You Can’t Fire Me, I’m a Volunteer – Nantucket Wine Festival

The winter was (very) long, but the spring was flying by!  My kitchen practicum and written exam were over, Sam and I had enjoyed a fabulous Boston/Cambridge/Somerville staycation and then I was off to the Nantucket Wine Festival as a culinary student volunteer before starting my summer internship.  I became aware of the opportunity in March while attending a No Kid Hungry fundraiser at the Harpoon Brewery.  A Le Cordon Bleu student who was volunteering at the event mentioned the wine festival when I introduced myself and we were discussing event credits for graduation.  I Googled “Nantucket Wine Festival volunteer” and happened upon a contact email address.  I sent an email along with my resume and  from there everything came together.

The festival organizers provided round trip ferry transportation and housing.  Getting to Hyannis for the ferry was an adventure in itself and involved a car ride, bus, Uber and ferry.  The weather on the Wednesday I arrived was fabulous and the spring blooms were at their peak.  After a bit of confusion about where I was going to be staying, I was settled into a house on the edge of town, convenient to the event venues, that serves as summer housing for Nantucket Yacht Club staff.  I had a couple of hours to have lunch and take a walk before I needed to report to the kitchen to assist with preparations for the Welcome Reception that night.

I had been extremely clear with the culinary director and manager that I was a pastry student and my resume reflects my kitchen experience, which is entirely baking and pastry with some dessert plating at my last internship. However, my suspicions were confirmed almost immediately, the majority of the work would be savory cooking and savory plating with little/no pastry or baking.  My first assignment was to cut, grill and toast bread for Mary Dumont, formerly of Harvest in Cambridge, of whom I am a huge admirer.  Chef Mary did her prep while I worked with the bread and then we met up again at the White Elephant to plate and serve the two appetizers she prepared.  It was my first time using a commercial grill and i got lucky in that I only ruined a few pieces of bread.  We were situated between the band and the Sarma restaurant table at the reception.  Sarma’s appetizer was excellent, the band, not so much.  I had the opportunity to meet a few other chefs that evening and do some excellent people watching.  The appetizers were a Thai duck sausage and a pulled pork rillette.

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Thursday I had the morning to myself as the event that day was the Grand Gala to be held starting at 7 pm, the prep work was to start later in the afternoon.  I enjoyed a nice power walk out to Jetties Beach and Brant Point followed by breakfast at one of our longtime Nantucket favorites, Fog Island Cafe.  A shower, some reading on the porch and off I went to report for duty.  I was assigned bread, of course, and spent the next several hours cutting petite baguettes into one inch rounds for the Chef David of Longwood Events who would be using them in the demonstration/tasting tents over the next few days.

I was then approached and asked to help prepare some marrow bones.  Um, yeah, no.  I haven’t eaten beef, pork, duck or lamb in 21 years.  I will cook meat if I need to, but scraping bones was just too much.  While I had expected more savory work than pastry, I was a volunteer and felt there had to be another project that could be found for me given the amount of work going on in the kitchen.  There was, breaking down about 50 par-cooked lobsters.  Something else I had never done, but in the kitchen it’s a fast learning process.  The chef told me what she wanted, demonstrated and off I went.  Gross work, but another skill to add to my culinary repertoire.  And the chef?  Lydia Shire!!!  One of Boston’s premier chefs and a pioneer chef who put Boston on the map, not to mention one of the first notable woman chefs after Julia Child.  She was one of the most hardworking chefs at the event and a wonderful lady.  Thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with her.  I did a couple of other miscellaneous small tasks and then my day was over.  I had been planning on spending the evening assisting at the Grand Gala but wasn’t need.  After about 10 minutes of disappointment I moved onto enjoying a fine Nantucket evening.  Drinks at Straight Wharf, dinner at Rose & Crown and a walk around town.

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Friday morning was another slow start.  I began to get the drill, the staff chefs worked from 8 am through midnight, the volunteers helped later in the day with prep and the guest chefs did their prep whenever it worked best for kitchen space and their schedules.  Chef Mary was doing a course for the Burgundy lunch so I was going to assist her again with prep and plating.  Chef Matthew Gaudet of West Bridge (also a CSCA alum) was preparing the first course and Chef Brian Mercury of Harvest was preparing the final, dessert course.  I was very excited to meet Chef Matt and Chef Brian and hoped to have the opportunity to help them plate, which I did.  It was a fun, fast paced day of kitchen prep (learned how to fry quinoa), plating and logistics.

Friday night I was on my own, again.  The other culinary student volunteers at my house were much, much younger and had come as a group of friends.  The larger group of volunteers, from Le Cordon Bleu, had just arrived that day and had other accommodations, as well as being younger and probably not so interested in a quiet dinner with someone almost as old as their parents.  A walk around town, dinner at The Brotherhood of Thieves, another one of our reasonably priced Nantucket traditions, and some reading in my room finished off the day.

Saturday was my last day at the event.  I had originally been planning to stay through Sunday afternoon for the culinary student Top Chef-style competition but four nights away from home in a frat style house with a dripping shower, dripping sink and bunch of rowdy 20 somethings was enough.  I’m old and learning to embrace my age and its accompanying limits, which I am please to report are much more behavioral than physical.  I was fine with all the standing, running around, lifting and chopping.  Yay me! Saturday night there were going to be a series of wine dinners at private homes and I was going to assist Chef Mary yet again.   An old friend and former coworker of Chef Mary’s had come from NYC to assist her, but these dinners require many pairs of hands.  I was not able to help with her daytime prep as I was assigned to Chef Lydia and her son, Chef Alex.  Originally asked to slice a TON of vegetables on a mandoline, which I am terrified of, I was able to switch assignments and assist Chef Lydia with the prep and execution of a demonstration in the culinary tent.  I did the mise en place for the demo and helped cook the samples to be passed, twice cooked Parmesan truffle souffles which were served with skirt steak, pea puree and spring greens.  Absolutely amazing experience to work with Chef Lydia and Chef Alex, they are both demanding but fair and genuinely nice.  Chef Lydia even gave me the recipe for the souffles.

After the prep and demo I rushed off to help Chef David with his sample table while he finished getting ready for his late afternoon demonstration.  He showed me how to plate the fennel crusted tuna with spring salad and carrot oil and away he went.  I plated for an hour and a half or so and then went back to the house to change and pack.

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I had arrived at my biggest and final event.  The five course Lokoya wine dinner at a private home.  I would be working with Chef Mary, her friend and two staff chefs, Jackie & Roman.  All of the prep was done, we would be finishing and plating on-site.  It was a great night, the food was beautiful, of course, and what I tasted was delicious.  The sommelier, Tom Gannon, was not only super knowledgeable about the wine, but a fun guy and one of the best dressed guys I’ve met.  Just a good group of people to work with.  The guests loved their meal and gave Chef Mary a rousing round of applause.  I was back at the house by 11 pm and ready to head out on the 7:45 am ferry Sunday morning.

Overall the Nantucket Wine Fest was a good experience.  I met several chefs whose work I admire, most of whom turned out to be friendly, patient and passionate about their food.  For a small fee and signed non-disclosure, I’ll tell you who the jerks were, although it’s usually obvious isn’t it? The staff chefs were one of hardest working groups of people I have had the pleasure of working with, not to mention their patience and grace in helping a pastry student figure out some of the savory basics.  I had the opportunity to work closely with Mary Dumont and Lydia Shire, there is a lot of wow factor there for me.  On the downside, I didn’t really meet many of the other culinary volunteers and for whatever reason I got assigned what I felt was the “misc. volunteer” housing which was quite frankly sub par.  Yes, it was free but there was better/nicer housing available with vacancies.  I also spent almost $200 on food, not unreasonable for Nantucket, but I had been under the impression food would be provided.  Lesson learned again and again, when you work with food you don’t eat/get fed.  I was also caught in an in between situation where I was older, more mature and had more experience than the other volunteers but didn’t have half as much experience as the staff chefs.  Awkward from a social and working perspective. Definitely worth it for the hands-on kitchen experience, networking and behind-the-scenes view of such an elaborate, multi-day festival.  I’d love to work at the event again, perhaps in a few years in a staff chef capacity, or even better, attend as a guest.  I do love both sides of the table!

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