Umami of Nantucket | ‘Sconset Café
I mentioned to an (in-town) friend that I was going to dinner at the ‘Sconset Café and she absent-mindedly said, “Oh, are they open for dinner too?” People in town don’t often drive ‘all the way out’ to Sconset, but we who live here know and love the café! An anchor of our mini village, the 34-seat restaurant serves three meals a day, is always full, and is open from Memorial Day through mid-September.
While the café is one of Sconset’s treasures, the star of the show is Christine Flynn, the Executive Chef. Christine and I have worked with the Nantucket Wine Festival for years. I was vaguely aware of her as the pretty, spunky ‘Sconset Café chef on the NWF Culinary team. Last year I took notice when she stepped in to fill the mighty Henry Talberth’s shoes as Culinary Director. While pint-sized, Christine is in charge. Uber-organized, she doesn’t waste any time. She can’t. She doesn’t have time to waste: she was also showing up at the ‘Sconset Café at 5:30 am to prep before coming to the NWF.
The Café is an intimate open-kitchen restaurant that always features original art. The atmosphere is comfortably sophisticated, but as if you are having dinner at a friend’s home.
Amy Baxter and I were thrilled to get a table right near the kitchen. As the waitress delivered our first seared scallop appetizer, Christine peeked over the divider and called out to us with a wink and a flash of her pixie smile, “The scallops are loaded with Umami, Sara, cooked in a miso base: you’ll love them!” One of the only other people I’ve ever heard casually use the word “Umami”, and of course she was right.
Seared scallops with pistachio miso butter, radishes, cilantro, apples
What’s it like being a female chef?
Although female chefs are increasing in numbers, it’s still not that common. The hours, the heavy lifting, and even putting yourself in this boxy, de-feminizing uniform are all less than appealing. When you start cooking in kitchens, there are always a few guys who pick on you or hand you searing hot sizzlers with no warning. Others just underestimate you. Working in France, I was one of three girls in a large brigade, and although I had years of experience, a culinary degree from the French Culinary Institute in NYC, and was a sous chef, some of the garcons barely trusted me to chop garlic. You need to be a tough chick to get past that stage, and whether you realize it or not, you are constantly in a position of having to prove yourself. Even now, as the chef of two restaurants, I have culinary interns who take one look at my 5′ 4″ frame and think I’m going to be a pushover. Some of our employees also come from cultures where women do not work, or where their position in society is subservient to men. Breaking down preconceived ideas and cultural baggage is hard, but if you have passion and show that passion everyday in the care with which you handle food and the standards you set for yourself and others, you can crack some pretty tough nuts.
Christine and crew at work
How did your career as a chef start?
Growing up, as soon as I finished breakfast I would ask my mother what was for dinner. I loved the whole ritual of eating – whether it was snatching hot buttered toast out of my grandma’s archaic toast rack or the fact that Mum went to the trouble of hand-sewing the napkins we used every night at dinner. Food was always at the center of my world, and I was constantly hungry. Eager to participate in creating and cooking food, I was helping Mum chop veggies when I was four years old, making fairly terrible Spaghetti Bolognese at seven and baking bread by the time I was ten. Left to my own devices, I began throwing dinner parties at age 12, and never looked back.
If I hadn’t been able to cook, I would have starved in university. I learned how to live off fifteen dollars a week in groceries, and how to manage student debt. My first job was at a bakery. I began in the front of house, but quickly moved to the back where I learned how to make typical Austrian and German pastries and incredible breads. One thing led to another, and by the time I finished my history degree, I was a better bread baker than I was a historian, and I couldn’t see myself sitting behind a desk for the rest of my life.
What drew you to working at the ‘Sconset Café?
When I got offered the job as an intern at the Café six years ago, I was thrilled. I love to travel, I love the ocean and I believe in taking chances. For me, coming to Nantucket to work at the ‘Sconset Café was the perfect work environment. I was learning a lot, but I was also able to make suggestions, and bring ideas to the table.
For a young chef looking for exposure, working at the ‘Sconset Café is a dream kitchen. I get to do a little bit of almost everything. I bake bread daily, create special desserts, make fresh cheeses, design the menu, break down whole fish – you name it!
Sconset Cafe owners, Rolf & Cindy Nelson
How would you describe the evolution of the ‘Sconset Café and where do you see it going?
For me, the Café has evolved as I have. When working in France I realized just how fast I am capable of working, and how much I still have to learn. I’m a curious person, and always want to try new things, even if it takes me a few rounds to get the hang of it (I blew up an ISI Charger last week trying to make aerated spongecake). I try to work as fast as possible, so that I have time to do and learn as much as I can. The Café is a place of creativity and learning, but it is also a place of discipline and speed, and my staff respects that. My sous chefs are intelligent and interested and our kitchen has become a place of passion and ideas as well as long hours.
Is there anything on the menu that the ‘regulars’ love so much you’ll never be able to change it?
The Café has always been an important part of the ‘Sconset community. We have strong relationships with our customers, and are a touchstone in many people’s lives. Its important to provide continuity for people through food. For the same reason I love to eat my mum’s “pasta and sausages” when I go home, people love to come to the Café and tuck into crabcakes, potstickers and our “Café Chicken.” Having those items on the menu allows us to be creative in other ways, and to experiment with different techniques and ideas.
What goes into creating a consistently excellent experience for your diners, night after night?
At the core of the Café dynamic is Cindy Nelson. I am honored and proud to work for such an incredible woman. Watching the warmth with which she greets guests is amazing, and her ability to run the front of the house is unparalleled. Cindy remembers everyone, and the details that matter to people. She works hard to improve the restaurant every day and spends hours training the front of the house before they even hit the floor. Watching her, I am amazed by her constant positive energy and her ability to overcome anything and everything.
Cindy’s approach is so personable, she will often call people (at their home) with a 10-minute warning of when their table will become free.
Softshell crab sliders with homemade bacon brioche
Seared cod with papas bravas, saffron aioli and piperade
Grilled lamb loin over farro and ratatouille garnished with walnut oil and mache
As if you’re not busy enough, you and the Nelsons worked together to launch a new restaurant in Amherst MA, “The Lumber Yard”, this winter. How is the LY different from the SC?
The Lumber Yard is affectionately known as our “sister restaurant” but its more like a big brother. It has a full 19-seat bar and a 48-seat dining room as well as a patio. Although the aesthetic in Amherst is different than ‘Sconset, the menus reflect the same core culinary values that Chef Rolf and I have always shared: simple food and fresh flavors, prepared with care. Our client base is slightly different – Amherst is much more of an academic community vs. a vacation spot – but they respond to the food we serve the same way. Having The LY has enabled us to have a more consistent and strong staff in ‘Sconset, as well as to provide ourselves with time to develop skills and ideas for the Café.
Opening the LY was an incredible experience. In the beginning all we had was this vision which kept changing and shifting – one day we’d be thinking ethnic comfort foods, another day it would be classic French Bistro. Six days before we opened I took all my menu ideas, slashed them and streamlined it to clean flavors. I cooked the kind of food I love to eat, and I was able to have a lot of fun with the bar menu. We were able to keep a cohesive menu, while at the same time offering people the possibility of having a variety of experiences in the same elegant space. We filled a niche in the community, and people loved what we gave them.
The Lumber Yard, Amherst, MA
I’ve worked with you at the NWF for the last couple years where you are managing all the culinary events AND opening the SC for the season. You must be very organized…or have a good staff! What’s the behind the scene scoop on how do you it?
To tell the truth, I worry sometimes that I am splitting my focus between cooking at the SC/LY and running this huge project for the NWF, but I also think it’s important to stay current, and to keep as many skills sharp as possible. For the festival, I use my brain in a completely different way. I love the NWF because I work with an incredible team, and am exposed to a juggernaut of amazing ideas and food over the course of a few days. My staff from the SC also helps out at the NWF at culinary team members, and for them, it’s a chance to learn a ton. We all are able to bring ideas back to the Café and the LY, and that makes us stronger as a whole.
I can’t say I’m terribly organized but I do make A LOT of spreadsheets and I have a tremendous amount of help from both the Culinary Team at the NWF and my staff at the LY/SC. My sous chefs, Steve and Jeff, have also been known to cover for me when I dash home in the middle of 14 hour day to take a quick nap.
I recognize it’s largely fantasy, but if you were out on the town (any town) for a night off, what would YOUR dream meal be?
Narrowing it down is hard. As any real foodie knows, it’s not just about the food, but about the sentiment attached to it and the people you are with. I’d like to be home in Nova Scotia, with my family, eating my Dad’s homemade Veal Cannelloni, Mum’s Caesar Salad and drinking too much with my brothers.
Hours: 7 days a week, Memorial Day -mid-September
Breakfast | Lunch: 8:30 am – 3 pm
Dinner: 6:00 pm – 10:30 pm
Reservations: (508) 257-4008
This article by Freelance Writer Sara Boyce, and Food, Wine & Drink Editor of Mahon About Town, appeared in the August 9, 2012 edition of Mahon About Town.
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