The chef’s story: Merrick Carreiro of Little House Cafe

Chef Merrick Carreiro finds time to cook at home with her son Nolan, age 8.

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.

Merrick Carreiro is one of those rare Island chefs who didn’t know from early on that she would end up cooking as a career. And, she took some detours before joining forces with Jenik Munafo and Jenik’s husband, Hocine Khelalfa, to create Little House Café in Vineyard Haven. Now, on the verge of their fifth summer, Merrick cooks for breakfast and lunch, and Jenik handles dinner.

How did you come to be on the Island?

Serendipity. I’m a Canadienne, but I have dual citizenship. I’d lived everywhere I could in Canada and had gone to culinary school [Stratford Chefs School in Stratford, Ontario], so I thought I would try the United States.

I really didn’t know anything about Martha’s Vineyard. My grandmother had a house on the Cape for 25 years and we had an old family friend who had a house [on the Vineyard], so we would come over for day trips. A woman at culinary school would go to Key West every year and her favorite restaurant was Pepe’s. She’d thought she heard that Tina Miller, the daughter of the owner of Pepe’s, was maybe opening a Pepe’s on Martha’s Vineyard and suggested I look into it. Well, there was no Pepe’s and no sign of his daughter being here.

I ended up getting hired at Café Moxie [then owned by Tina Miller] while Tina wasn’t even there. It was April and she was away at the time. I started working there and not even realizing that I was working for the daughter of Pepe’s owner. I was meant to be there, and that’s where I started my career.

How and when did you start cooking?

My first cooking experience was at a tree-planting camp in Canada in the early 90’s. It was reforestation. I was the cook’s assistant.

How did you come to be at Little House Café?

Not too sure how that all happened. Jenik and I knew each other at Café Moxie. I was the chef and she was a waitress. After Moxie I took a break from cooking. I got married. I had two children. I actually was the manager of the design center at Vineyard Home Center for about eight and a half years. I took a long break from cooking, but whenever I created a kitchen, I visualized myself right in that kitchen.

Jenik and Hocine came up with the idea [for the restaurant] and enticed me into doing it with them. It was just a collaboration of time and wanting a change and having the opportunity to buy the building. We opened Little House Café in July 2010. Everything we’ve done since then has been a full collaboration, but the original idea I will not take any credit for.

Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?

My most memorable was actually in cooking school. I was taking an exam and had to make a shrimp bisque and I totally destroyed it and had to think about how to get out of it.

I deglazed with vinegar instead of brandy. I just did the wrong step at the wrong time. My instructor looked at me like, “I don’t know what you’re going to do.” Somehow I pulled it off and all I remember is him saying, “This is stellar.”

That was my first major lesson in learning to roll with the punches in the kitchen. If you make a mistake you have to make something else out of it.

What is your favorite Martha’s Vineyard dining memory?

My first meal with my husband at the Standby Café in 1999 when Joe DaSilva was the chef. The atmosphere at the Standby was so special. It was my first date with my husband-to-be. That was a special place then.

Favorite dish on your menu?

I have a lot of favorites, but I think it’s the Greek Lamb Burger because it’s my mother’s recipe. And there’s something about the smell that I find so rewarding when it comes out of the oven, just before it goes out to the dining room. It just makes me so happy every time. The presentation and everything about it makes me proud.

What do you cook for a romantic evening with your husband?

[She laughs] Yeah, right. His favorite is lamb shoulder chops grilled on the barbecue. Oh, my goodness. He just licks his chops when I make them for him. He’s just died and gone to heaven.

You have two sons [ages 8 and 11]. What do they eat?

They’re at different stages. My youngest doesn’t really eat well at all, but my oldest is starting to branch out a bit more. They’re at that point that they’re eating the same vegetable or fruit (carrots and apples) all the time. They like to cook with me. They do enjoy cooking, but they’re not the most adventurous eaters. They will be someday.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Parsley, garlic, lemon, salt, and olive oil.

Your favorite kitchen tool?

A good sharp knife. You can’t beat it.

Any tricks of the trade that you can share?

Peeling ginger with a spoon is the best way to go. It’s so tedious using a peeler, but if you just use a teaspoon, it comes right off.

Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, etc., describe the perfect M.V. feast.

Local lamb with local fingerling potatoes, arugula, tomatoes, corn — one of those summer barbecue meals where everything is at its peak. You don’t even have to do anything to it. Just eat it fresh.

What is your idea of a perfect day off on Martha’s Vineyard?

[She laughs again] What’s that? Going to the beach with my family. When I can get to the beach in the summer, I’m having a good week.