This year marks the third year of Perfect Pitch MV, where Island entrepreneurs pitch their ideas “Shark Tank”–style to local businesses in hopes of getting seed money for their ventures. The 2018 first-place winner was Chef Deon’s Kitchen, and we thought it would be interesting to follow up and see how it’s doing. Perfect Pitch MV is sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, Seidman Investment Portfolios, Martha’s Vineyard Bank, Cape & Islands SCORE, Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and many individual donors.
When he addressed the MV Perfect Pitch judges last year, Deon Thomas (Chef Deon) “never thought I was going to win.” His goal as he participated as contestant No. 9 of 12 was to get the word out that conch (known as channeled whelk here in Vineyard waters) was as wonderful as any of the shellfish people like to eat. Chef Deon recalls that he used his three-minute pitch to explain why conch is so important to his restaurants, and by extension, to the Island. In fact, he hoped he could persuade the Island to adopt conch chowder as the soup of Martha’s Vineyard.
Conch is one of the most lucrative shellfish in the state of Massachusetts. There are only 80 licensed fishermen, for a stock of about 4.5 million conch. Of those that are harvested, 90 percent come from Vineyard Sound, and 99 percent of those are sold to countries in Asia. The Asian people have come to appreciate, and know how to work with, the tough meat of the conch, which the chef says needs to be prepared “just so” to make it delectable.
As part of his pitch, Chef Deon explained that conch is fat-free and rich in vitamin B12, and wondered aloud, “Why do we Americans think it’s garbage? Why don’t we harvest it sustainably?” He poured each judge a steaming bowl of conch chowder from the thermos he had brought with him, and asked them to tell him why it wasn’t as available and popular as other types of chowder. Spoiler: They couldn’t!
Conch chowder has been served at all of Chef Deon’s restaurants (in West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Oak Bluffs) for the past 20 years. He says that conch is part of his DNA, having grown up in the Caribbean, where queen conch is so popular that it has been overfished. The chef began experimenting with the local bounty of channeled whelk, removing the tender, grilling it to perfection, and serving it to his diners’ amazement. He also ground the harder muscle, and made “conchballs” for soups and salads.
Chef Deon told the judges he would use his winnings to get his proprietary blend to a lab for analysis, and try to make it shelf-stable so it could be easily sold beyond the Vineyard. Here on the Island, the only place the chowder is sold is Vineyard Grocer, because the chef could not produce much according to food safety standards in his small kitchen. Due to those production challenges, the soup is presently available in ready-to-eat form only at the grocery, as well as served fresh daily at the VFW in Oak Bluffs.
Why not can the soup? Chef Deon has resisted the conventional mass production of the soup thus far while he works on plans to build a production, marketing, and distribution business that supports the local economy, which he hopes to brand as MV Conch Soup. His sister Prudence, a food professional with food-service expertise, advises a test run on various canning procedures before full market exposure for the product. The chef is happy to pick his sister’s brain about all of his ideas, especially in the planning and development stages.
Despite his many years in the food-preparation business, the chef continues his education, attending classes related to getting his conch products into stores. He has a line of pepper sauces that have already made the transition, and may be purchased from his website (chefdeonskitchen.com), along with his cookbook, “Chef Deon’s Island Conch Cookery.” (See the MVT review of the cookbook at bit.ly/DeonCookbook.)
The chef is encouraged by the customers at his restaurant, whose comments underscore their appreciation of his conch chowder. Harriet Bernstein says, “It’s really hard to find dairy-free soup on the Island … Chef Deon’s delicious Martha’s Vineyard conch soup is positively yummy, fresh, and locally harvested.” Tom Pallas deems the chowder “scrumptious, with bits of tender conch and potato in a flavorful broth.” Steve Auerbach raves about the first time he tried the conch chowder, never having thought anything other than clam chowder would be good. He emphatically claims, “I WAS WRONG! The veggies and conch worked perfectly together, and once I passed my bowl to my wife [for a taste], I wished she would give it back to me already!”
Chef Deon’s advice to other Perfect Pitchers is to “go with your gut feeling and be passionate; enjoy the opportunity” to share your idea and get more ideas as a result. The chef says that a favorite saying of his is, “The fun is in the chase, not the kill.” While he is clearly having fun with the chase, Chef Deon admits that it’s also fun to enjoy the fruits of his labor — as do many of the guests at his restaurant; especially the ones who order conch.