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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Young chefs build chops on Cumberland

I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days on Cumberland Island recently while working on a freelance assignment. The island, which is the southern most island in Georgia, is by far one of the most bizarre and seductive places I've ever visited. It's about the size of Manhattan but is almost totally uninhabited. A handful of private houses are scattered over the island amongst the live oaks and Spanish moss, as well as the lavish mansions the Carnegie family built on the island between 1884 and 1901. There's no phone lines, barely any cell service, no paved roads, no TVs, and hardly any cars. Going there is like stepping out of the world into another world completely. This was my second trip there - the first was when I was in my early 20's and I spent part of a summer out there doing carpentry on one of the three remaining Carnegie mansions that dot the island (the fourth and largest, Dungeness, burned down in 1959, leaving the most remarkable ruins).
One of those mansions is now the Greyfield Inn (pictured), which is still owned by descendants of the Carnegie family. To stay on Cumberland, you either have to camp or stay at the Inn. Because there are no stores or restaurants or anything really on the island, the Inn provides its guests with three meals daily. It's not a cheap stay, and part of the allure is that the food is top notch - dinner is served in the formal dining room by candlelight; men are required to wear jackets.
The current chef is Whitney Otawka, a young woman who has plenty of ties to our food scene here (the previous chef was Tony Seichrist, who you may remember as the chef at the Farmhouse at Serenbe a few years back). Otawka worked in the kitchen of Five and Ten in Athens, then started splitting her week between that job and a job at Restaurant Eugene. She also worked one day a week in the kitchen of Holeman and Finch for a while.
Young, heavily tattooed and insanely driven, Otawka is serving some pretty astonishing food at the Greyfield. Each evening she prepares a three-course meal for guests, allowing her to create a weekly menu rather than a nightly menu with a ton of items. It's a pretty sweet gig, with the ability to source the best ingredients and really focus on really perfecting a few dishes a day. One night I was there the menu was gnocchi with squash puree and crispy sage (the gnocchi perfectly soft but with a delicious sear), and a woodsy, fantastic pheasant with truffles.
Watch out for this chef. She's got the chops to be a true star.

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