CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Seth Nathan at Isola in the Heights. Published in the Shelter Island Reporter on January 11, 2018. Seth Nathan is the executive chef at Isola, a restaurant in the Heights. Halfway through his first winter on Shelter Island, he’s ...


Seth Nathan, a chef rising from his roots

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Seth Nathan at Isola in the Heights.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Seth Nathan at Isola in the Heights.

Published in the Shelter Island Reporter on January 11, 2018. 

Seth Nathan is the executive chef at Isola, a restaurant in the Heights. Halfway through his first winter on Shelter Island, he’s still — remarkably — smiling. For a guy born in Ojai, California, and raised in Malibu, staying warm and cheerful in a Northeastern winter is no minor accomplishment.

He points out that it’s been a rough winter in SoCal, as well. The area ravaged by the largest wildfire in California history is still home for most of his family, including his aunt and uncle who had 15 minutes to get out of their house, which was reduced to ash.

“It is a part of life there,” Seth said.

A 6th-grade chemistry class on the science of chicken parmesan stimulated the boy’s first solo foray in the kitchen. After taking copious notes on the recipe, not the chemical principles it demonstrated, Seth found all the necessary ingredients on hand when he got home from school, and decided to surprise his working, single father with dinner.

“I can’t tell you if it was any good,” Seth said. “And I didn’t do well in chemistry, but the science of cooking has always intrigued me.”

Chicken parmesan is now a regular item on the menu at Isola, and judging from its popularity, Seth overcame any difficulty he may have had with the recipe when he was 11.

In spite of his early interest in cooking, Seth bounced around after graduating from high school, thinking about culinary school, but never quite getting there. It took an accidental visit to San Sebastián on the Spanish coast to lead him to a career as a chef.

“It was a wrong turn that turned out right,” he said.

In the summer of 2000 while traveling around Europe with friends, the group rented Vespas to tour the area near Biarritz, France. Seth, who was not familiar with roundabouts, got disoriented as his friends rode off in one direction, and he rode in the other.

He found himself on a highway, crossed the border into Spain, and arrived at a beach in San Sebastián at sunset, where he felt something special about the place. “That night I made it back somehow,” he recalled, “and told my friends, we have to go there.”

Seth stayed for close to six years, working in a bar, and later enrolling in the Escuela de Cocina Irizar, a small, excellent culinary school with a list of prominent alumni, some of whom have become stars in the cooking world. The school is known for the internships that place its students in one of San Sebastián’s renowned restaurants for hands-on experience at the highest level.

For Seth, that meant a stint at Urepel, a family-owned restaurant with one Michelin star. The green American intern who barely spoke Spanish was put in charge of cleaning artichokes, a complex and spiny vegetable that requires knife skills and dexterity to process. His internship became a job, and he worked at Urepel for three years. “I became part of the family,” he said.

Back in Ventura for the funeral of an uncle, Seth noticed the food scene had undergone a renaissance while he was away. Farm-to-table restaurants were opening up, and even his grandfather had closed his bakery and gone into farming.

Seth stayed in Ventura, doing pop-up events, and opening restaurants using his European experience to create a menu, train a staff, and establish relationships with vendors until the new restaurant was on its feet and he could move on to the next one.

While running a wine bar in Ventura, Seth met Casey Garrison — a journalist who is now his partner — when Casey came in with a mutual friend. The friend was the one trying to get cozy with Seth, but that was not what Cupid had in mind.

“Casey and I just knew there would be something,” he said. Casey moved to Washington state and for two years they kept in touch.

When Seth agreed to open a new restaurant in a 40-room hotel in Solvang, California, he and Casey embarked on the adventure together, naming it Mad & Vin, (Danish for food and wine) and it was a hit.

In the spring of 2017, Seth heard that Brad Kitkowski was looking to hire a chef for the new restaurant he was opening on Shelter Island.

Shelter Island was not what Seth was expecting. “I expected the Hamptons,” he said. “I grew up in Malibu, so I’m familiar with that. I’m glad it’s not that.”

In April 2017, Seth and Casey got engaged, and moved to a cabin on Rocky Point Road behind the Pridwin.

Seth was delighted to find a supportive restaurant community on the Island.

“Everyone has a huge amount of pride in their establishments, and could see us as direct competition,” he said. “But we help each other out. On an island where vendors can’t always get here, if we run out of something it’s nice to know we have good neighbors.”

At Isola, Seth is finding a good match for the skills and interests he’s developed, from his 6th grade chemistry class, to Basque Country cooking to contemporary farm to table.

He’s excited by the rich variety of seafood here, including some fish he cooked with in Europe, but could not get on the West Coast, such as hake, which he prepares at Isola Basque-style with an Italian-influenced salsa verde and local littleneck clams — a dish equal parts Europe and the North Fork.

He loves to cook slow. “The technique of braising is my calling card,” he said. “There is always a lamb shank or a short rib on my menus. I’m enthralled by the science of it, the way meat will break down at the right low temperature. The change in aromas, when everything softens and gets caramelized.”

As Seth’s tattoos reveal, he’s an admirer of David Bowie. A large inked area on his chest is a portrait of Bowie as the Goblin King Jareth, from the 1986 film “Labyrinth.” The other, a lightning bolt, was added to Seth’s forearm on the day the star passed away.

“Bowie reinvented himself, but he always kept a signature,” Seth said. “It’s how I’ve fashioned my career. Ever changing but still keeping those roots.”

Lightning Round

What do you always have with you?  A photo of a Chihuahua named Peaches.

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  Rocky Point Road, leading down to the beach.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?  San Sebastián, Spain.

Last time you were elated?  Last time I bought a plane ticket.

What exasperates you?  Lack of work ethic.

Last time you were afraid?  I’m always afraid of things not going out of the kitchen properly.

Best day of the year on Shelter Island?  The Tumbleweed Tuesday beach party, a day when all the restaurants are closed after a season of hard work.

Favorite movie or book?  The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Do you have a most-respected elected official?  I’d like to.


Tracy McCarthy: Finding the real deal on Shelter Island

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Tracy McCarthy at home on Fred’s Lane.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Tracy McCarthy at home on Fred’s Lane.

Tracy McCarthy was 40 when she moved permanently to Shelter Island. But in all the ways that count, she lived here all her life.

Her recurring childhood ear infections? Doctor Grunwaldt treated them. First job? Bussing tables at the Ram’s Head Inn. Name a milestone — first boyfriend, learning to parallel park, the moment she spotted her future husband. She can tell you exactly where on this Island it happened.

She moved here in 2011. Seven years later she’s the mother of a 6-year-old daughter, a member of the Shelter Island School Board and the new director of operations at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. “Shelter Island has been a constant in my life whether or not I have physically been here.” Tracy said. “It all comes back to Shelter Island.”

Her father worked in the city and her mother as an administrative and teaching assistant in their local high school. Four summers in row the family, including Tracy’s older brother, Scott, made a two-week trip to Shelter Island on a 28-foot motorboat named Personality.

Tracy remembers swimming with Scott in the Coecles Harbor Marina pool and taking the van to the grocery store in the Center. Every year, she got an ear infection and a visit to Dr. Grunwaldt, the Island’s beloved medical practitioner.

In 1980, Tracy was at summer camp when she got a postcard from her parents, staying at Kraus’s Motel (now known as Sunset Beach) announcing they had bought a house on the Island.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Tracy and Scott were summer kids, working hard and avoiding adult supervision. “My parents would leave us during the week and we had the house to ourselves,” she said. “In the back of my head, I always thought I would either marry someone from Shelter Island or end up on Shelter Island.”

She majored in recreation management at the University of Vermont and during her time in Burlington, got involved with community service, participating in building projects with Habitat for Humanity in Burlington, the Lower East Side of Manhattan and rural Mississippi.

Vermont college students with money to travel went to warm places for spring break, but Tracy participated in an alternative spring break, a service trip to work in soup kitchens. After college, she joined the Peace Corps and went to Guatemala where she built latrines, planted seeds and helped mitigate the negative impacts of development on the environment in a rural town where indoor plumbing was scarce.

Tracy’s father bought a publishing company in Connecticut called Media Ventures, whose core business was producing local content for telephone books in the aftermath of the breakup of AT&T. In 1995 at a crossroads in her own career, Tracy asked if he had something she could do while she sorted herself out. In the days before smartphones and GPS-powered apps, the company made local maps for their publications.

Tracy had map-making experience from a GPS class she’d taken in college, and spent most of the first two years at Media Ventures keying in street names.

Eventually she did just about every job in the company from production to editorial, to managing the entire company when her father retired in 2009. She stayed for 23 years.

“Working with my dad, I got to know him as an adult,” Tracy said. “We have a very special relationship.”

In October 2007 Tracy was on the Island for the wedding of a friend, when she spotted a guy standing at the end of the bar at Planet Bliss. She asked her friends who he was. Advised that his name was Bryan, he worked at the ferry and was “a good guy,” Tracy decided to say hello. “I went over and said, ‘What’s your deal?’”

Although she admits it wasn’t the greatest conversation-opener, they talked long enough to exchange numbers. By Thanksgiving weekend they had their first date.

Tracy and Bryan McCarthy were married in 2009 in Florida, and later had a reception at the Ram’s Head Inn. Married to an Island guy, she was still living and working in Connecticut. Their honeymoon in January 2010, Tracy said, was the longest period of time they had ever spent together.

Finally, in August 2011, three weeks before their daughter, Eliza, was born, Tracy moved to the Island full-time, and began a once-a-week commute across the Sound to Connecticut to Media Ventures. Last summer, she closed her family business and accepted a position as director of operations at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm.

In 2014, Tracy’s father was seriously injured when he fell down a flight of stairs while visiting her brother in Connecticut. Tracy’s mother was on the Island when she got the call at 3 a.m..

Tracy and her mother got the first boat in the morning and went straight to Bridgeport, Connecticut where her father was hospitalized with a brain injury. After a lengthy hospitalization and rehab, he managed to recover, an experience that Tracy said taught her something.

“I learned to appreciate the really important people in your life, and to make sure they know that,” she said.

A few years back, Tracy wasn’t happy with the direction she saw the Shelter Island School going, and with Eliza entering elementary school, decided to help by serving on the School Board. She was elected, and is very encouraged by the recent changes, especially the selection of Christine Finn as superintendent, a decision that predates her role.

For Tracy, home is a place to cherish the good times and learn from the tough ones in a place with a small, hometown feel. “I don’t know if that is the best thing all the time, but it is a good thing,” she said. “I can’t get off this Island without someone saying, ‘Hey Bryan, I saw Tracy on the ferry.’ I have such good feelings and connections to this place. Even when there are bad times, the good overcomes. I feel happy to be here.”

Lightning Round

What do you always have with you?  An old ferry token. A good friend Johanna Johnson gave it to me when I left for the Peace Corps with a note, “So you know you can always come back.”  I’ve had it in my wallet for 25 years.

Favorite place on Shelter Island? The round table under the awning at the Ram’s Head Inn. Our wedding reception was there, and every Mother’s Day since I became a mother.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?  Kauai.

When was the last time you were elated?  This morning when over the sound of my hairdryer I could hear Eliza singing, “Santa Claus is coming to town…”.
She was in her room, singing Christmas carols.

What exasperates you? People not following through.

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? The first day I see that floating Christmas tree in Chase Creek.

Favorite movie or book? The Black Stallion.

Favorite food? Lasagna.


Hoecakes–the breakfast for a president

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Hoecakes and honey: The favorite breakfast of the first POTUS.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Hoecakes and honey: The favorite breakfast of the first POTUS.

I imagine that one of the great things about being president of the United States is getting to have whatever you want for breakfast. In George Washington’s case, according to written accounts by his friends and family, it was hoecakes — pancakes made with cornmeal, egg and water. He liked them served with plenty of butter and honey.

Hoecakes were the food of enslaved people and Native Americans in early America. Cornmeal was cheaper than wheat flour, and cooking the cakes on a hoe or griddle in the ashes of a fire did not require cooking utensils or even shelter.

In 1796, when Amelia Simmons’ recipe for hoecakes appeared in “American Cookery” — the first American cookbook — corn had been the staple grain in America for centuries. Simmons’ recipe was a little fancier than just cornmeal and water; she called for scalded milk, mixed some wheat flour in with the cornmeal, and instructed her readers to “bake before the fire.”

To see whether I liked the hoecakes thinner or thicker, I experimented by holding back on the amount of water I added at the end. The thicker ones were best, tender and delicious, especially when served hot.

Hoecakes from ‘The President’s Kitchen Cabinet’ by Adrian Miller 

Makes eight 4-inch pancakes

½ tsp. active dry yeast

2 ½ cups white cornmeal, divided

3 to 4 cups lukewarm water

½ tsp. salt

1 large egg, lightly beaten

Melted butter for drizzling and honey or maple syrup for serving

Mix the yeast and 1 ¼ cups of the cornmeal in a large bowl. Add 1 cup of the lukewarm water, stirring to combine thoroughly. If needed, mix in ½ cup more of the water to give the mixture the consistency of pancake batter.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.

When ready to prepare, preheat the oven to 200F.

Add ½ cup of the remaining water to the batter.

Add the salt and egg, and blend thoroughly.

Gradually add the remaining cornmeal, alternating with enough additional lukewarm water to make a mixture that is the consistency of waffle or pancake batter.

Cover the bowl with a towel and set aside at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes.

Heat a griddle on medium-high heat, and lightly grease it with lard or vegetable shortening.

Preparing one hoecake at a time, drop a scant ¼ cup of the batter onto the griddle and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the bottom is lightly browned.

With a spatula, turn the hoecake over and continue cooking another 4 to 5 minutes, or until the bottom is lightly browned.

Place the hoecake on a platter and set it in the oven to keep warm while making the rest of the cakes.

Serve the hoecakes warm, drizzled with melted butter and honey or syrup.


DEC decides against extending the scalloping season

Published in the Suffolk-Times on Thursday, February 15, 2018 and the Shelter Island Reporter on Feb. 22, 2018.

The last time Peconic Bay scallops were this plentiful was the winter of 2015, just before six weeks of hard weather put what should have been a five-month harvest on hold. Back then, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation responded by extending the season for commercial scalloping in state waters by a month to make up for lost time, but this year, the season will end in March, right on schedule. 

In a statement on Monday, the DEC announced it would not extend the 2018 season which began on Nov. 6, 2017. Spokesperson Erica Ringewalde said although ice had clogged creeks, bays and harbors for several weeks in January, they are now clear and baymen have the opportunity to harvest scallops until the season closes March 31.

The decision — made with the long-term health of the Peconic Bay scallop population foremost — affects the bottom line for baymen, seafood distributors, and restaurants. Baymen and fishmongers have been speculating about the possibility of an extension ever since the January freeze made it impossible for scallopers to get boats out.

One bayman who would have liked to see the season extended this year is Sawyer Clark of Shelter Island. “With the ice, it’s dangerous work. A lot of people went out early in the season this year, now there are only 35 or 40 real baymen still out there scalloping. We lost several weeks of revenues with the ice.”

At Braun Seafood Company in Cutchogue, Keith Reda said no one from the DEC contacted him about extending the scallop season, “If they had asked me, I’d have told them not to do it. Demand has lessened, retail and wholesale.”

Once the bays froze, the restaurants Mr. Reda supplies in New York and Long Island saw the prices rise and the supply dry up, disrupting the stream of local scallops that had been strong and steady throughout the fall. Now that scallops are available again, he has little demand.

According to Mr. Reda, scallop retail prices over the course of the season told the story; starting with the first weeks after the early November opening, when bay scallops went for as little as $15 a pound. “At that price, a restaurant was crazy not to choose the premium product, Peconic Bay scallops, over cheaper bay scallops from elsewhere.”

Gradually the price climbed through the fall, to a high of around $23 a pound before they became unavailable for part of January. Shucked scallops are now back down to about $18 or $19 a pound as baymen have found plenty of large ones still alive under that cold water.

Mr. Reda pointed out that the quality of the bay scallops late in the season is different than in November, since scallops have a very short lifespan and by spring will die of natural causes if they are not caught. As for the ones he’s seeing now, “They are very large and very old.”

The DEC spokesperson said the decision not to allow commercial scallop fishing in state waters to extend into April was based on the weather, not the economic climate, and not concerns about the upcoming spawn. “DEC’s decision is based on the number of days of ice-covered embayments,” Ms. Ringewalde said.

The DEC and local commercial fishermen are on the same page when it comes to the long-term viability of the Peconic Bay scallop. The collapse of the scallop population in the late 80s was a calamity that brought the DEC and the baymen together in agreement that scalloping season had to be changed to maximize the chances for scallops to spawn.

“We used to start in September,” recalled bayman John Kotula of Shelter Island in a 2015 interview. “But we were finding scallops with roe in October, and we all really wanted this industry to come back.”

The people who sell and distribute the local delicacy agree.

“I can only hope for a good season next year,” Mr. Reda said.

Photo: Blue-eyed scallop on the culling board. (Credit: Charity Robey)


Off the fork: Have a heart

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTOS The cake that says, ‘be mine.’

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTOS The cake that says, ‘be mine.’

Published in the Shelter Island Reporter on Feb. 8, 2017

It’s all too easy to say, “I love you.” Making cake is harder.

On Valentine’s Day, when it’s especially important to let the one you love know it, one way to express affection is to make a heart-shaped, homemade butter cake, topped with pink whipped cream frosting. To make a cake like that requires not just love, but devotion.

Valentine’s Day is an ancient holiday, dating back at least to Roman times, but the creation of heart-shaped sweets for Valentine’s Day got started in the age of Queen Victoria. By the early 20th century, the Cadbury chocolate company was making heart-shaped boxes full of candy, and the mid-February issues of American newspapers and magazines were stuffed with recipes for heart-shaped cakes and cookies.

Since nothing takes the edge off romance like having to go out and buy special equipment, I’m happy to say that this cake can be created by anyone in possession of two 8-inch cake pans; one square and one round.

You form the heart by aligning the square cake and the two halves of the round cake, and applying a nice thick layer of the not-too-sweet pink raspberry frosting over the whole thing.

Smooth the frosting with the back of a spoon and decorate with raspberries to complete the message of love.

A Heart-shaped Cake
16 servings
The Cake
This basic yellow cake recipe is adapted from “The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion,” the go-to baking reference.
1 and ½ sticks (6 ounces) of butter
4 eggs and 2 yolks
1 ¾ cups (12¼ ounces) sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
2½ teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 ¾ cups (11½ ounces) all-purpose flour
1 cup plain yogurt
½ cup milk

Take the butter and eggs out of the refrigerator and allow them to come to room temperature.

Position the racks near the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

Prepare two 8-inch cake pans, one round and one square. Butter and flour the bottom and sides of each pan, or butter each pan and put a precut piece of parchment on the bottom, with a very thin coat of butter on top of the parchment.

Using an electric mixer, cream butter, sugar, salt, baking powder and vanilla until it is fluffy and almost white in color. This will take at least five minutes.

Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each one.

Whisk together the yogurt and milk.

The addition of the flour and the yogurt mixture to the creamed butter/sugar mixture is a gentle process, accomplished by hand and without athletic exertion. Fold one third of the flour into the butter/sugar mixture. Gently fold in half of the yogurt mixture. Fold in the second third of the flour, the rest of the yogurt mixture and finally the rest of the flour.

Spread the batter into the two prepared pans to the same depth. They should be no more than ¾ full.

Using the back of a wooden spoon, spread the batter slightly higher at the edges than in the center of the pans. This makes it more likely that the cakes will rise to the same height.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until the cakes pull away from the sides of the pans, and a toothpick inserted

into the center of the cakes comes out clean.

Cool for 10 minutes, and then take the cakes out of the pans to cool completely on a rack.

Split the 8-inch round cake in half and place the halves along two flat sides of the 8-inch square to form a heart.


Raspberry Frosting
Adapted from the “Big Pink Cake” in Tom Hudgens’ book of American home-cooking, “The Commonsense Kitchen: 500 Recipes + Lessons for a Hand-Crafted Life.”
8 ounces mashed fresh raspberries and another 4 ounces of whole berries to decorate the cake.
¼ cup sugar
3 cups heavy cream
¼ teaspoon lemon extract
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

Mash the raspberries with the sugar and heat the mixture over a low heat or in a microwave for a minute or so — just until the sugar dissolves.

Strain the raspberry mixture, and capture the juice in a bowl, pressing down on the solids with the back of a spoon to remove the seeds.

Cool the raspberry juice and add the heavy cream, lemon and vanilla extracts.

Whip the raspberry cream mixture just until it holds its shape and is spreadable.

Coat the cake by mounding the frosting on top and spreading it to the edges and down the sides of the cake. Smooth the frosting and decorate with the rest of the berries.