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~ Martha’s Vineyard Pop-Up Restaurant Reflections 

Martha's Vineyard Pop-Up Restaurant Reflections

Photo by Olivia Wilkey

Around March 15 2020, I turned my dining room into a makeshift lab, converting an old cooler into a temperature and humidity controlled chamber to incubate tempeh. I didn’t have anything to do when the lockdown started, but had Amazon at my disposal. I turned my tempeh research into a report that I tried to get out to every chef I’ve worked with. Naively, I thought they’d care. In my bubble, I thought I was helping to save the future of food by using sustainable legumes to educate others on alternative protein sources. Ultimately, no one was interested –  they were dealing with the impending closures that would grow to define the culinary industry for the next 6 months.

In a quest to stay busy, I tried my hand at Instagram food tutorials, but that was short lived. I felt useless. I’m a chef – I cook for people. Those people were gone. The streets had no cars on them, and the sidewalks and supermarket shelves were barren. No one knew how long it would last. I kept trying to figure out how I could do something positive, even if my girlfriend and I were the only ones who could eat whatever I made. I wanted something bigger than my home kitchen, and dreamed up a COVID-safe popup restaurant that I was certain was never going to happen.

The idea was to find a vegetable garden, a couple of grills, a friend to collaborate with, and a dynamic source for sustainable ingredients. After many calls, a beautiful garden space on Martha’s Vineyard was generously donated. I called my friend Flynn McGarry to see if he was available to collaborate on the project. It would require a lot more than my usual itemized list. Because of CO-VID, we now had to consider travel restrictions, social distancing, and testing. I thought we were going to have to cancel everything a dozen times, but ultimately it worked out.

The pandemic made staffing especially difficult. Luckily, our girlfriends, Rebecca and Olivia, wanted to come with us. They agreed to work, and we would have been screwed without them. It sounded magical to get out of town and be on an island for two weeks, but they ended up hating us for how hard it was. Even with their help, to run the pop-up with only 4 people was insane. Flynn or I would wake up around 7 am to clean the tables and finish washing dishes from the previous night. We rarely finished breaking down before 1 or 2 AM. On top of that, our days off were filled with trips to the dump, hardware stores, and markets. The dump was a racket. They’d charge us 10-15 dollars every time we wanted to throw out a bag or two of lobster tails.

Olivia and Rebecca
Olivia and Rebecca

We worked directly with local farmers, fishmongers, and mushroom growers to source ingredients. The goal was to source 90% of our  products from the island –  everything beside vinegars, olive oil, and dried goods. We stayed away from meat in order to have a low-impact menu, focusing on bivalves, shellfish, and vegetables. We wanted to challenge ourselves to be radical in our adaptation and serve things that would not typically be included in a traditional fine dining setting.

Macklin and Flynn speaking to Olivia Meehan at Beetlebung Farm
Macklin and Flynn speaking to Olivia Meehan at Beetlebung Farm

We found out quickly that the growing conditions on Martha’s Vineyard were less than ideal. Farmer after farmer told us that the humidity causes the flowers on plants to rot before they’re even pollinated. Though a lot of the produce we had access to was grown organically, it had failed to ripen in the short and difficult growing season. We had to look at each ingredient and figure out how to coax the best flavors from them. Their cucumbers were a delicious exception to much of the unideal produce on the island. Farms like Beetlebungin Chilmark were growing varieties with unique flavor profiles. I’d snack on whole ones when we had downtime on the prep day. Some cucumbers had citrusy, melon-like flavors, while others were classically refreshing, crunchy, and sweet. They were some of the best produce we ate. 

In restaurants, it is often looked down upon to repeat ingredients from course to course. It is considered a sign of lacking creativity, and I hate this notion. Our limited ingredient list became a test of how creative we could be, and how different iterations of the same vegetables could be unique. We prepared cucumbers raw, marinated and grill-charred. Flynn and I created dishes based on the specific cucumber we were using. For our scallop and cucumber kabobs grilled on huckleberry branches, we used a variety of Armenian cucumber with a sweet, fruity flavor and added a bit of lemon. Our marinated cucumber salad had fresh cheese and lemon cucumbers briefly marinated in hazelnut oil and flowering herbs along with a small, raw Persian cucumber for crunch. Next, we used cucumber as a relish on grilled tempeh. For this, we removed the seeds from classic pickling cucumbers and charred them. Then, we minced the charred cucumbers and mixed them with vinegar, honey, and salt to create a condiment. We spooned this on top of grilled tempeh coated in a smokey kosho glaze. Finally, we used big, crunchy, sweet cucumbers to make a granita, which we spooned onto a corn semifreddo for dessert.

Scallop cucumber kabob on huckleberry branch
Scallop cucumber kabob on huckleberry branch
Charred tempeh glazed in Smokey Kosho and honey with a grilled cucumber relish
Charred tempeh glazed in Smokey Kosho and honey with a grilled cucumber relish

The lack of maturity in some of the vegetables created another issue. How can we get an OK tomato to taste incredible? Flynn came up with a delicious sauce for a tomato salad that stayed on the menu throughout the pop up experience. He used grated radish and Shio Koji (a fermented rice product) to add vegetal depth and umami to the lackluster fruit. He then sprinkled it with the flowering herbs that the island had an abundance of.

Tomato salad with flowering herbs
Tomato salad with flowering herbs

The local shellfish and seafood could not be more pristine. The farmed products needed to be tweaked to perfection and the seafood needed next to nothing to shine. Our goal was to marry the produce and seafood in a way where one didn’t outshine the other.

Fish head floating by the docks
Fish head floating by the docks
Line caught striped bass
Line caught striped bass

Everything was a lesson in how to work with the surroundings. Farmers were trying to do the impossible, and doing a really good job despite the growing conditions. You have a handful of pristine ingredients which form strange and complex relationships with the history of the island. The  shiitake mushrooms there are an example of this relationship.

A couple friends came together to form Martha’s Vineyard Mycological, which takes advantage of the unwanted oak logs, an invasive species on the island. The local forest service clears the oak logs from the woods for farmers to use as a substrate for growing mushrooms. The landscape looks a bit like an abandoned construction site, with the logs scattered around. It turns out that the humidity levels on the island are similar to the best mushroom growing regions in Japan, and that oak logs might be the best substrate for growing them.

Photo by Flynn Mcgarry. "The Kitchen"
Photo by Flynn Mcgarry. ”The Kitchen”

The farmers were able to take advantage of waste and grow something perfect in a space that seemed to have little potential. One oak log can only produce about three fruitings of shiitake, but we gave the spent logs a second life by using them on the grill. Spent logs burned more slowly than what I’m used to when grilling with oak, but they were great for smoking and retained a beautiful, even heat throughout the night. 

~

Chopped Cherry stone clam with chile, tomato water, and purslane
Chopped Cherry stone clam with chile, tomato water, and purslane
Cabbage Dolma wrapped in swisschard Filled with roasted cabbage and Mermaid farms feta
Cabbage Dolma wrapped in swisschard Filled with roasted cabbage and Mermaid farms feta

Dinner Menu 08/06/20

Clam with charred tomato water and purslane

Charred cabbage dolma

Grilled tempeh with kosho and cucumber

Tomato salad with garden herbs

Charred and marinated cucumbers with fresh cheese

Eggplant with pickled shiitake and smoked bluefish

Grilled striped bass with summer vegetable stew

Cucumber granita with corn semifreddo

Olive oil cake whipped corn and blueberries

~ Granola Methodology (recipe)

My favorite granola was always the original from La Brea Bakery, by Nacy Silverton. It had big clusters of whole almonds and pumpkin seeds that were toasted to a dark brown. I’ve honestly never been able to recreate it and don’t wanna try anymore, I think it’s better in memory. I eat granola every morning, with yogurt, or milk, or in a smoothie. Making it is a great joy and good for incorporating unused nuts and dried fruit in your cabinets. It’s one of the easiest things you can make and tailor exactly to your taste. It’s pretty hard to mess up too. It’s all about the method.

Ingredients:

  • Coconut or grapeseed oil (Other neutral oil can be used)
  • Sweetener – I like the use the least refined versions of sugar honey or maple syrup are perfect for this, but you can use brown sugar as well.
  • Oats
  • Dried fruit: Currants, raisins, cherries, blueberry, strawberry, banana, coconut flake
  • Nuts: Almond, Pine nuts, Hazelnuts, pistachios etc…
  • Seeds: Sesame, Chia, Poppyseed, pumpkin seeds etc..,
  • SpicesCinnamon, Cacao, Nutmeg, Ginger, et cetera + salt

Ratios are what matters in granola. 1 to 6 is the golden ratio. 1 Part plus a little wet to six parts dry. Or one cup of oil + sweetener to 6 cups of dry. The amount of oil to sugar varies depending how sweet you like your granola. I like to do about ¾ of the wet as honey and maple syrup and the last quarter as coconut oil. The sugary components help with clumping while the fat helps the granola brown and crisp. It’s also okay if you don’t measure here and just want to eyeball. This isn’t academic baking you can always add more. I whisk my oil and sugar together with my spices and salt so the dry ingredients are evenly coated. Another way to check for the right amount of wet is the squeeze a fistful of your granola together before baking and after you have evenly mixed the dry and wet ingredients together, you should be able to form a loose ball that crumbles as you release your fist, think like damp sand. I call it the wet sand test.

For the dry component. Id say about ¾ of your dry ingredients will be oats in traditional granola, I like to do about half oats because I like a lot of nuts and fruit. It’s up to you but ill give you two of my favorite variations.

Pantry style:

  • Coconut oil, Honey, and maple syrup
  • ½ oats
  • Whole almonds
  • Dried currants
  • Golden raisins
  • Dried coconut flakes
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sesame Seed 
  • Chia Seed 
  • Poppyseed
  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg
  • Ground ginger
  • Salt

Chocolate Cherry:

  • Coconut oil, honey, and maple syrup
  • 70% oat
  • Dried sour cherry
  • Almonds whole
  • Pumpkin seed
  • Coconut flake
  • Cacao powder
  • Cinnamon
  • Salt

Method:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 300
  2. Put your wet ingredients in a bowl, the larger the better, you want plenty of room for mixing. Next, add your spices and whisk until its evenly incorporate. I usually salt to taste, so Ill add some to the wet base and add more before I bake if I feel like it needs it. The right ratio of savory and sweet makes it more addictive. It’s not as good as cookie dough but raw granola isn’t bad so taste it before you bake it.
  3. Pour your oats, nuts, fruits, and seeds on top of the wet and with clean hands thoroughly mix for a few minutes until everything is evenly coated. At this point, you can do the wet sand test I mentioned above. Squeeze a handful tightly in your palms if it holds together for a few seconds then slowly breaks down like falling wet sand, you’re good. 
  4. Next, you need a sheet tray with a Silpat or parchment paper. Pour the granola onto the tray and spread into a layer no thicker than half an inch. The thicker your layer the more it “steams” and the less crunchy your granola will be. 
  5. Once it’s evenly spread put the tray in the oven with a repeating 10-minute timer. Every 10 minutes take the tray out and using a spoon or rubber spatula move the granola around flipping it so what was on the bottom becomes the top, this helps it brown evenly. Flatten it back out before putting it back in the oven. Keep an eye on it! You want it golden but too dark and it will be bitter, this usually takes between 2 ½ turns and 3 ½ turns or 25-40 minutes depending on your oven.
  6. For larger clusters: When your granola is toasted to your liking, remove the tray from the oven. And using a rubber spatula apply pressure all across the granola tray while it’s hot. You want to compact it as tightly as possible. Then let it fully cool in the tray, this will leave you with some larger shards of granola which you can break into your desired cluster size. 

Personally I have come to love a less compacted granola almost like a toasted muesli. For this I give the granola another toss when it comes out of the oven, I let it cool and pour it directly into an airtight container for storage.