Martha’s Vineyard has no shortage of restaurants, and behind each one, there’s a top-of-the-line chef. The Times decided to get to know these culinary wonders and share their stories each week.
Justin Melnick moved to the Island to cook for The Terrace at the Charlotte Inn in 2012. His wife, Emily, is the pastry chef for The Terrace. They have a two-year-old daughter, Amelia.
How did you come to be on Martha’s Vineyard?
I moved here in September 2012 from Dallas. We lived there for six months. We moved out there and they decided to close the restaurant four months later. Before that, I was at Tomasso Trattoria in Southborough for six years. There was a mutual connection that I had with Ann and Gerry (of the Charlotte Inn) — Chip Coen, a vice-president at M.S. Walker, a wine distribution company. I knew him from a previous restaurant. I gave him a call and told him what I was looking for. It coordinated really well.
It was one of those funny things. I was in Southborough for six years and in order to get to the Vineyard, I had to go to Dallas. If I had to do it over again, I definitely would if this would be the outcome.
How and when did you start cooking?
Before I could drive. I started working professionally at 15 when my best friend’s family opened a restaurant in Amherst and asked me to help out. At first I just did prep and dishes, then on the line for breakfast and lunch, then for dinner. It was a nice kind of situation to be thrown into the ranks fairly early on.
Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?
In culinary school — I went to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in New York — I and another guy were in charge of banquet and catering at American Bounty. It’s one of the last restaurants you work in before graduation. We were making a braised pork dish of some kind. We were braising it in the oven all morning long, getting it ready for a dinner for 30 or so people. About 15 minutes before serving it we discovered that somebody accidently turned the oven off half-way through. So we had to do a sort of quick braise on the stove. That was a good learning experience.
Have you ever created a meal that impacted a major event?
My wife (then fiancée) and I took a three-month sabbatical to northern Italy. We started in Umbria (where she has family) and travelled through nine out of the 20 regions of Italy. When we got back to Umbria I made a six- or seven-course dinner for 20 people in her family in Emily’s cousin’s basement kitchen. I did cuisine from the other regions of Italy. The guest list ranged from a 92-year-old grandfather to a 4-year-old niece. It was interesting to cook Italian food for Italians that they never heard of before.
Using local ingredients, what would be your ideal dinner?
Creamy butternut squash soup; seared bay scallops with pasta, olive oil, lemon zest, and fresh herbs; and my wife’s chocolate caramel tart — made with local eggs and chocolate.
What are your top five indispensable ingredients?
Eggs — they’re crucial to a lot of different things. The eggs from The FARM Institute are the best I’ve ever worked with.
Flour — for pasta we use double-zero (finest ground) and semolina.
Vinegars — we do a lot of pickling.
Fresh herbs, for sure.
Your favorite kitchen tool?
Hands. I try to do everything by hand — even making pasta and aiolis. I teach cooks how to do things without machinery first. You can lose power or you may be somewhere where you don’t have it. I never make aioli or vinaigrettes in a blender. I never make pasta in a bowl with a hook in it.
What is your idea of a perfect day off on Martha’s Vineyard?
To have one! [he laughs]. We tend to take a drive around the perimeter of the Island at least once a week — not as often in the summer. We see something interesting every time. We have what we call “aha moments.” You see the sun rise or the sun set. We saw a harbor seal on South Beach. All those things that most people don’t get to experience — especially on a daily basis. Then a nice meal with family at the end of the day.