Homecoming on Little St. Simons Island

By: The Local Palate

Sea Island Forge founders Sandy and Steve Schoettle host a live-fire feast on Little St. Simons Island to christen the resort’s new kettle

When their two children were small, Sandy and Steve Schoettle loved to pile them and their Chesapeake Bay retriever, Bud, into their Key West boat and head out to Little St. Simons Island, where they’d swim, picnic, and comb the desolate beach for shells for hours on end. The kids are grown now, but the wild islet that hugs the northeastern corner of St. Simons—the Georgia barrier island the Schoettles call home—still holds a special place in their hearts. So when the new chef at the Lodge on Little St. Simons Island, Matt Lerish, took delivery of a cast-iron kettle made by the couple’s company Sea Island Forge, they jumped at the chance to help him break it in, bringing a handful of good friends along for the feast.

As at any fall gathering along the southeastern coast, bivalves figure prominently. During the season, the resort hosts a nightly oyster roast for its guests, many of whom are regulars who return annually for birdwatching, fishing, kayaking, hiking, and other naturalist-led outings—as well as the kind of tranquility that an island only accessible by boat offers (think summer camp with a cocktail hour and great food).

Long privately owned, the 11,000-acre island—under permanent conservation easement—remains one of the most undisturbed in Georgia’s Golden Isles archipelago. The resort does its part to maintain that distinction, keeping its footprint light by hosting a maximum of thirty-two guests at a time and sourcing as much of its food locally as possible, including fruits, herbs, and vegetables from its own half-acre organic garden.

That ethos is in part what attracted Lerish to Little St. Simons. Shaped by his experience working for hyper-local evangelist chef Spike Gjerde at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore and later, as banquet chef at the LINE DC hotel in Washington, DC, the Rhode Island native was intrigued by the possibilities of the long growing season on the Georgia coast. And now having a kettle in the mix gets him out of the kitchen and into the great outdoors that drew him here in the first place.

Inspired by the kettles used around these islands to boil cane into syrup in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Sea Island Forge markets its version both as a focal point for gathering—much like it was back in the day when it brought communities together to celebrate the harvest—and a grill, with accessories ranging from a skewer set to a carousel rotisserie.

Steve came up with the concept after a career as a building contractor found him gravitating more and more toward custom metal work. Eager for a new adventure, the couple put their contracting business on the back burner and debuted their first kettle at the St. Simons farmers market in 2014. They’ve since shipped kettles all over the US, counting big-name chefs like Ashley Christensen and Chris Hastings as fans. Today, Steve manages operations while Sandy handles the marketing end. Their selling point: “Everything is better around a fire.” Indeed, the couple credits their backyard kettle with fostering a tighter family life when their kids were in college. “We just love hanging out by it. Sometimes we cook dinner on it, and sometimes we just sit by the fire,” Steve says. “We love how it brings people together.”

That’s definitely the case this afternoon. As if on cue, golden hour casts its long shadows across the sea of Spartina grass on the horizon right as the first batch of kettle-roasted oysters hits the massive slash pine table that a Little St. Simons staffer fashioned out of a tree felled by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Wielding oyster knives, house-made pepper vinegar, and Georgia beers, the Schoettles and friends dispatch them like the pros they are. (Oysters may now be a year-round global commodity, but Lowcountry denizens wait patiently well into fall for the cool weather that signals local clusters are in season.)

Lerish has set up shop in front of the resort’s rustic main lodge—one of the island’s original circa-1917 buildings that served as duck-hunting central for the well-heeled owners and friends—and in full view of the evening’s pink-streaked sunset. Steve’s on hand for kettle coaching, but the chef deftly manages the fire, juggling freshly caught Florida grouper, tri-tip steak from Hunter Cattle Co. outside Savannah, herby cobbled potatoes, and eggplant and peppers from the island’s garden like he’s done it all before.

Matt Lerish’s Live-Fire Menu

Kettle-Roasted Oysters

 Griddled Florida Grouper

  Cobbled Potatoes

 Grilled Tri-Tip Steak

Grilled Eggplant and Peppers with Basil Pesto

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