Visiting chef for our spring 2021 Friends of the Café Dinner, Whitney Otawka has meshed her love of travel and her experiences with the food of wide-ranging food regions into her own unique way of cooking. She learned of Cumberland Island of the coast of Georgia from a PBS special and saw it as an opportunity to develop a distinctive culinary program on the remote barrier island. She and her husband, chef Ben Wheatley, found a locale in the historic sixteen-room Greyfield Inn that often took their cooking out of the kitchen and into outdoor wood grills, fishing boats, and foraging spots. For them, it is a singular opportunity to live and create alongside the ingredients that inspire what and how they cook. This rare way of living drove her to write The Saltwater Table: Recipes From the Coastal South, which highlights ingredients and recipes that are inspired by coastal life, but can transition into any kitchen, anywhere.
In her prose, Otawka describes Cumberland Island as, “salt and sweat.” She writes, “It is the pervasive cacophony of cicadas in the summer, the smell of oak and cedar burning in a hundred-year-old fireplace, leather chairs cracked with age, magnificent rugs worn by family visits and welcomed travelers… It is the rustling of Spanish moss that drips from three-hundred-year-old oak trees and loggerhead turtles nesting in pristine sand dunes under a starlit sky. Spanish coins lay just beneath the surface of the sandy pathways, a reminder that the past is never far behind.” She has learned that being a chef means knowing your history, your region’s history, and the history of the ingredients you select. Otawka’s food frequently draws upon regional history and influence.
The chapters of The Saltwater Table are arranged around what she calls the distinct “seasons” of her coastal and growing locale. She works in hot, humid summers, long growing seasons, and brief, cool winters. Oyster Season is dictated by the days when the water is cool and crisp, allowing shellfish to thrive. Oysters are symbolic and culturally important in this coastal region and have sustained people for generations. Vegetable Season is great for exploring when the weather is temperate and produce is ample. In fact, there is a near overabundance of vegetables and her recipes require minimal preparation. Shrimp Season begins as the days get longer and warmer and shrimp boats emerge from the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts. Heat Season is a reflection of the intense summers on the coast when only the most heat-resistant crops can survive and eating simply and light is the key to enduring. The book rounds out with Smoke and Cedar Season, which focuses on slow cooking, wood-fire grilling, and outdoor living.
In addition to its 125+ recipes, the book provides instruction on Cumberland Island essentials that can add to your cooking experience. Many of her recipes are enhanced by cooking over fire and eating outdoors. So, for those who want to experiment outside of kitchen confines, she provides instruction on how to make a perfect fire for cooking. You can learn how to throw and enjoy an oyster roast, find joy in your garden, understand and utilize herbs and flowers, and pack a picnic. She shares the essentials of cooking a Low Country boil, her favorite ways to top a biscuit, how to understand spices, and what to do with peppers. For those afraid of overcooking fish, Otawka can teach you to fry like a pro and can make cooking a whole fish seem less intimidating.
Join us around the table for Whitney’s seasonally inspired café dinner on April 15, 2021, at The Factory. Tickets for all of our Friends of the Café Dinners are available on our Events page. And don’t forget to pick up a copy of The Saltwater Table. Every page is beautiful and inspiring.