When Joe DaSilva starts talking about his cooking career, little of it has to do with food. He talks about the people and conversations that start over a meal. Eating is an experience, he says, that doesn’t rely solely on the ingredients. Sometimes you just have to go back to the basics.

“One of the best meals I’ve ever had is after a long night; Johnny [Graham] and I used to make grilled cheese sandwiches and dip it in Worcestershire sauce,” Mr. DaSilva said one morning this week at his latest restaurant, Saltwater, in Vineyard Haven. “That sometimes is wonderful. But it has to be good cheese.

“If you’re outside on a beautiful day and you have a good piece of bread, a good piece of cheese and a good bottle of wine, that’s as good as it’s going to get.”

Mr. DaSilva strives to create in a relaxed but fine dining environment that same comfortable experience you get from a grilled cheese.

He’s become an Island institution, working in Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury for the past 18 years, and over those years he’s collected stories, tips and recipes, but what’s most important to him is the people with whom he’s been able to surround himself.

Originally from Medeiros, Portugal, Mr. DaSilva and his wife were living in Hoboken, N.J., when they decided to quit their jobs and move to the Island. They’ve been here ever since.

“I’m a known commodity, I’ve been here for a long time and I’ve built relationships with customers and that always helps,” he said of his strong following. “It’s one of the reasons I keep getting hired. It wasn’t my personality, that’s for sure. I don’t kid myself.

“You cook here for that long, people get to know you, get to know your style and they become supportive, which is a good business plan,” he added. “They know they can come in and get a nice meal.”

Mr. DaSilva still remembers his first restaurant job on the Vineyard at Jimmy Seas in Oak Bluffs.

“My first day there I hadn’t really looked at the menu and we were about 20 minutes into service, and I turned to Jimmy and I said, ‘Really, does everything come with pasta?’” he said with a grin. “That was an experience I wouldn’t want to relive but it was a start, so that was good experience. I never cooked so much pasta in my entire life.”

He then moved on to the Dry Town Café in Vineyard Haven, an opportunity Mr. DaSilva said gave him the freedom to express himself. He and his colleagues, fellow Island chefs Johnny Graham and Ben de Forest, were able to experiment with food that would begin their careers. Mr. Graham is now working with Mr. DaSilva at Saltwater.

But it was at the Standby Café Mr. DaSilva could really flourish.

“The Standby Café made me. It was a little diner that produced good food,” he said. “People still talk about it, it’s hard to imagineit just became so popular, beyond my own imagination. It took a life of its own.”

The open kitchen and bar forced the chef to think beyond the food.

“There was no hiding, you’re up front,” he said. “It gave people an appreciation and it became an educational tool for a lot of people who wanted to eat well but really didn’t know. So a lot of people who sat at the counter, I felt like I educated them along the way.

“It also became an education for me – how to speak with a customer, how to interact – because that setting was extremely important for us to be able to interact with customers. If we didn’t come across well there was no hiding. We had to cook and at the same time interact with people which gave me a different dimension.”

The Standby Café welcomed everyone; it was a place where relationships were built, where someone could go have dinner solo and wind up having a date for the next night, Mr. DaSilva said. It was a place where customers felt they had a stake in the restaurant, not just a fork in their food.

“It was a good social experiment. It became more than just about the food.”

It is that same boisterous Island spirit Mr. DaSilva is trying to instill at Saltwater.

“Here we’re trying to do that type of thing with the bar. It’s not going to be as organic because we’re not cooking but it’s still the same idea,” he said. “You’re welcome here by yourself if you want to have a glass of wine and a bite to eat. That’s what this business is about – making people feel comfortable.”

Mr. DaSilva’s food has always aimed to be simple, fresh and to the point, and he’s carried that mantra with him from restaurant to restaurant. Prior to Saltwater, Mr. DaSilva was the executive chef at the Lambert’s Cove Inn for seven years. Mr. DaSilva said the long, winding dirt road in West Tisbury and more formal dining room encouraged him to cook heavier foods, concentrated on meat and reductions.

But when he arrived at Saltwater, his food instantly became lighter. The large open dining room surrounded by windows overlooking both the Lagoon and the Vineyard Haven harbor meant more fish and lighter sauces, based heavily on vegetables.

“You do it without realizing you’re doing it, but then you step back and you look at an old menu and realize how much you’ve changed,” he said.

Everything from the moment you walk in to the wording on the menu is essential to making the customer happy, Mr. DaSilva said.

“My menu usually tastes better than it reads only because I don’t like using a lot of technical terminology,” he said. “Because as a customer I want you to be able to read the menu and know what you’re getting.”

He’s proud of the food he made at the inn and proud of the food he’s producing at Saltwater, attributing much of the inspiration to his line cooks. Mr. DaSilva has matured into the profession, he said, stepping away from the hysterics of the stereotypical chef and embracing the opinions of others.

“Our food is tight, it’s concentrated, it’s being plated well,” he said. “We’re working efficiently and everybody in the crew is doing the best they can, and I’m proud of that.”

Lump crab cakes, braised veal cheeks, butter poached lobster. The simplicity and efficiency of a dish from Mr. DaSilva is plainly evident.

But in the end it’s not about the food but the people you share it with. The restaurant is a business, Mr. DaSilva said. Eating is not.

“If we think back about eating experiences, probably the most memorable and enjoyable is not in the restaurant setting, it’s when we’re surrounded by friends and we’re relaxed,” he said. “It could be the simplest thing in the world.

“That’s what it’s about. Truthfully that’s what I try to recreate in the restaurant and it’s an extremely difficult thing to do,” he continued. “I like the idea when they come into a restaurant that they know other people.

“It’s more memorable,” Mr. DaSilva said, “because eating is a whole experience, it’s not just the food.”