more rewarding, and delicious.”

He also provides a tip for grilling scallops without them sticking to the grill. Blanch them for 30 seconds in boiling water, then immerse in ice water. Pat them dry, and season with salt and pepper. Cook on an oiled grate.

Max takes advantage of other Island bounty. He likes local peaches on the grill “…especially if there is some prosciutto laying around to accompany it.” And he likes to split a chicken from The Good Farm and toss that on the fire. “Jefferson Munroe really raises his birds well,” he says. “Nothing beats a local bird. The taste is superior.”

In short, Max is all about locally produced and caught food. “Our Island provides us with tons of beautiful and free foods,” he says. “To not take advantage of them would be a shame.”

Pete Smyth of Slice of Life

When Pete Smyth is not overseeing the menu at Slice of Life in Oak Bluffs, he’s a dedicated family man. Barbecuing enhances that. “I often go to Morning Glory Farm and The Net Result to get stuff when I have time off,” he says. “I usually look for something to grill. I think it tastes better and I can be outside with my kids while I’m doing it.”

And what does he buy to feed a wife and two daughters? “If you’re talking savory, it’s lobster or any local shellfish.” He’ll also opt for chicken or swordfish with a simple marinade made with equal parts of soy sauce and maple syrup seasoned with garlic, salt, and pepper.

Like many of the Island chefs, he prefers charcoal or wood for grilling because of its effect on the flavor of the food. “But,” he admits, “usually due to time, I use gas.”

He recommends having the grill hot and clean. Instead of seasoning the grate by swabbing with an oiled towel, he oils the bristles on his cleaning brush.

And, like a true doting dad, he treats the kids to ice cream. “We are blessed to have so many purveyors of the fine treat,” he says.

Justin Melnick of The Terrace at the Charlotte Inn

After the chaos of cooking at The Terrace at the Charlotte Inn in Edgartown, Justin Melnick likes to take it easy. “Grilling outdoors in the summer should always be fun,” he says. “The food will always taste better on a great day with friends and family.

“Keep it simple,” he continues. “There are lots of great summer vegetables, meats, and fish out there. Find the best ingredients, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and don’t overcook them.

He especially enjoys local sea bass grilled with olive oil, salt and pepper, and served simply with grilled heirloom tomatoes and a cucumber and mixed green salad. For the Island’s fresh local corn, he always grills it in the husk, whether on the barbecue at home or at his work at The Terrace. And he raves about the tomatoes and corn grown on the Island. “You can’t go wrong in the summer,” he says.

He also recommends a simple recipe for the grill – littleneck clams, rinsed and purged, and placed directly on the grill on medium heat until they open. Melt some butter with lemon and herbs, toss together in a bowl (shells and all) and enjoy.

Justin prefers grilling in the comfort of his own backyard, with a cocktail or two for encouragement. The gas grill is his choice “only because I have used it my whole life,” he says. “It’s easier to control the temperature and ready when I need it to be.”

Ron “Puppy” Cavallo of Soigne

The chef usually referred to as “Puppy” is part-owner and cook for Soigne, the market with up-scale carry-out meals on Upper Main Street in Edgartown. He considers grilling such an integral part of cooking that he’s had a built-in barbecue installed off his home kitchen. And while he prefers gas for convenience, he admits that many dishes need the enhancement of charcoal. “Jerk chicken, for instance,” he cites. “It needs the slow smoke.”

He maintains, however, that you don’t need a built-in grill for the best barbecuing and perhaps the great outdoors can be a better choice in the summer. “Grill everything outside,” he suggests. “All meats, fish, veggies, and potatoes. No mess or added heat to the kitchen.”

For ingredients, Puppy enjoys the bounty of the Island, especially fresh local corn, lobster, and freshly caught striped bass. He likes to steam the corn, then blacken it on the grill. He cuts off the kernels for a fresh grilled corn and feta salad. He enjoys the bass stuffed with just-picked garden herbs and grilled whole. And for prep, it’s a time-saver for him to do the preliminary work in his kitchen at Soigne and finish the entrée on the grill at home.

A simple recipe that he recommends is “Wine Bottle or Beer Can Chicken.” Here’s how he makes it:

Rub your chicken with your favorite spice. His favorite for this is hot smoked paprika, garlic powder, sea salt, and cayenne pepper. Empty half the beer or wine into a shallow pan and put two or three garlic cloves in the bottle or can. Set the bottle or can through the cavity of the chicken, standing it upright in the shallow pan. Make sure the chicken doesn’t tip over, place it in the grill, close the lid, and cook to perfection. The liquid remaining in the bottle or can with the garlic helps to flavor the cavity of the chicken.

Of course, it’s best made with locally raised chickens.

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Puppy, owner of Soigne in Edgartown, started his restaurant career at The Seafood Shanty when he was 12. — Soigne

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 culinary wonders and share their stories each week.

Ron Cavallo, known as “Puppy,” is owner-operator of Soigne with partner Diana Rabaioli. The renowned, upscale gourmet market is located at 190 Main Street in Edgartown. Slight and wiry of build, Puppy possesses just the right amount of manic energy to keep the quality of the prepared foods excellent and customers coming back season after season. For more information on Soigne, call 508-627-8489.

How did you come to be on the Island?

I was born here. My grandfather came here in 1938 to open up a kitchen at the [Edgartown] Yacht Club. Every year he would get lonely for his family and bring them down from New York during the seasons. I forget how many months a year he would stay. So, I was born here during one of those seasons because there was a hurricane. We were kind of trapped here. Last day of high school, I came back to the Island, and I’ve been here ever since.

How and when did you start cooking?

I started working at The Seafood Shanty for Bob Carroll when I was 12. I worked there for 11 years. I started as a dishwasher my first year and worked my way up to chef. Bob Carroll was my mentor. He sent me to school at the University of Mass. I took the hotel/restaurant program. Eventually he sold the restaurant, and I went on to be a chef.

How did you come to be at Soigne?

I worked in Boston, Florida, New York. I worked at the Waldorf Astoria, and I worked several restaurants on the Island. I was chef in all of these places, then I decided to open up my own place after so many years. Soigne opened 30 years ago. Isn’t that amazing? I reflect back on it sometimes because it’s just been a blur. Thirty years. I just can’t believe it. I always considered myself to be the new kid on the block. Thirty years later, I’m one of the oldest and longest owner-operated food businesses in town. There’s a handful of us left.

Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?

Of course. Who hasn’t? When I was working at the Waldorf Astoria, the king of Saudi Arabia was having room service up in his suite. I think there were maybe 10 of his subjects with him. The cook in the kitchen made him lamb. The king had no teeth. Don’t ask me why the king of Saudi Arabia, with all his money… I think it was [King] Faisal. This was in 1979 or 80. He had no teeth so we had to purée everything.

It was too salty. The room service captain came down and said, ‘Oh, my God, the king didn’t eat. And if the king doesn’t eat, no one eats. This is going to be an international disaster.’ So I whipped up another dish — lamb — puréed it of course, and put no salt in. The king accepted it, everybody ate, everybody was happy, and the price of oil did not go up.

Was there an occasion when a dish of yours was part of a large, important event?

I made fried chicken for Muhammad Ali during training for Joe Frazier. Do you believe it? That’s what he wanted. Fried chicken. And he was in training!

What is the single best bite you’ve eaten in the past week?

I had curry in India. It was fabulous. The blend of spices they put on there was phenomenal.

What is your favorite dish on your menu?

Occasionally we make osso bucco: braised lamb shank or veal in red wine. So delicious. That’s my weakness.

What do you cook for a romantic evening with your girlfriend?

Broiled lobster. It’s her favorite. I make a stuffing with little pieces of seafood, oysters, and Ritz Cracker crumbs.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Saffron, curry (that I make), Himalayan salt (the pink stuff, the best salt on earth), garlic, shallots.

Your favorite kitchen tool?

A paring knife. I like to make vegetable flowers.

Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, etc., describe the perfect MV Feast.

Bouillabaisse, using fresh local shellfish, in tomato saffron broth base.

What is your idea of a perfect day off on Martha’s Vineyard?

If I had a day off, I would work in the herb garden.

If it could be anywhere in the world, where would you open your second restaurant?

Italy. Probably Rome. I have friends in Rome and I know that Italy is up-and-coming in the convenience food world. My cousin was telling us that now his wife wants take-out all the time where everyone used to cook at home. So I think we’d be getting in on the ground floor.

What would you be if you weren’t a chef?

A writer. Maybe a poet. I’ve done things like that.

Harbor View Hotel executive chef Nathan Gould loves cooking with Vineyard bounty. — File photo by Eli Dagostino

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 culinary wonders and share their stories.

Nathan Gould is a busy guy. He’s the executive chef for both of the Harbor View Hotel’s eateries and catering. After obtaining a BS in Culinary Nutrition, an MS in Sports Nutrition and Kinesiology, and spending a summer in wine school in Germany, he traveled extensively. Besides employment as chef at many restaurants, he’s worked as a private chef. He arrived on the Island two and a half years ago from Princeton, N.J. His gluten-free Smokey Vineyard Quahog Chowder recently took first place at the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group’s fundraising event.

How did you come to be on the Island?

I was actually called by a close friend who was the food and beverage director [at the Harbor View] at the time. He informed me about the Island and the hotel and how beautiful it was. I started off as the Executive Sous Chef. This will be my third season.

How and when did you start cooking?

I started cooking as a hobby, getting really interested in food at around the age of 11. It was with my mother and grandmother. They were great home cooks, pretty much both from a strong French background. I was intrigued with what they would make — mostly soups and stocks. A lot of old-style French cuisine. I would ask them for the recipes and purchase the ingredients and try to replicate those recipes. My mother and my grandmother let me help around the kitchen all the time. They were very influential people.

Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?

Before this position, when I was younger, I was running a catering company in Princeton, New Jersey. We had a 150-person sit-down dinner — an outside event. Right before the dinner was about to go out our ovens completely went down. We completely lost electricity. We had to light about six or seven charcoal grills and fix mashed potatoes, grill all the meat, and cook all the vegetables on top of the grills. It doesn’t seem that hard, but when you have to feed 150 people, it’s very difficult.

Is there a dish or meal you prepared that was part of a very special occasion?

One of my greatest accomplishments, as far as a celebration for someone, was: there’s a very famous historical man back in Princeton, New Jersey, Dr. Scheide [William H. Scheide, musician, philanthropist, humanitarian, and noted collector of rare books] and every year we would do this grand gala event for his birthday. They would invite musicians and politicians and all these high-end connections. They would fly in an orchestra from Germany and this orchestra would play “Happy Birthday” probably 20 different ways in every style of Bach because that was his favorite composer. We would have this amazing party and this big dinner for him. He actually just turned 99. This is the second year I haven’t been able to be back and do that event for him. It was a great event, very special.

What’s the best single bite you ate in the last week?

A good friend and fisherman brought me some local perch and the perch were full of roe. We smoked two roe sacs, sprinkled on Maldon sea salt — one of the most light and flakey sea salts — and olive oil and ate that with grilled flatbread.

Favorite dish on your menu?

Currently, it would have to be our pork shank, which is a hind shank cut. It’s slow braised for eight hours. We serve it with a cauliflower purée, roasted cauliflower, capers, and a pan pork jus — which is just a reduction of all the beautiful pork stock we have from braising.

What do you cook for a romantic evening with your girlfriend?

She loves tuna, so hopefully I could get some fresh bluefin tuna off the Cape if they’re coming around soon. She loves good sushi and sashimi, which we don’t usually get too much of on the Vineyard. And she loves Thai food. I would probably do something with fresh local tuna for a first course and then do something with homemade noodles with a little Thai influence with the ingredients — she loves coconut milk and lemongrass — for the second course.

For dessert, anything with fresh mangoes. I would probably do a fresh mango sorbet with shaved frozen coconut and tapioca. I don’t normally cook those flavors, but she’s from an island [St. John, VI], so if I were to be making something special, it would be influenced by island flavors.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Safflower oil, duck fat, Maldon sea salt, fresh eggs, and fresh herbs.

Your favorite kitchen tool?

Definitely my knife. I use a 10” Masa Hiro. Without it you’re pretty much lost.

Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, etc., describe the perfect MV Feast.

I would definitely start the meal off with Honeysuckle Oysters grown by Nick Turner. We use them in the restaurant and we’ve never had a better oyster than his.

For the second course I would definitely take a mixed bowl of greens from Thimble Farms, including mustard greens, micros, and his baby lettuce mix and cover the greens with fresh citrus olive oil, sea salt, and cracked pepper.

The third thing I would do is a slow-roasted chicken from The Good Farm or Cleveland Farm and serve with vegetables and rough greens from one of our surrounding farms like Slip Away or Morning Glory.

For dessert, we made an amazing dessert that we featured in the fall — a Russian olive shortcake.

What is your idea of a perfect day off on Martha’s Vineyard?

Going on a hike with my girlfriend. Usually in the summer when we get a day off together, I like to go spear fishing for sea bass. We go to one of the points off Menemsha or Great Rock and go spearfishing. We actually did one last year where we spearfished and we took the fish to Stanley’s [Larsen’s] fish shop and he cooked it up and we ate it on the beach with a glass of wine.

If it could be anywhere in the world, where would you open your second restaurant?

Probably in the Monterey region of California. I would love to own a small farm with a 30-seat restaurant — somewhere that would be agriculturally sustainable, hopefully in a year-round growing climate. And access to people who are interested in greatly prepared food and want to support the local movement.

What would you be if you weren’t a chef?

A nutritionist and sports trainer, because that’s what my other degree is in. I would be working with clients, training them physically and assisting with their diets. That’s something I’ve always been really interested in.

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Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.

Joyce Wagner is a freelance writer and author of the book, “Random Overthoughts: The Best (Give or Take) of the Humor Column ‘Overthinking.’” She resides in West Tisbury and is currently at work on two historical novels. Once a week, she will ponder certain Island truths and institutions in “Overthinking.”

I’m the second child and second daughter of a large family, born and raised in the Second City (Chicago). I attended a small parochial school named for a second-string Irish saint (Saint Ailbee). Because my last name began with a “w,” I sat in the second to the last seat in almost every class (to the constant consternation of Markus Wieloczienski who sat behind me). Eventually, though, my life took an upgrade and I experienced some firsts: winner in my class in a bicycle safety contest (I was the only person in my age group who competed), and first place for prose in my college’s literary magazine.

Now, I discover, I moved to a second county.

Recently, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an organization dedicated to health and healthcare, released statistics ranking Massachusetts counties by their health outcomes. RWJF, as they like to initial themselves, boasts on their website that they are “the nation’s largest health-focused philanthropy.” Which is odd. I always thought philanthropy was something you did, not were. Of course they get to be number one in their field. It’s easy enough to rank innocent, hard-working counties when you’re sitting at the top of your own stack.

You’ve probably guessed by now, we – Dukes County – didn’t win. We have, in bookies’ parlance, “placed.” Number two of fourteen.

‘Twas not always such. According to RWJF’s statistics from previous surveys, we rose to the top twice in the last five years. In 2010 and 2011, we ran second to Nantucket County (aka “The Dark Side”). In 2012 and 2013 we beat Nantucket for the number one spot. You may have seen the parade.

This year, Middlesex County (whose very name should denote mediocrity) sneaked up and landed the top spot.

“What does all this mean?” you ask. Beats me. The categories are a bit confusing. For example, “Premature death.” We aced that one, but they don’t state if it’s because we had the most or the least. Besides, premature death? Don’t you just go when you go? How often do you hear someone say at a funeral, “Poor guy, he had at least four years left.”

We ranked number five in Quality of Life (come on!) and Health Behaviors. Under the latter, we did pretty well until you get to “Excessive drinking” and “Alcohol-impaired driving deaths.” My guess is that the non-Martha’s Vineyard parts of Duke’s County are responsible for our downfall there. The Island has more 12-step programs than there are peas on Cronig’s salad bar, so how could we have that kind of problem here? Besides, the guy who ran his car into the Net Result last week won’t be tallied until the next count, so I think it’s that crowd on the Elizabeth Islands that’s messing up our curve.

By the way, Dukes is below the national average for teen births. Way to go, MVRHS!

We came in second in “Physical Environment.” We was robbed. But, again, the categories are kind of goofy. “Air pollution” and “Drinking water violations” make sense, but “Driving alone to work?” “Long commute?” Do they know where we live? There’s no such thing as a long commute. And our work schedules in the summer? Car-pooling is pretty much right off the table. Again, I think it’s those mainland-working stiffs on the Elizabeths. An over-water ride to the office is bound to mess up the stats.

Maybe I’m reading this wrong. Statistics are like a landed fish to me. They flop around in my head then flip right out again. I barely passed remedial arithmetic, so I’m not likely to understand them, much less explain them. But hear this: I think they’re wrong. Being a one-plus-year rinseashore (I’m on my second washashore cycle), I know my Island – and no MIDDLEsex County is healthier than we are. So, the only real explanation is that those folks on the Elizabeths have skewed the figures and that’s why we’re number two healthwise. They’re a sickly bunch of folks over there. All ten of them.

Chef Merrick Carreiro finds time to cook at home with her son Nolan, age 8. — Bruce Kappel

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 culinary wonders and share their stories each week.

Merrick Carreiro is one of those rare Island chefs who didn’t know from early on that she would end up cooking as a career. And, she took some detours before joining forces with Jenik Munafo and Jenik’s husband, Hocine Khelalfa, to create Little House Café in Vineyard Haven. Now, on the verge of their fifth summer, Merrick cooks for breakfast and lunch, and Jenik handles dinner.

How did you come to be on the Island?

Serendipity. I’m a Canadienne, but I have dual citizenship. I’d lived everywhere I could in Canada and had gone to culinary school [Stratford Chefs School in Stratford, Ontario], so I thought I would try the United States.

I really didn’t know anything about Martha’s Vineyard. My grandmother had a house on the Cape for 25 years and we had an old family friend who had a house [on the Vineyard], so we would come over for day trips. A woman at culinary school would go to Key West every year and her favorite restaurant was Pepe’s. She’d thought she heard that Tina Miller, the daughter of the owner of Pepe’s, was maybe opening a Pepe’s on Martha’s Vineyard and suggested I look into it. Well, there was no Pepe’s and no sign of his daughter being here.

I ended up getting hired at Café Moxie [then owned by Tina Miller] while Tina wasn’t even there. It was April and she was away at the time. I started working there and not even realizing that I was working for the daughter of Pepe’s owner. I was meant to be there, and that’s where I started my career.

How and when did you start cooking?

My first cooking experience was at a tree-planting camp in Canada in the early 90’s. It was reforestation. I was the cook’s assistant.

How did you come to be at Little House Café?

Not too sure how that all happened. Jenik and I knew each other at Café Moxie. I was the chef and she was a waitress. After Moxie I took a break from cooking. I got married. I had two children. I actually was the manager of the design center at Vineyard Home Center for about eight and a half years. I took a long break from cooking, but whenever I created a kitchen, I visualized myself right in that kitchen.

Jenik and Hocine came up with the idea [for the restaurant] and enticed me into doing it with them. It was just a collaboration of time and wanting a change and having the opportunity to buy the building. We opened Little House Café in July 2010. Everything we’ve done since then has been a full collaboration, but the original idea I will not take any credit for.

Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?

My most memorable was actually in cooking school. I was taking an exam and had to make a shrimp bisque and I totally destroyed it and had to think about how to get out of it.

I deglazed with vinegar instead of brandy. I just did the wrong step at the wrong time. My instructor looked at me like, “I don’t know what you’re going to do.” Somehow I pulled it off and all I remember is him saying, “This is stellar.”

That was my first major lesson in learning to roll with the punches in the kitchen. If you make a mistake you have to make something else out of it.

What is your favorite Martha’s Vineyard dining memory?

My first meal with my husband at the Standby Café in 1999 when Joe DaSilva was the chef. The atmosphere at the Standby was so special. It was my first date with my husband-to-be. That was a special place then.

Favorite dish on your menu?

I have a lot of favorites, but I think it’s the Greek Lamb Burger because it’s my mother’s recipe. And there’s something about the smell that I find so rewarding when it comes out of the oven, just before it goes out to the dining room. It just makes me so happy every time. The presentation and everything about it makes me proud.

What do you cook for a romantic evening with your husband?

[She laughs] Yeah, right. His favorite is lamb shoulder chops grilled on the barbecue. Oh, my goodness. He just licks his chops when I make them for him. He’s just died and gone to heaven.

You have two sons [ages 8 and 11]. What do they eat?

They’re at different stages. My youngest doesn’t really eat well at all, but my oldest is starting to branch out a bit more. They’re at that point that they’re eating the same vegetable or fruit (carrots and apples) all the time. They like to cook with me. They do enjoy cooking, but they’re not the most adventurous eaters. They will be someday.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Parsley, garlic, lemon, salt, and olive oil.

Your favorite kitchen tool?

A good sharp knife. You can’t beat it.

Any tricks of the trade that you can share?

Peeling ginger with a spoon is the best way to go. It’s so tedious using a peeler, but if you just use a teaspoon, it comes right off.

Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, etc., describe the perfect M.V. feast.

Local lamb with local fingerling potatoes, arugula, tomatoes, corn — one of those summer barbecue meals where everything is at its peak. You don’t even have to do anything to it. Just eat it fresh.

What is your idea of a perfect day off on Martha’s Vineyard?

[She laughs again] What’s that? Going to the beach with my family. When I can get to the beach in the summer, I’m having a good week.

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Seriously? Pittsfield? Where's the ocean? — Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.
Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.

Joyce Wagner is a freelance writer and author of the book, “Random Overthoughts: The Best (Give or Take) of the Humor Column ‘Overthinking.’” She resides in West Tisbury and is currently at work on two historical novels. Once a week, she will ponder certain Island truths and institutions in “Overthinking.”

Some people just don’t get it. In a recent article on the Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch website, an article titled, “Retire Here, Not There: Massachusetts,” proposed that there are more economical places to retire than Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket. And they offer “natural beauty and plenty of cultural activities.” Author Anya Martin suggests four “reasonably priced” alternative areas for the golden years: Northampton, Barnstable, Pittsfield, and New Bedford. All really nice places. Really. And, no doubt, reasonable. But as any Islander will tell you “reason” has nothing to do with living here. Of course we know we can get more bang-for-the-buck almost anywhere else. How often are we told, “You can get almost twice the house for the same money in Willoughbytown Village, Mass,” or “If you lived on the mainland, you’d be paying a dollar less per gallon for gas”?

It’s a little like telling someone, “Don’t vacation in Paris. You can get more for your Euro in Minusculebourg.” Or “Rio? Save your reals. Much cheaper in San Não Encontrando.” Right.

So what do Ms. Martin’s reasonable areas have that can be switched out for a life on the Island?

Northampton

Ms. Martin defines it as a “college town with big-city arts, culture and amenities.” In fact there five colleges in the area. Oh, boy! Let’s retire where there are thousands of young adults away from home for the first time. We have Oak Bluffs for that. There’s also a mall, restaurants, bookstores, galleries, gift shops, and coffee shops. Other than the mall, we pretty much have the rest of those things in spades. And malls are kind of what we don’t want here.

Barnstable

Close, but no cheroot. It’s on the Cape, so there’s water handy. Beaches, hiking trails, fishing, bird-watching, oystering, and a huge mall. Got it, got it, got it, got it, got it, don’t want it. Houses are cheaper, though. Still, it’s not an island.

Pittsfield

Are you kidding? Western Mass? Berkshires? Certainly if you were thinking about living on an Island, this would be your best alternative. People who love water sports and ocean views naturally gravitate to cross-country skiing and mountains. It’s inland. Waaaaay inland. Mountains. Not even close.

New Bedford

Whew! We’re back to seaside. New Bedford is quaint and has a lot of the amenities of MV without the sticker shock, but still – it’s not an Island.

And that’s what they don’t get. There is something magical about living on an island that trumps all reasonable considerations. Poor people live here – people who would not be poor on the mainland. Whether retiring CEO of Megacorp, Inc., or washashore landed for a summer job, we’re here because we arrived here and fell in love with the joint. We heard the siren song of the Island and were hooked.

It’s not an easy life. We complain a lot about the isolation of winter and the hustle of summer. High prices. Small town politics. Having to go back to the mainland for certain services. But we don’t leave. The few that do, frequently find their way back.

But we’re calmed by the remarkable blue-tinted light that artists from everywhere come to paint. We’re lulled by the lap of water all around us. If it’s not in our immediate hearing, it’s in our souls. We’re amazed at the natural beauty that pops up when we drive around a bend in the road. And what could replace showering under the stars on a summer night?

So, Ms. Martin, I challenge you. Visit the Island. Stay for a weekend. I’d be willing to bet my rosa rugosa that you’ll be printing a retraction quicker than you can say, “Northampton/Barnstable/Pittsfield/New Bedford.” And it won’t be buried in the back of the paper.

Even when not at his restaurant, The Grill on Main, Tony Saccoccia is often cooking. — Photos Courtesy of Tony Saccoccia

Martha’s Vineyard has lots of restaurants, and in each one there’s a top-of-the-line chef. Each week, the Chef’s Story will introduce you to these culinary wonders and share with you their stories.

Antonio Saccoccia, more commonly known as Tony, first owned and operated The Feast of Chilmark in the 90s, and currently owns The Grill on Main in Edgartown.

MVT: How did you come to be on the Island?

Tony: I think, like everybody who wasn’t born here, I came for a summer job and stayed. That was 26 years ago, in 1988.

How and when did you start cooking?

I grew up in the industry. My dad owned a butcher shop. So, as a child I was doing that kind of work. In junior high, I had worked in some restaurants. Then I went to a vocational high school. Baking and butchering was there since I was a child. I baked on my own in high school and junior high.

How did you come to be at The Grill on Main?

I owned another restaurant in Chilmark, The Feast of Chilmark, for 12 years in the 1990s. I sold that, and this location [Upper Main] was available. So I came here.

Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?

I’ve had many. And you can say that. But the one I remember best was when I was delivering a wedding cake on a warm day. I slowed down [in the car] a little too quickly, and the layers slipped apart from each other. It was one of those days where it got to around 85 degrees in June. Between the car not having enough air conditioning and the icing and…well, it wasn’t too fast of a stop. Just too fast for carrying a wedding cake.

I had to do a whole new one. I was delivering it early. I mean, you don’t want to be messing around in case something like that would happen. I was able to redecorate and pull together a whole new wedding cake. And I was on time.

What is your favorite Martha’s Vineyard dining memory?

The most spectacular thing was when President Bill Clinton came into my old restaurant. I don’t remember another night like that in my career. We found out he was coming only thirty-five minutes before. In fact, we had written it off. We kept thinking, “He could be coming. He could be coming.” That’s what a lot of restaurants were saying. Then we said, “Ah, I guess he’s not coming.” He tricked us.

It was in September and he came in late in the evening, so we didn’t have to close the restaurant. He ate warm goat cheese stuffed Anaheim peppers. We were very excited, but we realized that what was called for was professionalism – one hundred percent. We were all ready. Nobody blinked.

What is the single best bite you’ve eaten in the past week?

I would say a particular sauce I was experimenting with for a new free range chicken dish. I just did it on a whim and was really impressed with it. The chicken was pan seared, and I left it in the pan to make a pan gravy, old fashioned style. I put in pancetta, mushrooms, shallots, just a little bit of chicken stock, cream, butter, fines herbes [a combination of parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil, that together are the foundation of French cooking], and I just let it reduce for a second. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to detail, but it was just spectacular. It’s one of those things that should be good, but when you taste it – wow.

What do you cook for a romantic evening with your girlfriend?

We’re both on health kicks, so we’re cooking healthy dishes at home lately. What does she like the best? She’s either being polite or friendly, but – everything. You know it’s kind of special for a restaurateur having a night off and cooking food at home. It’s very unique. When we are cooking at home, regardless of what it is, it’s very special to be home and cooking together.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Salt, pepper, butter, onions (or members of the onion family), and veal stock.

Your favorite kitchen tool?

The food processor. I have a Cuisinart. When I was receiving my professional training, they had just come out. I’m able to make certain short doughs in them. I can make great emulsifications, like salad dressings. That used to be such a task. That’s huge for me. Whisking by hand, you never had the same emulsion or, if you did, you really had to pay attention to it. Definitely chopping nuts. With the food processor it’s just so quick.

Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, and so forth, describe the perfect Martha’s Vineyard Feast.

It’s huge when the striped bass is in season – it’s such a short season, so it makes it even more precious. The oyster farms in Katama are fantastic. I’ve been dealing with Sweet Neck Farms for about 25 years – not just for oysters, but other shellfish. I’d serve the oysters raw on the half-shell or, my favorite all time, baked oysters Rockefeller classic. It still is unbelievable, even though the dish is close to 75 years old. I would pan sear, then slow roast the striped bass – a double cooking method. I’d keep the sauce simple – maybe a simple citrus beurre blanc.

In the summertime, I would grill vegetables. Summer squash and asparagus. For dessert, the one I really love over the Fourth of July, old fashioned strawberry shortcakes. On a biscuit with soft vanilla whipped cream. It’s so old, but so good. It’s honest. You know what you’re getting, and it’s so good.

What is your idea of a perfect day off, on Martha’s Vineyard?

Definitely, a good day off would be going sailing early, then taking it easy and focusing on a big dinner night. Or the beach. I do love the beach.

Chef Max Eagan loves to fish and cook his catch. — Photo Courtesy of Max Eagan

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 culinary wonders and share their stories each week.

Max Eagan has been cooking for Rocco’s for a year and is slated to be executive chef of the dining room at Isola (formerly Lattanzi’s) in Edgartown. Before Rocco’s, he was executive chef at Lambert’s Cove Inn for two years. Although he has no formal training, he achieved executive chef status at the age of 28.

How did you come to be on the Island?

I grew up here. We moved here when I was under one year, so I’m not a true Islander. I grew up in Edgartown and, when I was in fifth grade, we moved to Vineyard Haven.

How and when did you start cooking?

As soon as I could work – age 14. I worked at the Rotisserie in Edgartown and baked muffins at Mrs. Miller’s Muffins in downtown Edgartown. I did prep work, dishes, baked muffins and cookies — stuff like that.

How did you come to work for Rocco’s?

After working at Lambert’s Cove Inn, I was going to take a year off from the high stress level of fine dining cooking. I grew up with the son of the owner of Rocco’s and they needed an extra hand. I was giving them an extra hand while I was trying to figure out what I was going to do and…I stayed. I didn’t want to do it forever, but fortunately we’re taking on this new venture. (The owners of Rocco’s have recently acquired Lattanzi’s. The restaurant is scheduled to reopen in May, renamed Isola.) I’m going to be executive chef of the restaurant.

Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?

I don’t think any chef hasn’t! I’m an avid fisherman so every time I get a chance I go fishing on the Island. One day we stayed really late (at Lambert’s Cove Inn) and got all our prep work done so we could come in late the next day. We showed up at 4 o’clock, just a couple of hours before service, and all the main refrigerators were about 80 degrees. All of our hard work and prep was basically destroyed and we had two hours to start from scratch before the first guest arrived. We made it work. We had to change the menu around, but we made it work.

Have you ever had a meal of yours that was part of a big event?

My sous chef at Lambert’s Cove Inn had a good friend who wanted to propose to his girlfriend. He was coming to the Vineyard and we tricked him and made a dinner reservation for Monday. We’re closed on Monday. We went out the day before and went fishing and foraging — I’m a big forager on the Island. They came into the restaurant and no one was there. They couldn’t figure out why there weren’t any other customers. We brought this big spread out of local stuff that we had caught ourselves. It was a pretty cool thing to do. He asked her to marry him, and they had the whole restaurant to themselves.

What was the best single bite you ate in the last week?

I just got back from vacation. I was on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean and met an old lady who made me some fresh conch ceviche. I bit down and I thought there was a piece of shell in it. She was standing right next to me, wondering how it was. I said “Uhng” and said I hurt my tooth, and I spit out a conch pearl! I guess they’re pretty rare. And it was a nice one, they tell me. It was a little beach bar and they said I should buy everyone a round of drinks and they were parading around with the pearl and showing everybody. Although it was shocking, I would say that was the best bite.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Salt, vinegar, any pork belly products (bacon, pancetta, salt pork), olive oil, and garlic.

Your favorite kitchen tool?

Besides a sharp chef’s knife, a nice serving spoon. I can use it as a spatula. I can do anything with that. I probably have over 100 serving spoons.

What do you cook for a romantic evening with your girlfriend?

This time of year, she really likes venison chili. She always wants me to make it for her. I do a venison chili with Guinness and dark chocolate.

Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, etc., describe the perfect M.V. feast.

This one’s easy. Self-caught spear-fished tautog (blackfish), roasted whole or salt-baked; dug up clams raw and on the grill; and a fresh tomato salad. That’s all I need. Dessert? I’m not a huge a dessert guy. My good friend, Kevin Brennan, brews hard cider and I make homemade wine berry brandy. I’ll take a shot of brandy and one of his local ciders for dessert.

What is your idea of a perfect day off on Martha’s Vineyard?

I do most of my fishing at night, so my day off would be waking up late and hanging out at the beach with my friends — and probably doing more fishing.

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Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.
Joyce Wagner, Overthinking.

Joyce Wagner is a freelance writer and author of the book, “Random Overthoughts: The Best (Give or Take) of the Humor Column ‘Overthinking.’” She resides in West Tisbury and is currently at work on two historical novels. Once a week, she will ponder certain Island truths and institutions in “Overthinking.”

Yes, I am a little tan, thank you. Just got back from vacation. Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. My housemate (HM) has a timeshare there and has been after me to come with her for ages. This year, finally, I had both the time and the means to do it. Worth it. Totally.

For me, a lot of the excitement is in the planning. We determined, in the name of breezing through security and customs, to bring only carry-ons. The challenge was, how to bring a weeks’ worth of clothes in a small suitcase. This is dangerous territory for an overthinker – especially one who carried her passport on her person from the day we booked our flights, lest she leave it home. We decided two bathing suits (with coordinating cover-ups) each would suffice. One on, while the other was drying. One set of day clothes. Flip-flops. Easy-peasy.

But evenings! Dinners! Dancing! A whole weeks’ worth! In a suitcase that would fit into that little space designated on those airport signs that everyone ignores. And, depending on how crowded our flight would be and which “zone” we were assigned for boarding, we might have to check it anyway.

Since I recently moved from the mainland to the Island, I still have a lot of clothes that don’t really work here. Sparkly things. Fancy dinner things. Dancing things. What joy to dig those out, spread them on the bed and decide which would make the cut. Thus began the pre-vacation fashion show.

“How about this?” I breeze out of my room into the kitchen, and disturb HM’s work at her computer.

“You’re going to dress up that much?” she asks.

“How often do we get the chance?”

“Hmmm.” She’s already packed. “I usually bring one dress.”

“You can’t imagine what I thought you just said.”

She climbs the stairs to her bedroom and for the next few hours we model all of our summer finery, chanting our mantra, “How about this?”

Eventually, we narrow down our choices with slightly more than will fit, deciding to make the final cut (and suitcase choices) after we’re able to print out our boarding passes and find out our “zone.”

Shoes are an issue for me. “There’s dancing every night,” HM informs me. “If you’re single, the staff guys dance with you. They’re really cute.” Being somewhat a toothless cougar (still eyeing the prey but too tired for the leap) and a sucker for a good samba, I tap my Chapstick laden lip with a finger while I examine my footwear choices. I have a great pair of Capezios for Sunday night ballroom at Nathan Mayhew, but they’re actually too good. It won’t be a kept-clean no-street-shoes wooden floor that my sueded soles will be massaging.

“Bars,” I’m told. “We’ll be dancing in bars.” Spilled drinks. Sand and dirt. Another option was called for. Unfortunately, my summer footsie collection consists of flip-flops and wedgie shoes that are difficult enough to walk in, much less dance. Found two pair of adequate shoes at Le Poulet Rouelle (Chicken Alley) and stuffed those into the suitcase along with a week’s ration of underwear.

Of course, there’s the matter of (gasp) liquids. Whoever made the rules for security really has no concept of what it takes to be a gently ageing ingénue. The rule of thumb for make-up – from washing the face to the final touch of mascara – goes like this: 1 hour, plus 10 minutes for each year over 40. That’s just for daytime and will only bring you up to code. We need cleansers. We need creams. We need foundations. We need industrial-strength mascara for thinning lashes. We need pencils in the colors our eyebrows used to be. And because the process takes a lot of coffee, we need whitening toothpaste AND gel whitener AND whitening mouthwash.

Shampoo. Conditioner. De-frizzer. Mousse. Squirrel. (Sorry.) Not to mention sunscreen with an SPF of 130. How is one supposed to fit all that into a baggie that would barely accommodate a container of Activa and a spoon?

By debarkation day, we had winnowed our trousseaus and cosmetics to manageable levels (although it took two people to close each suitcase), but we stretched the definition of “small personal item” (i.e. handbag, laptop case) well beyond reason. However, Saints Dolce and Gabbana and the fashion gods were on our side. We made it through security and were able to board both planes without having to check anything.

The flight, however, was a different story – one for next weeks’ blog.