A California native, Whitney Otawka moved to Athens, Georgia, in 2005. Over the years, she would work under chefs Linton Hopkins and Hugh Acheson (she met her husband, Ben Wheatley, in the kitchen of Acheson’s Five & Ten) before leaving the mainland behind for an executive chef position at Greyfield Inn on idyllic Cumberland Island. There, she crafts plates from the bounty of the inn’s 1.5-acre garden and area waters. It’s an experience that’s shaping her first cookbook, an ode to the food of the Southeastern coast that’s due out from Abrams in fall 2019. Her years in professional kitchens have no doubt shaped the way she outfits her own. Here are the kitchen tools and pantry essentials she can’t live without.
As a native Californian who’s now cooking in the South, do you see similarities between the regions? That’s something I’ve been exploring a lot in the cookbook I’m writing, my context of growing up in California but being a chef in the South. Both regions are really known for their produce—but in California it’s this constant availability of produce, while in the South it tends to be seasonal. And there’s really a need to distinguish and preserve those seasons in the South.
You’re often jet-setting to other countries, from Mexico to Denmark. Why is international travel important to you?
I’m constantly planning my next trip! The ways we eat and dine are so specific to a place; I feel food is the best way to get to know a culture. Techniques can be so different, too—food in Copenhagen is high in acid, because the need to preserve fish and produce is so important. Looking at that adds value to what you do as a chef. It opens your eyes to new methods and ingredients.
How have your travels influenced your food?
Travel is a way to bring cultural influence into my cooking. It’s like the South, which, to me, is really a confluence of different cultures that have come together. For example, what would the South be without African influence? Though unfortunately through slavery, it’s how we got okra and beautiful field peas.
What destination is next on your list?
I’m trying to decide between Iceland and San Sebastian, Spain.
Cumberland Island is a beautiful—but very remote—location. How does that impact your work as a chef?
We have the garden, which spoils me. That makes some of my life easy. And I’m very creative when it comes to changing my menus quickly—that works for me. As far as other ingredients, we have our purveyors, but our access to them is different than for chefs in a bigger city. I have to make sure we find the best purveyors and work with them as much as possible. Your food always tastes better when you’re using better product.
What’s a day in the life like?
I go into the kitchen between 8 and 10 am, and I do get to walk to work. From there it’s the regular life of a chef. But the biggest thing is I get to walk outside to fix my problems. I can have a conversation with the gardeners; we have citrus trees and beautiful chicken of the woods mushrooms—in the summertime we do a lot of foraging. If we need a spice, we can go outside to get it, or someone might need to go to the dock to catch a fish because we have a pescatarian.
Which ingredients are you working with right now?
April is one of the most beautiful times in the garden. We have tons of greens—little gem lettuces and arugula—and we get tender spring vegetables in, like spring peas, baby leeks, rainbow carrots, spring onions, and green garlic. The herbs are “[Travel] adds value to what you do as a chef. It opens your eyes to new methods and ingredients.” going crazy (chervil’s one of my favorites). We are still enjoying the end of flounder season; this is when the water starts to change and is our last chance for shellfish from the island. There’s also sheepshead, one of my favorite fish, and crabs begin to come in. It’s a prime month. When it comes to kitchen equipment, is there anything you find overrated? I think a lot of home cooks think they need a lot of gadgets, but half the ones you see out there aren’t necessary. At the end of the day, the best tools are going to be a big cutting board and a really sharp knife. If you look around in a professional kitchen, you see the blender, you see ladles, and spoons. But you aren’t going to see that handy dandy chopper, because it’s really not that handy.
Otawka’s Kitchen Essentials
Even before Otawka started working on her cookbook, she kept notes in the kitchen. “I have several Moleskine notebooks around at all times. They organize me and keep me on track,” she says. “It’s good to have a place to jot down the things you change, and what you like about a recipe.”
“I’m obsessed with spices,” Otawka says. “When people think spice they often think only heat. But spices add flavor and complexity, and are a great way to get off the addiction of salt.” (Her travels in Mexico, in particular, have taught her about adding depth to food through spice.) Some of her favorites are from Le Sanctuaire. “I can’t find anyone who does blends quite like them.” She’s constantly reaching for the East-African Berbere Mix; Harissa Mix, a dried alternative to the North African hot sauce; and Vadouvan Golden, an intense curry-aromatic blend.
LOOSE LEAF TEA
In the morning, Otawka turns to tea instead of coffee. She favors black tea varieties—right now, she’s sipping Lao Shan from Chicago-based Spirit Tea.
A CHEF’S KNIFE
Otawka is still using a Masahiro virgin carbon steel knife she was gifted after her time at Five & Ten. “I have a deep love for it. I’ve had it for ten years—enough said.” Buying your first professional knife? She recommends finding one that fits your hand. “I don’t need a 12-inch blade because I don’t feel comfortable with it,” she says. “I look for an 8-inch blade. That’s a great size for a home cook.”
A LARGE WOODEN CUTTING BOARD
“It breaks my heart to see home cooks working on tiny little cutting boards—there can be nothing more frustrating,” Otawka says. She recommends a board by John Boos & Co. “It will last a long time. I love mine.”
Chocolate is Otawka’s go-to snack in the kitchen. “I like the good stuff,” she says. Lately it’s been the organic, vegan brand Hu Chocolate, which her husband picked up for her. “It’s dairy free, gluten free, and has no refined sugar,” she says. “It’s delicious and guilt-free enough to have a few extra bites.”
Working on a cookbook also means having luxurious linens on hand for photoshoots. “I love taking the time to set the table, even at home on a Sunday evening,” Otawka says. “It makes it feel like an occasion to eat at home.” She’s a big fan of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Fog Linen. “They have everything!”
“I probably have over 300 cookbooks,” Otawka admits. “I love to collect them.” Early in her career as a Californian working her way into Southern cooking, Otawka says the two most important books on her shelf were Donald Link’s Real Cajun and Frank Stitt’s The Southern Table—which she purchased after stumbling upon Hugh Acheson’s own dog-eared copy. “They’re two books with solid recipes and very distinct views on Southern cooking. I still turn to them when I need inspiration.”
A GOOD BLENDER
“Once you have a good knife and cutting board, put your money into buying a good blender,” she says, adding that you can never go wrong with a Vitamix. “There’s really no substitution—it can do it all.” (Think making seed and nut butters, shredding vegetables, mixing pesto, and processing dried chiles.)
RANCHO GORDO BEANS
Otawka loves the heirloom beans from Napa, California’s Rancho Gordo so much she gave them as Christmas gifts last year. “They’re the best,” she says. Some of her favorites? The Ayocote (“they almost taste like bacon”), Santa Maria Pinquito (which “make the best refried beans”), and Alubia Blanca (“petite and creamy in the center”). Otawka also digs Rancho Gordo’s chile-lime dipping powder called Stardust—she sprinkles it over cucumbers and tomatoes in the summer.