It was the meal that made Michael Compean’s mother certain her son would someday be a chef. Scrambled eggs and burnt toast.
It was Mother’s Day in 1988. Michael Compean was 10 years old, living in California with his family and, like many children, he made breakfast in bed for his mother.
“That’s when she knew,” he said, “that’s when she knew I was meant to be a chef.”
Fast forward 25 years and Mr. Compean is now the new executive chef at the Lambert’s Cove Inn & Restaurant. Born and raised in California, Mr. Compean’s resume reflects his long culinary history there. His cooking style is contemporary American with French influences.
Mr. Compean’s professional career started in 1998 just two years after graduating from high school when he was hired as the executive pastry chef at La Valencia Hotel in California and trained with master chef Wolfgang Ebenbichler.
After La Valencia, Mr. Compean worked in other California kitchens, picking up skills and testing recipes by working alongside other seasoned chefs. For a time he even baked roulades and tortes as a pastry chef in Budapest, Hungry. He returned to the United States to test his dexterity in other high-end California restaurant kitchens such as the historic Sunset Towers Hotel in Hollywood.
“Practice, practice, practice, that’s how I learned to cook,” Mr. Compean said.
Mr. Compean’s culinary career is peppered with avant-garde achievements, such as winning first place in the starter division for the California Wild Rice Recipe Rumble in 2010.
Thinking back to his mother’s early prediction, Mr. Compean is quick to clarify that at 10 years old he wasn’t so sure about his what his future held.
“So my mother knew when I was 10, but here’s my take,” he said. “In high school my friends and I had homework nights and I would cook. I would make crazy pastas and waffles and everyone liked everything. I got no homework done, but it was fun.”
A few weeks ago Mr. Compean packed his knives and, together with his wife, Betty, and dog, Moco, drove over 3,000 miles in their Ford Focus from San Diego to Martha’s Vineyard.
“Betty and I were just looking for some sort of lifestyle change,” he said. Last February he started exploring options, which included scanning Craigslist for possibilities anywhere in the world. “I was looking for a new challenge and environment to cook in. We saw this opportunity and it just seemed perfect.”
“And, okay, I am sure this sounds cliche to hear, but I love the movie Jaws. I’ve always loved it.”
Scott J. Jones, who, along with his partner Kell Hicklin, owns the Lambert’s Cove Inn & Restaurant was initially surprised to receive a resume from a California chef.
“We thought with the culinary schools in Boston some young chefs may be coming out of there and interested in this job,” he said. “We didn’t expect anyone from the West Coast to respond.”
Martha’s Vineyard is the polar opposite of Hollywood. Winters can be cold and quiet here, sometimes lonely, too. Then again, congestion at the roundabout is a far cry from Los Angeles traffic.
“It’s a big culture shock from California to here, and we wanted to make sure he was really aware of what he was getting into, especially in the winter,” Mr. Jones said.
In early May, Mr. Compean visited the Vineyard for the first time. He cooked behind the line for a night, and did a tasting for the inn’s staff, including general manager Jason T. Ash. Bad weather kept Mr. Jones and Mr. Hicklin from traveling back to the Island from Florida in time for the tasting. They put their trust in their staff to give feedback on the food.
“Everyone loved everything,” said Mr. Jones. The deal was sealed without ever meeting one another.
Mr. and Mrs. Compean packed up their lives, and four days and 12 stops later they drove their car onto the Steamship Authority ferry. They took in the sights from the top of the boat without even realizing they were standing less than 10 feet from their future employers.
“It was funny,” said Mr. Jones. “I saw him and we kind of looked at each other and I heard him say to his wife ‘I thought that was Scott’ so I turned around and said, I am Scott!”
It was a perfect small-town Island story to tell their friends back in California. Add to this the fact that Mr. Jones and Mr. Hicklin have hired Betty Compean to be the sous chef.
“We get to work together and we work really well together,” Mr. Compean said. “We know each other well.”
“And do you know who is really having a great time here?” he added. “My dog. My dog couldn’t be happier.”
Mr. Compean’s enthusiasm continues in the kitchen. His first shift took place two weeks ago on May 10.
“Then two days later, on that Sunday, he worked Mother’s Day brunch,” said Mr. Jones, which is fitting, considering Mr. Compean’s first cooking adventure. Fresh pastries, lobster crepes and spring leg of lamb are more epicurean than burnt toast, but the heart behind the creation has remained the same.