Chef Deon Thomas will proudly tell you he’s been serving goat and conch on the Vineyard long before anybody else. A visit to his kitchen at the Vineyard’s VFW will prove that he’s not resting on old glory — ever-changing variety is a hallmark. Sautéed conch, curried conch, and jerk conch with biscuits are among his specialties. Goat comes in as many varieties, if not more. Times staffers Brian Dowd, Gabrielle Meninno, and this correspondent joined Times occasional food critic Amanda Saltzberg for an evening of Chef Deon’s hospitality and rum-infused delights.
Chef Deon’s kitchen is sparsely adorned. A few military mementos of the VFW hang on the walls but little else, save tables and chairs, occupies the dining room. Pass through two swinging doors and you’re in the VFW bar, where Tiffany will serve you drinks to bring back to your table. Make sure to say hello to Commander Rick Bernhard, an 82nd Airborne veteran.
Deon’s Kitchen and the VFW have a symbiotic relationship. The VFW serves beverages: beer, wine, spirits, and nonalcoholic drinks. Deon’s Kitchen, of course, serves food (his chicken wings are particularly popular at the bar). And, of course, there’s rum at the bar.
Rum is a key ingredient to many of Deon’s dishes.
“Rum is to the West Indian what wine is to the French,” he said.
Much of it burns off in the cooking process, but not so much so that the flavor isn’t imparted. With the magic he works with rum in mind, we ordered his rum goat curry with dates and pearl onions. We also ordered fried calamari with buffalo butter, codfish cakes with tomatillo aioli, Island conch fritters with roasted pepper aioli, organic beet and goat cheese salad, and BBQ ribs with mac and cheese and collards. All came humbly on paper plates.
We paired the food with Sam Adams drafts and Cape Codders.
It was hard to get Brian’s initial comments about the ribs because he appeared to be eating a rib and a spoonful of mac and cheese simultaneously and humming with joy. Eventually he said,
Gabrielle really dug into the collards and could not stop smiling.
I was hooked on the goat, which had subtle flavors of star anise and thyme mixed with the delicious rum curry.
“Goat is something I grew up eating in Jamaica,” Chef Deon said. “We never said goat. We called it mutton.”
He went on to say generations ago lamb was too expensive but goat was not. Folks employed mutton instead of goat as something of a class-leveling term.
Amanda found the calamari irresistible and commented on the execellent balance of moistness and crispiness.
Amanda and Gabrielle made short work of the beet and goat cheese salad.
The cod fish cakes were so airy and paired so well with the tomato aioli, I had to curb the urge to put in another order.
The conch fritters, with their scrumptious dipping aioli, were vacuumed up by all of us. Actually made from local channel whelk, the fritters will be included in an upcoming Caribbean conch and New England whelk cookbook by Chef Deon that features photography by Randi Baird and illustrations and letterpress design by Emma Young. Chef Deon will host a launch party for the book on Sunday, August 5, from 4 pm to 7 pm at the VFW. Thirty-five dollars covers a signed copy of the book plus five different dishes made from native channel whelk.
“Deon’s cookbook helps break down the fear and uncertainty associated with cooking channeled whelk,” Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust executive director Shelley Edmundson emailed. “Though one of the largest local fisheries we have on the Vineyard, its desirable meat is primarily exported. Deon is more than a cook; he is a storyteller, introducing us to the world of cooking our whelk that, though differing from the tropical conch he grew up preparing, is equally delectable. After having tried his wonderful dishes, I can feel a local, whelk-craving movement coming!”
Randi Baird told The Times she’s known Chef Deon for a long time and he’s always worked with whelk.
“Deon has been using it for the last 20 years. He is really passionate about it,” she said.
Baird said she is an advocate for food security and using native food resources. She admits to being baffled at why most whelk is exported when it’s a viable source of protein for Vineyarders.
“I really admire Deon for the work he’s doing and the food he’s brought to light,” she said.
Asked if there was a dish of Chef Deon’s she liked especially, Baird said, “The conch fritters are one of my favorites.”
The final dish we ordered at Deon’s Kitchen was coconut rum bread pudding, a sublime treat full of spice coconut essence (and rum).
Chef Deon said it’s a two-day project to make.
“You cook it up and you let it sit in the custard for a day, for 24 hours, you know, with the spices,” he said.
Those spices include black pepper and rosemary. Rum is essential, Deon said, and he prefers dark rum or spiced rum for the pudding and in all his dishes.
This correspondent had an after-dinner drink at the VFW bar with Commander Bernard and some of his colleagues, all terrific and interesting people. The next time you have an opportunity speak with a veteran, consider how much they appreciate a simple thanks for their service. And don’t be afraid to chat, the vets have a lot to share.
Whether beignets, doughnuts or calas, people like deep-fried foods. The conch fritter is one of the more popular conch dishes. Paired with fresh vegetables in a seasoned batter at the right ratio, it is to die for. I challenge my homemakers to test their skills, mastering the art of the conch fritter.
1 lb conch chopped / 454g
¼ c diced red pepper / 31ml
¼ c diced zucchini / 31ml
¼ c diced yellow pepper / 31ml
¼ c diced onion / 38ml
¼ c chopped celery / 31ml
¼ c chopped green onions / 21ml
2 tbsp olive oil / 29.6ml
1 tbsp thyme leaves / 7.5ml
3 c flour / 342g
1 c pancko breadcrumbs, optional / 66g
1½ cups buttermilk and ½ cup water / 473 ml
3 tbsp Worcestershire / 44.3ml
2 tbsp curry powder / 29.58ml
3 tsp baking powder / 14.79ml
2 tbsp MV sea salt / 29.58ml
1 tbsp fish sauce / 10ml
Oil for shallow or deep-fry
Chop chilled conch in food processor for 2-3 minutes, transfer to mixing bowl and set aside. Mix all the vegetable together with olive oil and roast in a 350⁰F/176⁰C oven for 10 minutes, remove and chill.
Sift flour into big bowl, add dry ingredients and combine. Whisk eggs for 2 minutes, add water-buttermilk mixture, fish sauce and Worcestershire together and add to the ground conch, alternating with the chopped roasted vegetables and dry ingredients, scraping the mixture from the side of the bowl between additions.
Combine mixture using a heavy-duty whisk, mix to a drooping batter. Rest batter for 10 minutes for the flour granules to absorb moisture.
Bring hot oil to temperature 325°F / 163˚C. and drop batter with a small scoop in hot fat for 4 minutes, frying to a golden hue. For shallow frying, drop batter with a spoon into frying pan at moderate temperature for 3 minutes, turn over as it bubbles and cook evenly for 3 minutes, remove with a spider and set on parchment to absorb extra oil. Serve with your favorite dipping sauce.