Paul O’Connell is tuckered out. In his first full summer on the Vineyard, the Chilmark Tavern’s head chef has written and rewritten the restaurant menu, negotiated the price of a Menemsha-raked oyster from $1.20 to 80 cents, neglected a cable bill charged to his apartment in Cambridge and soaked up a tan, but only on the appendages that extend outside of his T-shirt and shorts line.
The loquacious, greater Boston-bred, Irish-American has a ruddy complexion, a knack for mimicking foreign accents and countless Steamship Authority stubs and Cape Air commuter booklets grossed during bi-weekly travels between his Cambridge kitchen Chez Henri, a nationally acclaimed French bistro with a Latin twist, and the sea-bound grounds 90 miles southeast at the Chilmark Tavern, an enterprise that has swiftly gone from a pet project to his main stage.
“I’m exhausted, burned out,” he says, running a hand over a full stripe of jostled tresses that defies his otherwise receded hairline. “I don’t know, I feel like I’m a nomad. I’ve done things in my personal life, like I’ve bounced checks, because I don’t know how much money I have in the bank here and how much I have in the bank in Cambridge. I miss my kids. It’s been kind of a hard summer.”
Sitting at the bar of the empty Chilmark Tavern on an 84-degree afternoon, Mr. O’Connell takes a swig of orange-carrot Vitamin Water before elaborating on his Island experience: “It’s hard, but it’s beautiful. I get up, go down and have a coffee in Menemsha and it’s like, Oh, my God. You can’t beat this view. It’s great — but then I have to leave it behind and get to work.”
The Chilmark Tavern opened its doors this May in the gray-sided building by Beetlebung Corner that was most recently home of Aguillian eatery the Cornerway. Mr. O’Connell stocks the restaurant with striped bass, lamb, pork, poultry and produce from local sources, including Beetlebung Farm, Allen Farm, North Tabor Farm and the waters surrounding the Island. But he uses off-Island foods as well. About half the lamb prepared in the tavern kitchen once grazed on the fields of Allen Farm. The other half is shipped in from the mainland.
“I’m not going to say I use local all the time, all year-round,” he purrs mockingly in a schmoozy radio voice, “Because it’s impossible. I get mad when people say that . . . I don’t stake my whole reputation on [being] local . . . For me it’s just natural. I’ve been doing it for years.”
Indeed, for years he’s been an employer and a food-buyer, stocking Chez Henri and other kitchens with fine staff and the stuff of his award-winning menus. He knows the worth of a chef’s labor and the going price for a pound of striped bass.
“I have this whole thing that I feel I need to fight against on the Vineyard. There is this whole misconception . . . People come in here and say, ‘I want to make $25 per hour as a cook,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’ Last time I checked a dollar is still a dollar on Martha’s Vineyard — it’s not two dollars. Last time I checked, $18 [per hour] for a cook is pretty good money.”
And then there is the issue of the inflated price of Vineyard-raised food. In Cambridge, Mr. O’Connell pays 85 cents per oyster, collected and shipped from waters 40 miles away in Duxbury. When he first went searching for shellfish for the tavern, Mr. O’Connell found a 35-cent hike standing between him and a Menemsha-raked oyster.
“Don’t mess with me on the oysters because I know they’re coming from a mile away,” Mr. O’Connell would say to local fishermen, who he says claim a license to overcharge to compensate for their short three-month season.
Unwilling to be suckered, he haggled until he had his way.
But there is one money drain that Mr. O’Connell can’t patch, and that is the laid law of prohibition in the tavern’s up-Island quarters. Dubbed the Chilmark Tavern only because the lot bears the place and name of a mid-1900s restaurant and dance hall (where, according to Mr. O’Connell, men would pour out puddles of liquor in the parking lot and light them aflame to impress the girls with the of potency of their alcohol), the new eatery certainly doesn’t rake in the dough of an authentic saloon.
“We’re doing one-third less in sales because we don’t sell alcohol,” Mr. O’Connell says. “That might be a factor in whether I come back next season or not.”
But for its cuisine, the tavern does well. It averages roughly 100 dinners a night in a clean, modestly-sized dining room, sparsely trimmed with wall-hung metallic fish, black and white images of a pouty Marilyn Monroe and the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt print of a sailor bending back his gal for a Hollywood kiss in Times Square.
The signature fare is light summer dishes like chilled cucumber soup and lamb leg grilled and sliced over a cold chopped tomato and mint salad. It is very Vineyard, with entrees boasting Menemsha-caught shelled oysters and specials like local striped bass, but it also offers diners a reprieve from seafood; other meal choices include herb-roasted chicken, sweet and sour-glazed grilled pork chop, sirloin steak and ricotta gnocchi.
And, of course, the menu offers Chez Henri-inspired cuisine prepared with Cuban flair, such as Havana-style baked clams prepared with paprika, lime and chorizo, seafood ceviche accompanied by avocado mousse, tomato salsa and plantain chips and the acclaimed Chez Henri Cuban pork, ham and Gruyere sandwich.
“We’ve always done a steak frites up there at Chez Henri, but I don’t call it steak frites here,” Mr. O’Connell says, looking over the tavern’s 15-item menu. “It’s steak with skinny french fries so the ladies from L.A. will eat it.”
Aside from waist-watching women of California, the white linen-cloaked tavern tables attract what Mr. O’Connell describes as an up-Island crowd who come in clutching coolers packed with bottled beers and spirits.
There are couples that dine in once or twice each week, so Mr. O’Connell keeps the already once-revamped menu fresh with new twists and nightly specials. Though summer regulars Larry David, Meg Ryan and Michael J. Fox have been tasting tavern fare since its opening, the restaurant doesn’t have a snooty, members-only air. Tavern waiters have served a slew of “kiddie pastas” to a relaxed dining room that is family-friendly and seats early evening diners, just off the beach.
Asked whether he will return next year, Mr. O’Connell is tight-lipped.
Yet despite the strain of the Cambridge-Vineyard shuffle on his personal life, the chef seems to have a vested interest in Chilmark.
“One of the things that I’ve tried to do here is to make this an accessible restaurant pricewise, and offer variety foodwise,” Mr. O’Connell says.
“People are stuck up here. Well, maybe not stuck, but it takes 30 minutes to drive down-Island at night and it can take 45 minutes if you get stuck in traffic.
I want to make this the local cantina for these people because, really, this is it out here.”