On a Georgia Island, a Lot of Good Food and Plenty of Nothing


Before I could eat, I was going to have to fish. Only certain residents and the Park Service are allowed to have vehicles on the island, and I found myself bouncing along in a truck along a soft sand road with the chef and a few Carnegie descendants.

We stopped first to poke around for clams, hunting for tiny holes that promised a clam an inch or two under the sand. Mr. Ferguson and a few other men headed over to chop long, thin oysters from the big muddy clumps that grow wild at the tide line. With two big blue baskets full of shellfish in the back of the truck, we headed south to try our luck with a seine net.

Fishing this way requires walking into the cold surf until the water hits you about midchest.

One person holds a pole attached to a long piece of net fixed with floats at the top and lead weights at the bottom. Someone else stands maybe 150 feet away, holding another pole to which the other end of the net is secured. You jerk up the net at the same time and walk toward the shore, capturing whatever happens to be swimming in front of you.

We pulled in some drum and red fish, tossing back the ones too big to legally keep. A little lemon shark went back into the water, too, along with some horseshoe crabs. Then we headed to the Greyfield, where Ms. Otawka, 36, a former “Top Chef” contestant, was to help her crew get dinner ready.

I first tasted her food when she was putting out regional Mexican dishes at a restaurant in Athens, Ga., owned by the chef Hugh Acheson. When Mr. Acheson pulled the plug on that place, she bounced around a little, sometimes cooking at pop-ups in Atlanta and other food events.

She picked up her first cooking job at a French restaurant in Oakland, Calif., while she was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. She also worked at a tattoo shop there, which helps explain all her ink.

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Clams from the day’s harvest roast on the open fire at the Greyfield Inn.

Credit
Hunter McRae for The New York Times

Ms. Otawka landed at the Greyfield nearly two years ago, welcomed by Middy and Mary Ferguson, Jamie’s brother and sister-in-law. The couple manage the inn. They wanted to breathe new life into the food, and Ms. Otawka wanted an adventure.

“Chefs live such unbalanced lives,” she said. “This is all about balance. You get to live in a beautiful place and cook good food. It was a chance and I took it.”

Life here can be isolating. Cellphone service is unreliable, the inn isn’t wired for Wi-Fi and a ferry is the only way to and from the island. For company, Mrs. Ferguson has her husband and her elderly pit bull.

Ben Wheatley, 30, is also a chef at the inn. He and Ms. Otawka fell in love cooking at one of Mr. Atcheson’s restaurants and married in Mexico late last year. They have dedicated themselves, at least for the moment, to cooking on an island that is right out of a Wes Anderson movie. (He scouted the island as a location for his film “Moonrise Kingdom.”)

Greyfield was built in 1900 as a gift to one of Lucy and Thomas Carnegie’s daughters. It has been an inn only since the 1960s, when Jamie’s grandmother realized that their slice of the Carnegie fortune was dwindling while taxes and the cost of Greyfield’s upkeep grew.

The grandmother, Lucy Ferguson, had long been a fierce champion of the island. She was a collector of animal bones and Indian artifacts, a protector of the wild horses and a cattle rancher who never made much money from the 500 head she tended.

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Cherry tomatoes at the inn’s garden.

Credit
Hunter McRae for The New York Times

She taught her children and grandchildren how to use grits and Pond’s cold cream to preserve a snakeskin, among other skills. Along with some of the other women from prominent families connected to the island, she helped strike the deal that allowed the family to stay on even after the park service took it over.

Her portrait hangs in the mansion’s drawing room, a scarf around her head and a dagger at her side. I slept in her childhood bedroom, a windowpane still bearing her name and the little picture she etched there in 1915.

For years, the inn was the kind of place where people had to dress formally for a dinner that was often prime rib, with crème de menthe over ice cream for dessert. Since Ms. Otawka came, things have changed.

Boxed lunches are still free to any guests who want to pack one along as they explore the island, but instead of fried chicken, the offering might be poached chicken over snap pea salad dressed up with anchovies and Calabrian peppers. Jacques Pepin, who spends winter vacations nearby, visited the island recently, and Ms. Otawka cooked lunch for him. “He said I cooked like his grandmother and mother,” she said.

Before dinner, guests order a cocktail and mark their purchases on a pad. On the patio, oysters are roasted over a wood fire and tossed into a metal bucket at the end of a table set with oyster knives and saltines. Guests can shuck all they want, dipping warm nuggets of meat into melted butter.

At 7:30 on the dot, Christopher Becerra, whom Ms. Otawka talked into moving to the island to expand the wine program and sharpen the front of the house, struck four notes on a set of chimes.

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A soup at the Greyfield Inn.

Credit
Hunter McRae for The New York Times

We all headed to the dining room, arranging ourselves around the dining table where the Carnegie family had shared their meals. The guest mix was eclectic. We sat with an archivist for Coca-Cola, some newlyweds who had saved up for a honeymoon night and a retired surgeon in his 80s who was having an improbable romance with a younger novelist. “She’s left of Marx and I’m right of Mussolini,” the surgeon said, reaching for her hand.

At another table, a family of four were dressed like Connecticut, the two small boys a Ralph Lauren ad in blue blazers and khakis. Earlier in the evening, one of the future captains of industry had offered to shuck oysters for me at a nickel a shell.

By the end of the weekend, we were all camp buddies.

“We have a brilliant spring dinner planned for you,” Mr. Becerra said, launching into the wines he had selected from the inn’s 90-bottle collection. A pinot blanc, he said, had “this sea breeze quality I just love with the ham.”

The pairings that night cost $37, one of the few additional costs beyond the price of the room.

We ate sweet English snap peas and burrata dressed up with pea shoots and Benton’s bacon, and fat Georgia shrimp grilled over oak and piled atop cranberry beans moistened with smoky tomato broth spiked with chilies.

Just as a chocolate tart with a swirl of toasted meringue arrived, Mr. Becerra rang his chimes again to announce the first of three nature and history tours scheduled for the next day, a birding outing. It was to begin at 7 a.m., which would get everyone back to the inn in time for breakfast.

“It’s the start of hummingbird season!” he announced cheerfully.

I slept past the hummingbirds and got to breakfast at 8:30. Citrus salad was waiting, followed by a frittata with asparagus and spinach that oozed Cheddar. I ate it as well as two slices of apple-wood smoked bacon.

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