The chef’s story: Jenna Sprafkin of Chilmark Tavern

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 epicurean wonders and are presenting our findings in a weekly series.

Jenna Sprafkin, executive chef at Chilmark Tavern, speaks with a great deal of enthusiasm about her work, which did not become a vocation until after college. Her ambitions were originally in mass-media but during tapings of food shows she found that she was more interested in the food production than the technology. Ironically, it was the Internet that brought her to our shores.

How did you come to be on the Island?

Jenna Petersiel, the owner of Chilmark Tavern, was my camp counselor in sleep-away camp in New Hampshire in 1991. I loved camp and spent several years as a kid and adult there. Four years ago I found her again on Facebook. I frequently post pictures of what I’m cooking on Facebook. In February of this year I got a message from her saying that she lost her chef and was looking for a new one. I went online and Googled Chilmark Tavern. It was in the realm of the food that I do and believe in. I called her and she invited me out in March to cook for some people. I spent an incredible two and a half days on-Island and she hired me.

How and when did you start cooking?

As an amateur since I was a little kid. My great-aunt owned a restaurant and when we visited, we would do cooking projects at her house. When I was 12, we got cable TV, including the Food Network. Both of my parents cooked, but not very good. One day I watched Bobby Flay make a red pepper coulis and I thought, “I can do that.” My parents came home from work and I had stuff all over the kitchen. I mean, all over. They said, “What did you do?” I said, “I made red pepper coulis.” They said, “What are we going to do with it?” I said, “Eat it?”

After that, I started experimenting. When they would cook, I would make suggestions. But I didn’t think of it as a career choice. I didn’t go to culinary school. I got my degree in Television and Radio at Ithaca College. After college I was in an internship with a part of the Food Network. I realized I was more interested in the food than the production. Whenever there was downtime, I would find myself hanging out with the food stylist. People said I should go to culinary school. When I was 21, I went to the Institute for Culinary Education in New York City – a nine-month program for career changers. That’s when my professional career started.

Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?

Two or three years ago I spent a summer as a private chef on a yacht out of Newport. We were sailing from Newport to Cuttyhunk. I was told that the [children of the owner] had sweet tooths, so, the first day, I made a chocolate cake. The crossing was really rough and I felt sick, but the captain kept assuring me that that was as bad as it would get. That was not the truth.

From the motion of the boat, the cake toppled face-down off the counter and onto the floor. I managed to scrape the frosting that hit the floor off the cake and make more. While the boat was rocking and I was seasick. But they never knew.

Is there a dish or meal you prepared that was part of a very special occasion?

I spent six months at the Viceroy Hotel in Anguilla cooking for celebs in private villas. One of the people I cooked for was Nas, the rapper. I was a big fan and only saw him before in his rapper personae. The second day I was there, he came down in his pajamas and fuzzy slippers. He said to me, “Yo, chef! Those crab cakes last night were bangin’!”

What’s the best single bite you ate in the last week?

We have a good relationship with Chilmark Store. They sometime leave us leftover pizza. I was working nonstop every day and three nights ago at 1 am, I ate a piece of pepperoni pizza heated up. It was the perfect food. It was just what I needed at that moment. I washed it down with a Polar Grapefruit Seltzer.

Favorite dish on your menu?

Our menu changes a little bit every day according to what’s available and what I feel like doing. Right now we have a scallop dish with Anson Mills Red Flint Grits, seared local scallops with pork belly (cured and braised in brown sugar, maraschino cherry juice and coffee), reconstituted dried cherries and local spring onions from North Tabor Farm cooked in whey from our in-house made ricotta.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Salt, fresh herbs, high quality olive oil (from Northern Italy or Greece), fennel (in any form), and Aleppo pepper (from Syria and Turkey).

Your favorite kitchen tool?

I have a really awesome spurtle that someone made for me. It’s a wooden spoon without the bowl. It’s great for stirring things like polenta and curd because it gets into the corner of the pot so things don’t get burned. I’m a fan of all wooden utensils.

Do you have a favorite kitchen tip or shortcut?

Have everything prepped before cooking so you can focus on cooking, not gathering.

Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, etc., describe the perfect Martha’s Vineyard feast.

I’d start with oysters from Emmett Carroll in Menemsha, pairing with a mignonette (a sauce made with wine vinegar, pepper, shallots or sweet onions, and salt). We’ve been getting fluke from Stanley Larson, veggies from North Tabor Farm and Morning Glory (summer squash, snap peas, fresh herbs). I’d make some sort of hand-rolled pasta with spinach and little neck clams. I’d make sausage with pork from Grey Barn. Baby kale from North Tabor Farm. For dessert, fresh local fruit in a pie or shortcake.

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

I’m looking forward to having one! If and when I do, a non-food related book, a sparkling rosé, a sandwich from 7a, an umbrella, blanket, and a quiet spot on the beach where I can be alone.

If it could be anywhere in the world, where would you open your second restaurant?

Practically, it would be Menemsha because I’m such a control freak. I would want it close by. If I were a dreamer, I would pick northern California, probably Sonoma County, mostly for its produce. Some of the most incredible vegetables grow there and their growing season is year-round.

What would you be if you weren’t a chef?

I would be a radio DJ. I worked in public radio when I was in high school and had my own show in college. I love radio. But I love cooking more.

The Chilmark Tavern is located at 9 State Rd. in Chilmark. 508-645-9400;