Joe DaSilva got lost the first time he went to the Lambert’s Cove Inn. He’d never been to the West Tisbury inn before when then-owner Elizabeth Repplier called to offer him a job as head chef in 2004.

Mr. DaSilva spent seven years in the kitchen there before moving on to Saltwater in Vineyard Haven. For the last few years, he’s been out of the public eye and off the public plate, working as a private chef for a family. But this season, Mr. DaSilva has returned to the Lambert’s Cove Inn. This time he didn’t get lost.

Sitting down in one of the inn’s front rooms one recent morning, Mr. DaSilva, 58, talked to the Gazette about his many years cooking at various Island restaurants and his decision to return to the inn. Though cooking privately was a welcome respite from the hectic pace of restaurant life, Mr. DaSilva said he started to miss it without even noticing at first.

“When you’ve been working in restaurants so long, you’re a restaurant guy,” he said. “You just are, that’s part of your DNA.” So, when current owners Scott Jones and Kell Hicklin called to ask if he’d like to return to the Lambert’s Cove Inn, he agreed.

He’s drawn to the clamor and clang of the commercial kitchen much like he is drawn to the sounds of cooking itself.

"Go in there and do honest, good food." — Maria Thibodeau

“I want to hear my food, I want to hear it sizzling, I want to smell it,” he said.

Mr. DaSilva said he finds excitement in new ingredients but also knows that he has to keep his past as present. Always on the menu are his veal cheeks and crab cakes.

“Sometimes I wish I could take them out, but I have a certain amount of customers who expect that when they come in,” he said. “I have to honor that, I have to not run away from it, just embrace it and do it correctly.”

Keeping the classics is especially important since his success has been built on a faithful customer base who follow him from restaurant to restaurant. And Mr. DaSilva has worked at a lot of restaurants. He began his culinary journey in Madeira, Portugal where he was born. There were no supermarkets in the area, and going to a butcher meant seeing a whole cow hanging in the shop. His grandparents raised backyard chickens and pigs that ultimately ended up on the plate. It was where he learned to respect food.

“It’s the same thing with vegetables, people forget there is some guy out there digging the damn thing up,” he said. Though introducing his daughter to the fate of animals raised for meat at the Agricultural Fair turned her into a vegetarian, Mr. DaSilva thinks it should be a compulsory part of any chef’s education.

“I like where I am in the food chain, but that doesn’t mean you can disrespect the lower ones,” he said. “I understand it.”

And yet despite how he was raised, becoming a chef was not his first impulse. In college, after he moved to the states, he majored in political science. Afterwards he worked for RCA Records, wrote about the legislature in North Carolina and Massachusetts and spent time in the wine business. It wasn’t until he moved to the Vineyard that his cooking career began. He had been living in New Jersey with his wife Liz and their two-year-old daughter when they decided to quit their jobs and move to the Vineyard on a whim. Mr. DaSilva strongly believes that if he puts himself in a position where he has no choice but to succeed, he will.

“I came to the Vineyard, I decided I wanted to cook, I went from there,” he said.

He started in the kitchen of Jimmy Seas, however pasta was not his style. He moved to the Dry Town Cafe in Vineyard Haven owned by Bob Skydell, then to the Standby Cafe, a small diner in Oak Bluffs.

“That little restaurant actually made my career,” Mr. DaSilva said. It was a job people warned him against, a seemingly backward step to diner food. But he had a plan in mind.

“Go in there and do honest, good food,” he said.

Many of Mr. DaSilva’s current customers, including the family he privately cooked for, discovered him at Standby. He wasn’t a fan of the 20-item menu which featured standard diner fare, but owner Nick Stimola didn’t want to get rid of it. So with a little ingenuity, Mr. DaSilva created a blackboard of specials.

“We quickly realized 80 per cent of what we were serving was off the blackboard, not the menu itself,” Mr. DaSilva said. “He was happy we had certain things on the menu, I was happy I wasn’t really serving that stuff.”

His success at the Standby Cafe is summed up simply.

“We can sell halibut out of a diner,” he said.

After Standby, he was approached to open Zephrus in Vineyard Haven, located at what was then the Tisbury Inn. It was a huge opportunity and it ate up all of his time. Then, in 2001, the Tisbury Inn burned down and for the first time in a while, Mr. DaSilva had some time off.

“I realized my daughter could speak in complete sentences, which was a revelation to me, I had missed all of that. I had missed two years. I was gone. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t there for watching her grow up. I didn’t really have a relationship with my wife...the family had evolved without me. I was gone,” he said.

He decided to take a year off from the restaurant world, doing catering and temporary jobs. The time out matured him, he said, helping him to become more selfless. He thought he might move on from the restaurant world, but then the Lambert’s Cove Inn called, the first time. Now, 13 years later, he takes the helm again after another restaurant time out. When he returned to the inn this spring he started by taking a moment to himself in the kitchen, something he does at every place he has worked.

“When I come in and take a job I like spending time in the restaurant sometimes by myself to wrap my head around it,” he said. “There’s a certain formality to this place, there’s also a certain casualness. The food has to reflect that. The way you plate it has to reflect that.”

In both menu and life, Mr. DaSilva is drawn to change.

“Nothing is ever the final version, because I get restless,” he said.

But one thing that never changes is what he hopes to achieve overall. “The goal is for the guests to come in, have a great time, have a good meal.”