Love and marriage, a horse and carriage, the garden and the kitchen—what’s one without the other? And who wants to eat raw turnips? Today the Greyfield Garden pays rightful homage to the folks who make the magic happen, masters of the alchemy of heat, oil, and spice that transforms the homely rutabaga to a sense-rattling feast. Ladies and gentlemen, may we present the kitchen staff at the Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island, to whom our stomachs owe many thanks:
Whitney Otawka—Executive Chef
Hometown: Hesperia, California
Whitney’s love for all things French sent her headlong into the culinary world. While taking French classes at the University of California-Berkeley, she responded to an advertisement for a waitress position at a local French bakery. With absolutely zip waitressing experience, she didn’t get the job. Instead, she was hired as the second part of a two-person kitchen, where she began her career as a budding chef and learned to manage the brain-frying multitasking of the restaurant business. At night the owner, who cooked his mother’s Brittany-based recipes, would give informal lessons on the art of food and introduce Whitney to whatever wine caught her fancy. It was a remarkable experience, and her boss at the time was one of the most generous people she’s ever known. Whitney came to Greyfield after working simultaneously for 5&10 and Restaurant Eugene, the better dining establishments in Athens and Atlanta, Georgia, respectively—much less the country. Although invitations to work permanently in Atlanta came knocking, she didn’t want to fight the grind of the big city. The opportunity as executive chef at the Greyfield Inn, where her first experience had been as a guest, was a captivating way to stay in the South and a unique chance to put culinary creativity into practice and enlarge upon her talents.
Staff’s Favorite Dish—Whitney’s responsible for so much, it’s nearly impossible to winnow it down. I’ll say this, since I’ve been here, I’ve never eaten so well in my life. I often have extra helpings of gnocchi, butternut squash, and pheasant. And, oooh, the lemonade bubbles….
Alberto “The Rock” Gonzalez—Sous Chef
Hometown: Miami, Florida
We are so much a product of our parents’ jobs and life-decisions. Al’s story is a simple one, which as the son of a farmer I can certainly understand. His father was a restaurateur in Miami. After resisting the family business throughout much of his youth, Al eventually discovered he could stay out of it no longer. These things get into your blood, and their lives become part of your own.
Al came to Greyfield after running a hip and happening bar in the sparkling seaside hamlet of Fernandina Beach, Florida (which really has more enticing bars and decent eateries than a place its size should). While job-hunting there, he made friends with Greyfield’s head chef at the time. It’s all about connections.
(Something I learned in the course of this “interview”: Al can play the bassoon.)
Staff’s Favorite Dish—Lemon cottage cheese pancakes. A fabulous treat in your workday: They make plain pancakes seem completely lazy and insufficient. Al also makes a flavorful hot sauce with just the right amount of heat. The guests were recently overhead raving about his garbanzo bean salad.
Georgia Kelly—Pastry Chef
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Georgia says she is not a spontaneous person. She likes plans, preparations, and insurance for her insurance. Yet, after 20 years as an X-ray tech—a temporary job that had forgotten to be just that—Georgia gave it up with nothing certain to fall back on and nothing definite to come. At the age of 40, she enrolled in culinary school in Charleston, throwing herself bravely into a new life. Of course, Georgia had grown up cooking and always loved it (although she says the same could not be said for her mother).
Initially, Georgia completed a 12-week externship at Greyfield as part of her schooling. She chose us over The Ritz on Amelia Island because of the comfort and attention to detail of the small kitchen here (besides the fact that Greyfield and Cumberland are together just a special place). Eventually a full-time position opened up and Georgia jumped on board.
Staff’s Favorite Dish—Rice Crispy Bar with Bavarian Cream. The Mount Olympus of sweet desserts. As the names says, this is a rapturous combination of rich chocolate cream and a chocolate rice-bar base like the most heavenly Nestle Crunch you can imagine. It’s decadence plus debauchery plus a little moral turpitude thrown in for good measure. Her carrot cake is a close second, soft and moist yet the perfect amount of nutty crunch. And everyone loves to talk about the French toast encrusted in bran flakes.
Ben Wheatley—Sous Chef
Hometown: Washington, Georgia
From childhood Ben has loved cooking. He cooked alongside his mother growing up. He cooked in and around the town of Clayton, Georgia during high school. And, remarkably, he cooked in the esteemed kitchens of both Blackberry Farm and 5&10 shortly thereafter. Now, Greyfield is fortunate to have him cooking for us.
Staff’s Favorite Dish—Personally, the steak, cooked slowly over a cedar and oak fire, producing the perfect internal color. I also think he makes some great cornbread.I put the kitchen staff through this rather whimsical round of inquiries, some of them borrowed from the Proust Questionnaire published in Vanity Fair magazine. Hopefully, their answers partially convey what great, enjoyable people they are and the generally fun mood of the kitchen.
What is your favorite food?
Whitney—“My mom’s cabbage rolls.” If she’s paying, Mexican food.
Al—Bistec Empanizado con tostones y frijoles negros. Breaded steak with black beans and rice and fried plantains. Followed by tiramisu. Al loves tiramisu.
Georgia—Comfort foods like soup and chicken and dumplings. “I would go all the way to Colorado Springs for avocado pork burritos.”
Ben—”My grandma’s potato soup with cornbread cracklin.”
What music are you most likely to listen to in the kitchen while you work?
Whitney—Jack Johnson. The Black Keys. She says, “I also really like Dwight Yoakam.”
Al—Pearl Jam. Latin music.
Georgia—Anything light and fun, especially music with brass. The Gypsy Kings.
Ben—Classic Country, Bob Marley, Neil Young. Also: Drive-By Truckers, The Black Keys.
If you could come back as an animal, what would it be?
Whitney—A Tahitian dolphin.
Georgia—A peregrine falcon or a gibbon.
What is it that you dislike?
Al—Saying “um” over and over again.
Georgia—Chewing and snapping gum.
Ben—People who complain openly, also people who constantly talk without saying anything.
What word or phrase do you most overuse?
Whitney—“Just so you know”
Ben—”Huh?” (However, Ben’s really not one to overuse words.)
What talent would you most like to have?
Whitney—Spanish guitar or violin.
Ben—”Badass on the guitar.”
What are your favorite names?
Greyfield’s October/November Menu…
Ap: Butternut squash soup with chorizo and cinnamon
Entrée: Beer-Braised pork shoulder with Sea Island red peas and rice and roasted tomatoes and toasted garlic with braising jus
Ap: Salad of Bosc pears, spinach, toasted walnuts, salami, manchego cheese, and aged balsamic
Entrée: Benton’s Bacon wrapped fish with roasted kale, whipped sweet potatoes, and lemon fennel relish
Ap: Georgia shrimp gumbo with scallions
Entrée: Roasted fish with honey glazed baby carrots, buttermilk mashed potatoes, pistachio gremolata, and sweet onion sauce
Ap: Lettuces (frisee and baby arugula) with roasted pumpkin, Wabash cannonball, molasses vinaigrette, pumpkin seed crackers
Entrée: Caraway-encrusted duck breast with caramelized onions and farro, sautéed savoy cabbage, eggplant puree with rye whiskey jus
Ap: Braised pork belly with roasted apple sauce and fennel, buttered brioche, sage oil, and apple jus (maiche)
Entrée: Roasted fish with braised white beans, asparagus, basil pistu, lemon confit, and olive oil poached tomatoes
Ap: French lentil soup with Benton’s country bacon and carrot confit
Entrée: Pan-seared New York strip steak with blue cheese butter, new potato hash, sautéed rapini, and thyme jus
Ap: Ricotta gnocchi with butternut squash, shaved kale and pecan brown butter
Entrée: Roasted pheasant with black truffles, wild mushrooms, and whipped celery root and chervil
Update: Read the glowing review of Whitney Otawka and the Greyfield Inn in Creative Loafing.