The very wise chef turned celebrity Anthony Bourdain once said, “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks our heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
A truly well-cooked dish is more than just a well-cooked dish. If it was just a well-cooked dish then that would deny food the attention it deserves and we wouldn’t have magazines and TV shows entirely dedicated to the pleasure of eating. A truly well-cooked dish should be the picture to a story. For any chef will tell you that you cannot have one without the other. Well, at least someone like chef Martha Hubbard would. Food travels to us, we travel for food and in so doing, it should tell of the all the great things like people and community. This is how Martha became the admired chef she is today.
“I love feeding people and how it changes people,” she says, “I can never imagine not being a part of it.”
We are at Isle Cook on the north end of Whitehead Street. It’s a specialty shop that is also a cooking school with the occasional intimate dinner where Martha is the resident chef. We are surrounded by everything that would give the appearance of a culinary store. There are carefully displayed tables, fully stocked shelves, a selection of boutique wines. In the middle of the room there is also the evidence of something else. A long black counter with a single, four-burner stove sits cold and clean. It’s the focal point of all Isle Cook demonstrations and presentations. Yet, Martha isn’t turning down the back right and heating up the front left to make Azerbaijan-style pancakes with yogurt rose petal dip or bacon wrapped rainbow trout with hazelnut brown butter and braised collard greens. She isn’t showing a class of eager students how to keep hollandaise sauce from breaking or knowing how to tell if a steak is done medium or medium rare. Today is her day off and I have her full attention as she tells me stories of food and travel and how that has become the culture of Isle Cook. Or she has my full attention I should say. Martha has quite a story to tell.
“Culturally, people like to talk about food,” she says. “What do you eat? How do you make it? Why do you eat it?”
They are all questions that each well-cooked dish should bring up.
They would be the very same questions that she would ask as she made her way from one place to the next, from her humble beginnings as a salad prep in Newport, R. I., to discovering the underground ovens of Fiji. For a full year she worked her way around the world. In New Zealand, she picked onion seed for two days and then for a week traded her mashed potato recipe in exchange for a generation’s worth of curry secrets at a café in Phuket, Thailand.
She would bring all these moments to Key West with her and, after a reputable gig at Louie’s Backyard, can now bring them back to life thanks to owners Bill and Eden Brown, who recognized Martha’s rarity after she stopped by one day to talk to them about the business concept and possibilities. After hosting a dinner one night, she decided that it “was the coolest thing Key West has got.” Not long after she walked out after that fateful conversation, they called and offered her the job. There was an undeniable chemistry between them. It was just one of those things that made perfect sense.
“You know food, I know chefs.” she told them, “The three of us are challenged by each other.”
Even with all her experiences, she understands the need to continue growing. It isn’t just the traveling that fills her with a passion. It’s also about discovering what defines her own community. Whether it is out on the ocean fishing or reading about bread baking in the 1800s, Martha is “always learning about and with food.”
“It’s art. Chefs are not going away; we are evolving,” she says.
Ask any chef in Key West and he or she will tell you that she is one of the best. Chances are they have even taken a night off from their busy schedules to create a harmoniously coursed meal for a handful of people at her four-burner stove. It is something of an honor to cook there. They almost always choose a theme to follow, like Martha’s Persia or Bust! or guest chef Melissa Schwartz’s Indian dinner, where the face-to-face, cooked-to-order food turns an otherwise casual evening into dinner and a show. Not only must the chefs execute the food without fault, but at the same time they have to entertain a group of hungry customers who have their own set of questions to ask. And if you know chefs at all, you know that they are not always the chattiest of people. They usually like to stay on the other side of the swinging door, where the only sounds are the fire of an order and the ring of a bell.
“Isle Cook allows chefs to introduce themselves to the community and to see the reactions to their food,” Martha says.
Along with the dinners, other events at Isle Cook include wine tastings and birthday parties. There are always the highly sought after hands-on cooking lessons. By sharing what she has learned through her stories, the things that have left a mark on her memory, her consciousness, her heart and her body, she is able to leave behind something good from her journey. If you are lucky enough to get a seat at that long, open counter, then maybe it will change you. Like the memories that she has collected, it will be something that you can take home with you and pass on to someone else. ¦
Isle Cook Key West 218 Whitehead Street 305- 741- 7443 www.islecookkeywest.com