My Island Office

When Kate Shaffer arrived on Isle au Haut, she expected an offbeat existence. But she never imagined that her success would come

Photograph by Stacey Cramp

Excerpted from Desserted by Kate Shaffer (Down East Books, Camden, Maine; hardcover; 176 pages; $29.95)

I first came to the island as a cook.

I knew no one, had never had an interest in Isle au Haut beyond a cool job, working for nice folks. Cooking was my only way of moving through this new world, three thousand miles away from my lifetime home of California. It was that single-mindedness that propelled me through learning the ropes at my new job — a job, the likes of which I had never experienced before. And will never again.

“Are you a school-trained chef?” my new employers, the owners, of the Keepers House Inn, asked me when we first met at their off-island home in the drear of an early Maine spring in 2001.

“No,” I answered matter-of-factly, bracing for yet another interview in which I assure my potential employers that I can cook, regardless of my lack of any sort of piece of paper that says I can.

“Good,” Jeff Burke breathed. “Those culinary school graduates never last on Isle au Haut.”

Jeff and Judi peppered me with questions about my life and what had brought me to Maine. They asked me about my family, about Steve, if I had ever lived on an island before.

Did I have children? A dog? Could I chop wood? Did I have a boat?

What they didn’t ask me, beyond that first peculiar question, was anything about my life as a cook. I had said I could cook, and that was enough for them. I left the interview puzzled, and curious about a place that required such a quirky set of skills, was home to these gently aging hippies, and yet chewed up and spat out classically trained chefs.

My “try-out” came a month later. It was April, and the winter snows had finally begun to recede on the coast of Maine. I drove through an icy gray fog, in the half-light of a quiet dawn. My dog, an immense Akita/Lab mix, rode shotgun with her nose out the window in the morning air. I found my way unguided through the tiny fishing village of Stonington, to the deserted wood-plank dock, and onto the morning mailboat headed to Isle au Haut.

Construction workers stood smoking in the open aft of the boat, sipping from Styrofoam cups of coffee, congregating in affable early morning silence. They greeted me with nods, and grunted a few “ayuh”s when I asked if this was the ferry to Isle au Haut, after which they returned their attention to their cigarettes and coffee and I to the overheated cabin, where I settled in for the sunrise ride out to the tiny island that would, in just a few short years, change the whole course of my life.

My try-out was to make lunch for a work crew of ten men and women who were scattered around the inn property painting, cleaning, cutting up the winter’s blow-downs, repairing bicycles, and any number of other tasks required to get the property ready for the new season’s guests. Judi led me to the kitchen, showed me where the pots and pans were, how to work the temperamental stove, and left me with a simple, good-natured warning: “Of course, we want it to be delicious, but it’s more important that there’s a lot. Those people are hungry.”

It took me half the morning to take inventory of the unfamiliar kitchen and its ingredients — heavy in dried beans and grains, raw sugars and syrups, organic meats and oils, and a basket full of some early spring gleanings of produce from the mainland grocery.

After a quick refresher course from Judi in the making of fresh bread (after discovering there would be none unless I made it), I got to work on an enormous pot of black bean stew, spiked with smoked chiles and Portuguese sausage; thick, hot slabs of fresh cornbread, fragrant with orange zest and clover honey; a soft oat bread, dark with molasses; and a simple green salad, dressed just as simply with generous drizzles of extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, sea salt, and a few turns of freshly ground pepper. Lunch was more than an hour late, but the food was hot and hearty, and, most importantly, there was enough of it. I had won myself a job. I spent the next five years working in that homey kitchen, creating meals that were — if a bit more refined than that first (though not always as successful) — on some level, just as satisfying for both cook and consumer.

It was also in that kitchen that I developed my baking skills by making bread, pies, and cakes every day from scratch. And it was in that kitchen that I had my first disastrous close encounters with that most aggravating of ingredients: chocolate.

There are no second chances in an island kitchen. If you forget something at the mainland grocery, guess what? You do without. If the farmer doesn’t have that case of produce picked in time for you to make the morning mailboat, guess what? You spend the boat ride over figuring out how to sell some very high-paying inn guests on cuisine sans vegetables. If the Monday night’s fish doesn’t make the last boat from Stonington, you have island lobster for the second night in a row. And most importantly, you know the inventory of every cupboard, refrigerator, freezer, and fish crate on the island.

That being said, island kitchens are also the most friendly places on earth. There is always a pot of hot coffee, a stool to sit on, an open cookbook to peruse. There is often a task to help with, and something to learn from a kind cook who is unfettered by the pressure of a restaurant pace or the quest for perfection. Instead, island cooks are governed by the ebb and flow of sunshine, of rain, of gentle gossip, and small-town political intrigue.

They plan their menus around a neighbor’s birthday, a particularly good catch, a lobsterman’s new boat, or in anticipation of a contentious town meeting. They are not subject to a particular style or tradition; but, rather, they let their menus reflect the peculiar micro culture around them. Island cooks always have an answer to the oft-asked question from a passing tourist: “What is it like to live here?”

Here. Taste. Today, it’s like this.

In early 2005, Jeff and Judi announced that they would be retiring and closing the inn at the end of the coming season. I received this news via a crackly telephone conversation in the kitchen of our rented cabin on Isle au Haut. At the time, Steve and I had been navigating our first island nor’easter; a whipping blizzard that left us trapped in our home with frozen pipes, and which had us melting snow for drinking water and morning coffee. The news and the situation were further aggravated by the fact that my aging dog was quickly fading to the pain of bone cancer, and we were facing the surety of her death in the coming days.

Weeks later, in the darkest days of that winter, I found myself restless and alone in my kitchen. Steve had been spending the weekdays working on the mainland while I stayed on the island to write and take reservations via phone and email for the inn’s last season. I often turn to my kitchen cupboards for comfort; somehow, the time and focus it takes to make a meal from scratch eases my mind. But at the time, I had no appetite for hearty dinners. Instead, I craved a small bite of something; a morsel with a perfect balance of crunch and softness, of sweet and buttery. And of something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I tried cookies and biscuits, ice cream, cake. Too much, too little, too sweet, lacking the ingredient I couldn’t quite place.

And then I stumbled upon a recipe for chocolate truffles I had torn from the pages of Gourmet years before. I had wanted to try it for the inn guests, but the complicated, untried recipe always got shuffled out of my weekly rotation of well-tested standbys.

That recipe took over my tiny cottage kitchen one long winter night: an alchemy of chocolate and cream, butter and egg yolks transformed into a satiny slab of pudding-like ganache that sat atop a pleasingly chewy chocolate brownie base. After allowing the slab to set in the refrigerator, I carefully cut the entire thing into one-inch cubes, and voila! Like magic, I had a neat little pile of my very first chocolates. It’s hard to explain how these little truffles became the answer to my unidentified craving. I spent hours just looking at them before I tried one. They were perfectly shaped, consistently sized, and utterly appealing to the eye. At first glance, they all looked exactly alike, but on closer inspection each seemed to express its own tiny personality. I twisted each one into a small square of parchment, then wrapped them in colored tissue paper and tied them with twine. And it wasn’t until I had them all packaged for delivery that it occurred to me to try one of the remainders.

That it was delicious wasn’t a surprise. That it was what I had been wanting all those weeks, was. I ate one, and I felt better. A lot better.

And so I guess in many ways that’s when the seed was planted. That very visceral and emotional reaction to an ingredient I had never thought much about. In the season that followed that winter, chocolate found its way into many dishes at the inn — both sweet and savory. And then it found its way onto my list of possible futures on the island. And then it was the only thing on the list. And then my life began to take shape around it.

Cocoa Nib Crème Brûlée
Ownership of a blowtorch on the island is as requisite as owning a chainsaw, several full gas cans, and a spare car that doesn’t run any more. You just never know when a pipe is going to burst and you’ll need to solder a repair. In the fall, you may be on your way to a friend’s house for dinner, only to find your way blocked by a fallen tree. No need to miss dinner; the chainsaw is in the back of your truck, fueled and at the ready. As is a filled gas can, precaution against running out of fuel when the one store on the island is not open in the winter. The spare car exists solely to provide parts for repairs to your working car, in the absence of an on-island auto shop.

Other than pristine coastline, a treasured way of life, and an abundance of the freshest and tastiest seafood in the world, the island has very few luxuries to offer. But I consider crème brûlée a necessity. So when I informed Jeff and Judi, my employers at the Keeper’s House, that crème brûlée would be in regular rotation on our dessert menu, they were dubious. And when I asked Jeff if I could borrow a blowtorch from his workshop, they were puzzled. But when I presented them with dessert that night, they were thrilled—and, I like to think, assured that they had hired the right woman for the job.

You will need a blowtorch to complete this recipe. If you don’t have one, borrow one from a self-sufficient neighbor. Serves 8 to 10

1 vanilla bean
1 quart heavy cream, plus a little more for topping off
2 cups cocoa nibs
4 large eggs
4 large egg yolks
¾ cup granulated sugar, plus more for garnish

Split and scrape the vanilla bean and place the seeds and the pod in a medium-size saucepan with the cream and the cocoa nibs. Bring the cream mixture to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and allow the mixture to steep for an hour or more.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and bring a kettle of water to a boil.

Strain the cream, discarding the solids, and add additional cream to bring the total amount back up to 4 cups. Pour the cream back into the saucepan, and heat over a medium flame until it just begins to boil.

Meanwhile, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, and sugar in a large, heat-proof bowl. When the cream reaches a boil, pour it into the egg mixture in a thin steady stream, whisking the entire time.

Pour the custard into one-cup custard dishes, place the dishes in a roasting a pan, and pour the boiling water into the pan so that it comes halfway up the sides of the custard dishes.
Bake the custards for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the edges have set but they are still wiggly in the middle. Try not to over-bake, otherwise your eggs will curdle and the custard won’t be smooth.

Remove the custards from the water bath, cool, and then chill thoroughly.

When you are ready to serve the crème brûlées, take them from the refrigerator and sprinkle a thin coating of granulated sugar on top.

Light the blowtorch, and cook the sugar on top of the custards by moving the torch flame smoothly and evenly back and forth across the surface of the sugar. The sugar will melt and bubble and turn a dark golden brown. Kill the torch, allow a few seconds for the sugar to harden, and serve immediately with good strong coffee.