The Island has many top-of-the-line restaurants and behind each one, there’s a top-of-the-line chef. The Times decided to get to know these culinary wonders and present our findings in a weekly series.
Craig Decker, like many Island chefs, is a washashore. Unlike many, though, it didn’t take him several summers of bussing tables or working the prep line to decide that his fate was destined to be cooking on Martha’s Vineyard. Two weeks was enough to convince him to relocate. Now, as the executive chef at the highly regarded Alchemy, he’s contentedly settled on Vineyard shores with his wife and two children.
How did you come to be on the Island?
I came out to visit a friend from college in 1998 and fell in love with the place. I went back home and put my two weeks’ notice in and came back out. My first job was at Lattanzi’s. I actually spoke to someone there while I was visiting my friend. There was a position open.
How and when did you start cooking?
I was probably 15 or 16 for my first restaurant job. I was a busboy, dishwasher, prep cook for a diner at home in upstate New York. I worked at a couple of different places and realized that this was something I really wanted to do. I went to culinary school at CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and (worked at) a couple of restaurants in Napa Valley and Palm Beach, Fla.
How did you come to be at Alchemy?
I had worked as a line cook at Alchemy for three seasons. In the middle of August of 2000, I was fresh out of culinary school with no job. I knew the chef, Mike Presnel, who was also the chef at Savoir Faire. I had just graduated culinary school and happened to see Anthony Carestia on the street. He was a cook at the time and is now actually part owner of Alchemy. He told me I should come in and talk to Mike about a job. Anthony got me the job and we’re still together.
Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?
I really haven’t had one. I’m knocking on wood right now. I’ve witnessed a couple, but I’m still leaving that option open.
What meal of yours was part of an important event?
I did something for my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. A lot of family and friends were there and it was really a special day. It was probably one of the most memorable cooking experiences I’ve ever had. When family and friends come together and celebrate two people who have been together for such a long time, a lot of love goes into the food and it really reflects everybody’s feelings towards the day.
What is the single best bite you’ve eaten in the past week?
On my day off I made homemade chicken noodle soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. That’s a big staple around our household starting now when the weather turns. My wife made roast chicken the night before and I told her to save me the bones. I made a stock overnight and then the next morning got up and made soup. By the time the kids got out of school it was ready. I don’t get an opportunity too much to eat with my family, so that’s what makes it a great bite.
What’s the favorite thing you cook for your wife and kids?
I would have to say the biggest hit is spaghetti and meatballs. I make it the same way my grandmother used to make it. I remember when I would come home from school there would be a big pot of spaghetti with the meatballs already in it and the bread right next to the stove. I would come home and immediately start tearing the bread up and dipping it into the sauce and maybe scoop out a meatball or two.
Who is your cooking hero?
What is your favorite dish on your menu?
I would have to say it’s a play on chowder ingredients: braised pork belly with a salt cod and potato croquette. That’s served over creamed leeks and corn. All the ingredients that are usually represented in chowder but prepared in a different way.
What are your top five indispensable ingredients?
Shallots, duck fat, Reggiano Parmesan, Maldon sea salt, and bacon.
Your favorite kitchen tool?
I would say that would be my gnocchi paddle. Pasta making is very near and dear to my heart. I try to make the most perfect noodles, or raviolis, or dumplings I can make.
Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, etc., describe the perfect M.V. feast.
Now we’re almost coming up to the bay scallop season. Last year or maybe the year before, it was probably around Thanksgiving, we had the family over. We got a bunch of scallops. We had them every which way. We had them raw. We seared a couple with olive oil – real simple. And I think we made pasta with it and served it in that. It was just a long feast of scallops.
What is your idea of a perfect day off on Martha’s Vineyard?
In summertime, going up to Menemsha, getting some chowder and steamed lobster and sitting on the beach. Having the kids play in the water and my wife and I just sunning on the beach. Now with the kids in school, I would play golf in the morning and have a big dinner at home.
If it could be anywhere in the world, where would you have your second restaurant?
I would probably say the Hudson Valley region in New York. I worked in Napa and there and both are about food and wines and farms and fresh ingredients — everything local. But being someone who grew up in New York and witnessing the seasonal changes, everything is so wonderful there.
What would you be if you weren’t a chef?
I don’t know. I was starting out be a pharmacist. I worked through school at restaurants and when I graduated I decided that I knew this was something I was always going to do. The irony, too, is that my grandfather was a pharmacist. He also was a restaurateur. He had a summer drive-in milkshake and burger and ice cream place. He did that in the summers, but also was a pharmacist as well.
What is your “prepping music list” the stuff you listen to when you’re alone in the kitchen and no one’s around to hear?
It would probably be 80’s punk music. The Ramones, the Sex Pistols, or Social Distortion. Now you know my darkest secret.