On a seasonal Island known for revolving chefs, Andrew Burkill returns this year for his fifth season as head chef of the Chilmark Tavern, armed with a notebook full of ideas from his travels over the off-season. Owner and manager Jenna Petersiel says customers love his cooking, so she couldn’t be happier. “Every year at the beginning, they say, ‘I hope you have the same chef back’ — and that’s all I need to hear,” she explains.
Their success as a neighborhood restaurant in the heart of Chilmark, serving locally sourced and seasonal food simply, is also good news for the town of Chilmark. Both the Home Port and Beach Plum restaurants — stalwarts in the town for decades — shut down during the pandemic. It looks like the Beach Plum will reopen this season, but the Home Port remains shuttered.
A thriving restaurant seems a simple enough equation, but the work behind the scenes — for both the chef and the owner — to get to this moment takes years.
The Chilmark Tavern was opened in 2009 by Petersiel’s parents, North Shore restaurateurs whose good friends own the building. Built about 100 years ago to be a tavern, it never became one in “dry” Chilmark, where no alcohol is sold or served. Instead, it’s been a grange, dance hall, post office, and after renovations, offices and a restaurant. It’s been a French cheese shop and restaurant, the Feast of Chilmark, and the Cornerway before becoming the Chilmark Tavern, with a nod to the building’s history.
Petersiel took over running the 99-seat restaurant in 2011, and by the time she had an opening for a new executive chef in 2018 and hired Burkill, she had worked with three chefs and knew the qualifications she needed: someone who could create good food, be a good leader in the kitchen, understand labor and food costs, and be willing to work with a hands-on owner.
Recalling that initial interview process, Australian-born Burkill said he and Petersiel had multiple phone calls stretching over a month, each conversation lasting 60 to 90 minutes, followed by a test dinner, before Petersiel’s offer came.
Burkill, now 43, was offered two chef positions on Nantucket, but chose the Tavern with an owner who shared a similar food philosophy to his. He had been to plenty of other places — cooking at top restaurants in Canada, elsewhere in the U.S., and Australia, serving French, Japanese, Alsatian, and Spanish dishes — but never to Martha’s Vineyard.
Burkill grew up in Brisbane, studying information technology in high school. He and his four siblings each took turns cooking dinners with their mom or grandmother, both good cooks. At the urging of a few friends, he tested out restaurant work at age 18, and remembers his sense of pride and satisfaction seeing diners enjoy the first meal he cooked — even if he had to wash dishes for eight months first.
It spurred him to enter the chef’s training program at the government-funded Australian Institute of Business and Industry Training. The five-year culinary education included four one-year restaurant internships, and six weeks of culinary training between each internship.
After graduation, he set out to work where “all the chefs wanted to work” — for Chef George Diamond at Siggi’s, a French restaurant that had won Best of Queensland for five years running.
Hoping to head to Spain next, he instead ended up in Vancouver at a restaurant called Circa. There, he worked with Michelin-trained Chef Andy Budgen, and then at a seafood restaurant called NU on the Water with another Michelin chef, Joseph Sartor. NU had just built a state-of-the-art pastry kitchen, and even though Burkill was working as chef de partie, or station chef, he angled for the pastry job and got it. “I’d always loved pastry,” he says. Compared with being a chef, “everyone leaves you alone, and no one knows what you’re doing.”
When Sartor opened an Alsatian French-German restaurant in Vancouver called La Brasserie, he invited Burkill to go with him as pastry chef. Burkill said he’d never seen so much talent in one kitchen. Of eight people, seven had Michelin experience, he said. (Michelin Stars set the standard for ranking the finest restaurants in the industry.)
Burkill tired of the dreary Vancouver weather, however, and headed home to Australia. While home and working as head chef at Alegria, serving Spanish tapas, he met and married an American woman who was about to take a job in Pittsburgh. And that’s where he found himself next.
He became sous-chef at Cure in Pittsburgh, with chef/owner Justin Severino, nationally recognized for his charcuterie, something Burkill wanted to learn. But when Burkill’s marriage ended, he decided to try somewhere not “landlocked,” and that’s how he ended up on the East Coast in conversation with Petersiel.
It was the right move for both, apparently — Petersiel guiding him into the Vineyard restaurant life, and Burkill using his hard-earned skills turning the food he found here into dinner each night.
“The Island has the best oysters I’ve ever had in my life, and the best scallops I’ve ever had,” says Burkill. The number of farms here surprised him, and he relies on many of them.
Dishes like this result: hand-rolled cavatelli with house-smoked and -braised Grey Barn pork cheeks, garlic scapes, cavolo nero (Italian kale) and pecorino. Or the pan-seared Atlantic halibut, MV Mycological shiitakes, shishitos, and soy dashi broth.
Petersiel says she appreciates how Burkill expertly cooks a piece of fish and pairs it simply. Aside from seafood and homemade pasta always on the menu, some customer favorites stay there too, like Burkill’s Poulet Frites (a half-chicken brined in brown ale and roasted, fries, greens, and a sauce) or the Tavern Steak, with frites or mashed potatoes, fried onion rings, and a Bordelaise sauce. Specials augment this balancing act, as well as plat du jour nights such as Meatless Mondays, Paella Tuesdays, Poke Bowl Fridays, or Sunday specials with fried chicken buckets. Petersiel’s craft cocktail program — adding liquor that customers bring in — and Burkill’s desserts round it all out.
Just before the mid-May opening this year, Burkill was savoring the last of his time off before the summer season began at the restaurant, where he cooked a record 298 covers on an August night. Aside from travel, he spends any spare time playing tennis, golfing, fishing, working on his herb garden, or visiting farms. Asked how long he thinks he’ll be staying on the Island, Burkill laughs: “Until Petersiel kicks me out.”
“As for Andrew, I feel the same,” she responds. “The only reason I would ever want to see him go would be for an opportunity better than the one I could provide him.”