The madcap world of Chef Joe Hyde

The Vineyard’s first celebrity chef was a bit of a handful.

“At Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard, where fishing for striped bass can be a pretentious production calling for belted waders, plug bags, and floating flashlights, Hyde once appeared on the beach carrying a rod and wearing a dark blue suit, brightly polished black shoes, and a derby hat. As the other anglers watched in silence, Hyde waded into the surf up to his armpits, caught two 20-pound stripers, tipped his bowler to onlookers, and departed dripping wet.” —Robert H. Boyle, Sports Illustrated, Nov. 8, 1971

I first met Joe Hyde in the ’60s when I was a teenager. I used to spend long stretches of time at the Fullers’ camp at Herring Creek, the spit of land at the head of Lake Tashmoo. Melinda Fuller (now Melinda Loberg) was like a sister to me. And crazy Joe lived next door. 

Here’s what I knew about Joe Hyde. He apparently was a chef; I remember he used to cater for Katharine Cornell, who lived across the opening to Tashmoo at what she called Chip Chop. I was later to learn that Joe had a line of frozen seafood called Menemsha Bites. And my mother told me she once had dinner with a group of people on a big boat Hyde kept moored in Tashmoo. And I remember that Joe, to put it mildly, was a bit of a handful.

Joe Hyde —Courtesy Ann Hyde Dunsmore

Melinda remembers that he’d often come over, sometimes late at night: “I’d usually hear him stomping on the deck, and in would walk Joe Hyde, and he’d always come with something … a bottle of gin, stuffed quahogs, and sometimes he’d come in costume — one time he came dressed as a sheik.” 

So I knew Joe Hyde was a character, but I was soon to learn was that he was a world-class character. One morning in the early ’60s I came home from high school and, sitting down for breakfast, what do I see on the back of the Wheaties box? “Wheaties. Breakfast of Joe Hyde.” Apparently it was a campaign Wheaties was running using “regular people” as a spinoff of “Breakfast of Champions.”

So who was this guy called Joe Hyde? He grew up in Sneden’s Landing, a-well-to-do enclave of Palisades, N.Y., surrounded by celebrity. His neighbors included Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, Katharine Cornell, Jerome Robbins, Mike Wallace, Aaron Copland, and Noel Coward. As a youngster, Hyde taught Laurence Olivier how to sail.

But Hyde’s heart was always on Martha’s VIneyard, where he’d been coming since he was a child to the little shanty on Herring Creek with no running water or electricity, and where at an early age he discovered his love of cooking. In Hyde’s cookbook, “Love, Time, and Butter,” he wrote, “I suppose I should say a little about why I cook. Well, first of all, I love to eat, and always have. When I was eight years old I remember returning home for lunch, feeling very bilious from my first encounter with a cigarette, Mama had cooked my favorite meal for us (we were four children) — flounder pan-fried in butter with exquisite fresh peas and a platter of large slices of vine-ripened tomatoes literally covered with chopped parsley, a little garlic, and, I would imagine, some salt. We were at our home on Martha’s Vineyard.”

After college, Hyde was drafted and became a cook during the Korean War; armed with a Betty Crocker cookbook, he found he had a flair. After the war, thanks to an exchange program through UNESCO, Hyde got a job as an apprentice in Chez Nandron, a two-star restaurant in Lyons, France. Peter McGhee, a longtime friend of Hyde’s and former executive at WGBH, told me, “It was one of the great French restaurants of all time, and Joe learned an enormous amount from that experience. He was a fabulous cook.”

Hyde returned to the U.S. after the war, worked as a chef at various hotels and restaurants around the country, then returned to the East to teach cooking classes in Sneden’s Landing, and began catering both in New York and on the Vineyard. Growing up, I was not fortunate enough to experience Hyde’s cooking, other than his stuffed quahogs, but they were so good that Melinda said, “We had the recipe posted right in our kitchen, not written up but literally carved into the wall.”

In his Sports Illustrated story, Robert H. Boyle wrote, “Gastronomically, Joe Hyde belongs to the classic French school, with the emphasis — as an admiring food critic of the New Yorker once put it — on “preserving the essential greatness of the ingredients, rather than exalting them to complicated and unrecognizable heights.” 

Anne Dunsmore, Joe’s daughter, believes that Hyde was the first French-trained American chef. “He was a bit of a rebel,” Anne said. While versed in the techniques of French cuisine with its reliance on heavy sauces, his words of wisdom were, “Don’t sauce it up too much.” She said that Hyde was constantly simmering stocks, telling her that if you don’t do a good job on the broth, the whole dish is off. “His dishes were simple,” Anne said, “but the complexity came from the broth.”

The actor Bill Murray was a good friend of Hyde’s from Sneden’s Landing, and he told our mutual friend, Cheri Mason of Chilmark, “Well, he certainly wasn’t afraid of butter.” 

Peter McGhee said, “Joe cared intensively about cooking; he thought all the time about food the way a painter would think about painting,” yet it was hard to separate Hyde’s culinary skills from his flamboyant personality.

Joe Hyde —Peter McGhee / Courtesy Ann Hyde Dunsmore

Joe Hall from Vineyard Haven knew Hyde from back in the ’70s — he used to cater with him, and he recalls the time Hyde was cooking at the Harvest restaurant in Cambridge. “One day he was pissed off or hung over,” Hall said “and he was cooking wearing his apron and his chef’s whites — but he had no trousers on. He’d go out into the dining room and talk to people.”

Boyle, in his Sports Illustrated piece, tells of another instance of Hyde’s outsize personality: “Some years ago at a garden party for Patrice Lumumba [the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo], he showed the befuddled Congolese how to eat corn on the cob. Having done so, he threw the finished ear behind him with a flourish. A week later, at least so the story goes, the Congolese attended a formal dinner in the state dining room at the U.N. Corn on the cob was served, and the Congolese startled everyone by tossing the cobs over their shoulders.”

Hyde believed that eating should be fun. Anne Dunsmore said that he went through years of experimenting with Jell-O; he called it “Joe-lo.” He would also cater fancy parties and serve shepherd’s pie, a nod to comfort food that years later would become very trendy. Anne recalls that he once got a contract to design the menu for United Airlines, and included Blueberry Grunt for dessert. Blueberry cobbler would have been the more delicate way of describing the dish, but Hyde insisted on the classic term “grunt.”

During the ’70s Hyde and Everett Poole of Menemsha went into business together producing a line of frozen seafood called Menemsha Bites. For the most part it was a line of soups, chowders, bouillabaisse, and paella prepared by “Famous chef Joe Hyde.” 

“We were the first people in the country to be able to vacuum-pack saltwater fish,” Poole said. “You could do it with freshwater fish, but not saltwater fish.” Menemsha Bites was sold on the Vineyard, but the bulk of the sales came from the Midwest. “At one point we had about 28 people on the payroll,” Poole said, “and we would ship everything air freight because in those days it was inexpensive. Eventually air freight got very expensive, and that pretty much put us out of business.” 

I asked Poole how Hyde was to work with. “He was a good guy,” Poole said. I asked him about Hyde’s reputation as being a bit of a character. “We’re all characters, one way or the other,” Poole said. 

It was interesting that Hyde, for all his entrepreneurship and cooking prowess, never had his own restaurant. The closest he came was his boat, the Constellation, which he kept moored in Lake Tashmoo in the ’70s. “It was about 65 feet long,” Peter McGhee said, “and had two diesel engines. It was not beautiful but solid.” 

“I remember his going out in the Vineyard Sound for cocktails and then coming back in and having dinner,” Joe Hall said — he catered on the Constellation a few times. “Imagine if Donald Trump owned a boat back then … gold Naugahyde and red banquettes … it had a fantail for cocktails and a salon for dining inside.” 

“Joe’s dream was to take people out on the boat and make a living,” McGhee said, “but it had very little chance of success. There were a number of legal obstacles; for instance, it required a license, which he couldn’t get … you can’t just have a party boat and bring people out without passing muster with the Coast Guard. He had the boat long enough to bleed it dry. Ultimately he couldn’t afford to keep it, and got rid of it.” 

“Joe was his own worst enemy,” Hall said. “It was never about making money or personal success, it was all about fun and laughter. Joe was a gentle madman.” 

Joe Hyde passed away in 2007. And even in death, Hyde managed to bring a smile to people’s faces. 

According to Anne Dunsmore, “At the gravesite [in Sneden’s Landing] there was a big hole in the ground with some indoor-outdoor carpet spread around it — above the grave was a beautiful flower arrangement in a copper pot, complete with raw vegetables, flowers, and a bottle of wine. Then a Bermuda onion fell out of the arrangement and slowly started making its way towards the hole. 

No one moved. 

Then Bill Murray yelled out, ‘IN THE HOLE!’ Everyone started yelling and rooting for the onion as it slowly rolled into the hole. The message from Joe was — ‘Have fun with this.’” 

Marian Morash, longtime friend of Hyde’s and James Beard Award nominee, looked back on Joe’s life this way: “He was humble, brilliant, so skilled, and so crazy — he lifted us from the mundane to the extraordinary.”

Recipes excerpted from the “Love Time & Butter” cookbook by Joe Hyde

Fish Stock

Yield: 2 to 3 quarts

This may seem ill-advised, but if the bones are a little smelly, the stock will taste better.

3 pounds fish bones (halibut, sole, flounder, fluke, bass, or snapper; any heads and bones except those from oily fish like blue and mackerel)
2 medium-size leeks, washed, drained, and roughly cut
1 tsp. thyme leaves (not powder)
3 onions, peeled and roughly cut
1 stalk celery, roughly cut
1 tsp. peppercorns
1 tsp. salt
juice of 1 lemon, and skin
2 cups dry white wine

Rinse the bones in cold water. Drain. Put into a two-gallon pot. Add the rest of the ingredients, including the juice of the lemon and half of its skin. Half-cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally so the bones touching the bottom of the pot will not attach and burn. Simmer for ¾ hour, strain, cool, and refrigerate. The stock will keep for one week.

A small amount of water is used because as soon as it comes to a boil, the fish bones will liquefy (except for the inner bone).

Lobster Stock

Yield: 2 to 3 quarts

The point is that when you throw a lobster dinner, rinse off the shells, and keep them for stock.

½ stick butter
Shells of 1 to 6 lobsters (including the claws)
3 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
2 stalks celery, peeled and roughly chopped
4 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
½ cup flour
2 bay leaves
2 cups dry white wine
1 quart tomato purée
salt and pepper

Heat a two-gallon stockpot over high heat. Add the butter and heat until it begins to turn brown. Put in the shells; let them sizzle in the butter, turning them occasionally, for 12 minutes. (If the butter begins to blacken, reduce the heat slightly.) Add the vegetables. Let them sizzle for another 12 minutes. Add and thoroughly mix in the flour. Add the rest of the ingredients and enough water to cover the shells. Simmer for two hours, or until the volume of liquid has reduced by half. Strain, cool, and refrigerate the stock (covered).

Hints from Chef Joe Hyde

  • Keep salt in a bowl. Use kosher salt — it’s pure and feels better in your hand (which you should use instead of pouring salt from the spout of a box). Your fingers are a far better judge of quantity than a spout. Salt tends to draw the juice from meat, so you put it on just before cooking.
  • Salting at the table is very unsatisfactory. Everything — all soups, vegetables, and meats — should have salt from the beginning to the end of their cooking. Time and experience will make your fingers a good judge of how much salt to use.
  • Sugar should be kept in a five-pound glass container with vanilla beans. How many? As many as you can afford.
  • Egg yolks alone as thickening are risky. It is better to use them combined with flour. The same is true when you cook with sour cream. Flour will prevent curdling.
  • Wine used in cooking should always be dry wine, except in desserts.
  • Melted butter is the perfect sauce, and the only ingredient that by itself constitutes a sauce. Don’t worry about the repetition of butter; it can be used everywhere in the meal to great advantage.
  • In general, fresh herbs are so delicious that it’s depressing even to consider the little bottles of dried ones.
  • Some of the great French restaurants feature simple dishes. The chefs of these restaurants are certainly capable of preparing more ornate specialties, but they know that in staying with simple dishes, perfection is nearer. 
  • Work on one project at a time. Don’t clutter up your worktable or counter with ingredients for several dishes. Each project should be kept in a separate area of the counter.
  • Wash pots and utensils as you go along. Mealtime will arrive with a kitchen neat and ready to receive the dirty dishes from the dinner table.
  • Relax! Be calm! Have fun! If you drop the chicken on the floor, don’t let it upset you; just wash it off. If the phone rings, don’t answer it. If you break a plate, get it into the wastebasket as quickly as possible.
  • If you lack an ingredient for a recipe, omit it; most recipes have too many ingredients anyway. 
  • No music, cats, dogs, bills pinned to the wall, children, or canaries should be present in the kitchen to distract you while your are creating.
  • Be temperamental! It’s expected of a good cook. Even if you have not achieved that reputation, you can at least be in character.
  • Have a glass of wine; it’s a perfect kitchen drink. Have three glasses of wine, if it pleases you. Laugh or at least smile. Don’t you suppose that the French chefs chuckle a little each time they put something into a bain-marie (Mary’s bathtub, better known as a double-boiler)?

Geoff Currier is an associate editor at The Martha’s Vineyard Times and a regular contributor to MV Arts & Ideas Magazine.

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