A first day of summer feast with Chef Tina Miller

Chef Tina Miller prepared a summertime feast in her beautiful backyard. - Photo by Bella Bennett

Dinner at Tina Miller’s table is nothing short of a gift. Having spent a good portion of my childhood visiting Tina, her husband Steve Gallagher, and their two sons, Henry and Theo, at their house in West Tisbury, it seems plausible that I’d grow accustomed to these meals. The combination of terrific company and the ease with which Tina creates a meal fit for royalty ensures that I’ll never stop finding excuses to head down the street for a meal.

I can remember sitting at the counter in Tina’s kitchen when I still had to climb onto a tall chair to see above the marble countertop. I think I’ve always watched Tina at her passion, and perhaps that’s where my love of cooking comes from. She certainly inspired my mom to pick up a cookbook every once in awhile, and a phone conversation or two always resulted in a top-notch meal.

I’ve always loved the challenge of combining edible things, and the flavor of success is something I’ll never tire of. Oddly enough, I hadn’t, until recently, stopped chatting with Tina long enough to ask her what exactly she does to take a meal to the next level.

While preparing roasted potatoes for a dinner last Thursday, she let me in on a few pro tips. “I like to put the potatoes on a hot pan, so that they get a bit of a skin,” she explained to me as she drizzled olive oil onto a pan before pulling a slow-cooked rack of ribs out of the oven to make space for the new pan. This ensures that your potatoes will be crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, instead of soggy, which is usually the case with mine.

The potatoes sizzled and steamed when they hit the tray a few minutes later.

“I almost always cook surf and turf when we have people over in the summer,” Tina told me. “The meat-and-fish combination is the way to go when you’re having people over.” I didn’t object.

While she prepared the rest of the meal, I was surprised to see a few techniques that I never would have thought up on my own, but which made perfect sense. Tina grates shallots instead of chopping them, and she noted that you should always finish a grilled tuna steak in the oven to preserve the juices.

When you watch Tina cook, it’s so clearly a skill ingrained in her; she never hesitates, and always seems to add just the right amount of this or that to amplify the flavors underlying each dish.

I was equally surprised when, beside a tray laden with three massive tuna steaks awaiting the grill, she opened a jar of mayonnaise. “I’m making a mayonnaise sauce for the tuna,” she said, responding to my quizzical glance.

“I do shallots, lime juice, lime zest,” she said, finding a utensil I’d never seen before, and working it against the rind of a lime. “This is my favorite utensil!” she exclaimed, holding up the little zester for me to see. It creates long, slim cords of rind; much more elegant than your typical zest. Before mixing the sauce together, she adds a sprinkle of salt and pepper and a bit of Worcestershire sauce, creating a light and rich lime flavor unlike anything I’ve ever had.

At first skeptical, I would now like to put this sauce on everything I eat.

Roasted potatoes along with surf and turf. —Bella Bennett

With ribs slow-cooking in the oven at 200°, tuna on the grill on the back porch, and an asparagus and spinach combination sautéeing on the stovetop, she seamlessly prepared each dish to perfection, and not a moment further, without the use of a timer. I am always impressed that Tina is willing to put together a seemingly complex meal after a busy day at Rosewater, the gourmet takeaway food market that she and Julia Celeste opened a couple of years ago.

Tina has an engineer’s mind for food. “I have some weird ability,” she told me. “If someone asked, what’s your biggest talent — and I’m not saying this to brag, it’s just something I’ve become keenly aware of — I can develop something in my head, and it works. I did a bunch of recipes for Bon Appétit for a couple of years. As soon as they get a recipe, they’re in the test kitchen with it — they’re not messing around — and all of my recipes were slam-dunks. I think it’s from working in restaurants; I can think about what I want to put together, and know how to put it together. The only recipes I follow word for word are baking recipes, because baking isn’t flexible — that’s probably why I don’t like baking.”
Before we sat down to enjoy this luxurious summer feast, Tina said, “I’ll tell you where I’m at with food. It’s typical of my age and having been in the business so long. Chefs start out and you work your way up, and you’re so excited about fancy food. And then you get to the point where you just want joy in food. You want easy food and comfort food, and you want to cook food that’s good.”

There’s no doubt that Tina can do both, but there’s something to be said for knowing how to make the natural flavor of good ingredients shine. If you’ve ever been to Rosewater, or perhaps one of Tina’s earlier establishments, or had the pleasure of visiting her home, you know that she has mastered cooking good food, but that this is only one of the many tools in her belt. And the company and conversation are the best treat of all.