Dream Food: When a chef cooks for you at home

Meave McAuliffe preparing greens fresh from a garden. — Elizabeth Cecil

Since our March Covid shut down, I have cooked nearly every meal, every day for my family. I’ve always cooked the majority of our meals, but when there was no choice of even ordering a pizza, I began dreaming about what it might be like to have someone cook for me. And I was not thinking restaurant food, but the treat of having someone come and make me a beautiful meal close to the way I cook and eat — corn chowder and a salad, vegetable enchiladas — but better — that I could eat in the comfort and safety of my house. So, as a way to live out this fantasy, I called on a couple of incredible private chefs to hear what they are up to.

Francis Reynard is a Michelin-star chef who was the son of a French diplomat, born in Brazil, and as he says, “raised around the world.” He has worked with Michel Guerard, Roger Verge, Freddy Girardet, Alain Ducasse, Sirio Maccioni, Gaultiero Marchesi, Jean-Paul Lacombe, and Daniel Boulud. The first time he came to the Vineyard was while he was working with Daniel Boulud in 1997 or 1998 when a family invited them to come for a long weekend and cook. Since then, Francis has left his restaurant kitchen life for a cooking sojourn on Martha’s Vineyard seven times. This year he was helping to open Cabo Del Sol in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico when a fellow chef in New Zealand called and said he could not get to the Vineyard because of the coronavirus and could Francis step in to help. “The restaurant was closed and I love the Vineyard. So here I am and I’m very happy to be back,” Francis says.

Meave manning the outdoor grill. — Elizabeth Cecil

Meave McAuliffe had a similar experience. “My sister Rory and I are opening a restaurant, Rory’s Place, in Ojai, Calif. We signed the lease in February, and then COVID-19 arrived and we couldn’t do anything. So there I was in California and summer was coming and I felt the pull of the Island. Will I go this year? Should I go? And then I began getting phone calls from clients saying, “I hear you’re coming.”  The next thing I know, I’m buying a ticket and I’m here. The great thing is that I can still move the restaurant along, do some of the permitting, paperwork from here on Zoom, so when I get back we can get things going.”

Meave first came to the Vineyard to open Edgartown’s Behind the Bookstore for Jeffrey and Joyce Sudikoff. “I’m from Los Angeles and knew them from out there,” she tells me. Maeve grew up around food; her mom had a bakery in Venice, California and she knew from a very early age that she wanted to be a chef. Instead of culinary school, she got a degree in environmental studies at Hampshire College. She then returned to Los Angeles to cut her teeth at Gjelina where she started as a hostess, and worked her way up to become their head pastry chef and the chef de cuisine at their sister establishment, Gjelina Takeaway. “I lived here for three winters,” she laughs. “That was enough.” So she crossed the country once more to work as the chef at Saltwater Oyster Depot in Bolinas, Calif. before moving to Ojai last year to start up Rory’s Place.

Fire-roasted chicken and field greens. — Elizabeth Cecil

When Meave and I met up for tea on a Monday afternoon, I asked her about her day. “Oh, it was great. One of the families I’m working for has engaged me to help them with their farm. It’s an amazing collaboration. The founding principles of the farm are about regenerative farming, limiting waste, and looking at sustainable responsible practices, which is exactly what we want to be supporting with our restaurant in Ojai. Our day started with and always starts with looking at what is in the garden. We are exploring ways to utilize the excess bounty and imperfect produce in creative ways. When we were super hot from cooking, we jumped in the ocean.”

Francis’ days are different. I also spoke to him on a Monday. “Today is a quiet day. We rest. Catch up on life. The family is off-Island. They generally are here Thursday through Sunday. But throughout the summer they will be here for some two week stints — then we work 15 hours a day, every day. When they are just coming for the Thursday to Sunday time, we begin shopping and prepping on Wednesday and are cooking three meals a day, plus cocktails, Thursday through Sunday evening. This year I’m very lucky. Because of COVID-19, I was able to bring two people with me from the restaurant in Mexico. So we can do more. When you cook in a restaurant, you have a team. You can say to your pastry chef, ‘I need this. I need that,’ and you have a set menu of say 24 dishes, but in this situation, you do everything yourself and you are making something different every meal, every day. So it is amazing for me to have extra hands because we can have more fun with the ingredients. We can make fresh tortillas instead of buying them.”

Honeysuckle oysters. — Elizabeth Cecil

When each conversation turns to the ingredients, both Francis and Maeve become animated. “In New York or when you are working for a big restaurant, you can get anything you want. Here, my options are more limited. But I love the cold water fish. The cod. The halibut. The corn. The scallops! There is no menu planning.” He laughs, “You could try writing a menu at the table, but then you really just have to go to the market and see what is available. Especially this year. And then you have some leftovers and you have to figure out what to do with that. But it is fun. A good puzzle.”

Part of Francis’ puzzle is that he has numbers to consider. Some days he is cooking for 10 people and other nights 25. “I did seven dishes for lunch last weekend. Fried chicken, octopus, lobster salad, enchiladas, chile rellenos, corn.” He laughs, “I can’t remember the other one. I love making a good chowder. Lobster bisque. Fresh ravioli. Salads, duck with Swiss chard. There is so much produce here that is different from what we are using and is available for the restaurant in Mexico, so it is fun for me to work with. I have two months to play with all of this. Oh and the swordfish. I really love swordfish. It is amazing. It doesn’t need anything to be delicious.”

Meave agrees with Francis and says she doesn’t do any menu planning either, just “farm hopping.” Twice a week she makes the rounds to farm stands and the occasional trip to Cronig’s. “I love the Blackwater Farm beef, Ghost Island, North Tabor. And Slip Away Farm if I am on that end of the Island. Beyond the really good seasonal ingredients — corn, tomatoes, fish — there is something nostalgic about the way we cook and eat here.”

Meave begins to describe her favorite meals this summer. “I made a bonito ranch dressing that I’m really excited about. Bonito flakes with dill, chives, parsley from the garden. I put it on fresh salad greens from the garden and paired it with pan seared halibut finished in the oven. The bonito just pulled the fish flavor through the whole meal.”

Grilled bass. — Elizabeth Cecil

But her favorite food moment thus far was when she made vongole (with homemade squid ink taglietelle of course!). “There is something about the smell in the kitchen when the clams release their juice and it meets the early season garlic, lemon, chili flakes, parsley, wine, butter, and olive oil.” She stops talking and sighs. Here is the nostalgia she is talking about. It is the experience of the most recent plate of vongole paired with the memory of every night of vongole of every summer past. We sit for a moment and think about that.

I have the memory of first digging clams — I was maybe five or six — with my grandfather Papa in Tashmoo. We swam across the channel (a no-no) and both had our toes nipped by blue crabs. But the taste of the clams later that night made it all worth it. Vongole was also the first meal my husband ever made for me.

What came out of the conversations with these two really surprised me. Going in, I had thought it was going to be torture. Why am I doing this? This is just going to make me want someone to cook for me even more. But what happened was just the opposite. Their joy of cooking and love of food made me return to my kitchen with fresh eyes. I want to go to the farm stands and look again. To remember that cooking is a creative adventure. They made me think that maybe I could up my game. I could make a different salad dressing than my go to balsamic vinaigrette. I could grill eggplant and pair it with Mermaid Farm feta and mint. And when I have more time on the weekends or during the winter, I too could make homemade tortillas and pasta. So, while I did not get my actual dream meal, talking with Francis Reynard and Meave Macauliffe served up something far better: inspiration.

Rory’s Place Bonito Ranch Dressing

2 cups sour cream
1 cup buttermilk
⅓ cup mayo or aioli
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ c. red wine vinegar
2 Tbps. kosher salt, plus probably 1 to2 tsp. more, to taste
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. shallot
1 tsp. granulated garlic
1 Tbsp. dried dill

Blend them together, then add:

½ bunch chopped:
1 handful of bonita flakes

Throw in blender, and pulse quickly. Enjoy!

Francis Reynard’s Clam and Scallop Chowder

Serves 6

6  Maine or North Eastern sea scallops
36 clams
1  white onion
3  Yukon potatoes
2  medium leeks
2  garlic cloves
2  bacon slices
1/2 bunch of parsley, chopped
1 bunch of chive
2 sprigs of tarragon
3 sticks of butter
2 cups half & half
1/2 bottle of dry white wine

Cook one slice of bacon until crisp in the oven or in a small sauté pan. Set aside.

Dice and sweat with 1 stick of butter the onion, the garlic, 1 leek, 1 slice of bacon, 1 1/2 potato, the tarragon, a bit of parsley.

Add the clams and steam until they open.

Add the white wine and 1 cup of water and cover it for a few minutes.

Take the clams out of the shell. Set them aside.

Blend the broth (minus the clams) in a Vita prep, add the half & half and a stick of butter to get a creamy, soupy,  and silky consistency. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a small sauce pan, make a small brunoise (in this case, the brunoise is a combination of the remaining 1 1/2 Yukon potatoes and leek with some butter). Add a bit of salty water, maybe 1/4 cup, and cook the leeks and potatoes until tender. Set aside.

In a saucepan, sear the sea scallops in a pan with butter, get them caramelized, and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

To plate:

In each place, first place the brunoise of potatoes and leeks, then add the clams, pour the chowder broth delicately around the clams, potatoes and leeks and then place the seared scallops in the center.

Sprinkle with the chive and parsley.

Finally, add a few bits of the crisp slice of bacon to the top.

Bon appétit!