Chef Berke Marye is a true renaissance man.
Not only has he been the talented head chef at Winfield’s for nine years running, but he is also a self-taught painter and musician who plays both guitar and mandolin. Berke came out to Block Island in the early 1980s, staying with his stepfamily at what is now The Nature Conservancy house. In his 20s, he worked at restaurants in Texas: first in the front of the house as a bar back and waiter, then moved into the back of the house as a food expediter, and then he finally made his way onto the line and began a career in cooking.
When there was a management change at Yellow Kittens and Winfield’s a few years ago, Berke’s friends began to talk Berke up as the best person to run the kitchen. Then-manager Ed McGovern had Berke “interview” for the position, where Berke had to prepare dinner for Ed and five of his friends. I asked him if he remembered what he served them, and Berke replied with great clarity: “I made them the same scallop dish I’m serving you tonight, a filet mignon with pimento cheese, a watercress salad with avocado and bacon vinaigrette, and a sherbet for dessert.” He got the job that night and has spent his time since working with what he calls “the best kitchen crew ever” — a consistent, hardworking team that all get along and, best of all for this chef, “they have my back.“
Here’s a little more from Chef Marye about his background and why he likes to eat out at his own restaurant.
What was your first food memory that made you want to be a chef?
I grew up watching my grandmothers cook, and the first time I saw one of my grandmothers fry bacon in a pan and then scramble some eggs in the bacon grease, I thought — not only do I want to do that, but I bet I can figure out other things that I can create on my own.
What’s your favorite food to cook with?
Growing up in Texas, I wasn’t a big seafood guy, but my cousin Dan was a magician with seafood — he’d make gumbo and other dishes using fresh Gulf Coast fish. So I would watch him and eventually I worked with him, and now I love cooking with great seafood. I also love lamb and like to have it on the menu most of the season.
Who was your most memorable customer?
We had Steven Wright here for our staff meal. He’s a friend of one of our staff and came in one day, so we had him sit with us before starting service. I think we had Mexican. Family meal is usually simple and good.
What food would you never want to eat again?
When you have time to go out, where do you go and what do you order?
I love the cheesy fries with bacon at Dead Eye’s, and actually I like to eat here. Having worked at the front of the house, I like to experience Winfield’s as a customer and get a feel for how our diners are experiencing the dishes we put out in the kitchen. I usually order the duck confit and then a special.
What’s the best part of working on Block Island?
I love the seasonal nature of this work. I work at Winfield’s all summer and then have the off-season to do other things. I’m a father and so I get to spend time in the winter with my daughter while my wife Emily (a talented potter) is in her studio. I also have time to paint (author’s note: Berke is having a show at the Spring Street Gallery on August 21st) which I love to do.
What do you love about cooking?
I love making people happy. When we’ve fed 200 people and everything went well, and the hostess and staff tell me that everyone was happy — bringing that kind of joy to people with food is a wonderful feeling.
What would be your last meal?
Skirt steak fajitas.
Berke mentioned that he is a stickler for texture in his food, and every dish he served us reflected his mastery of the delicate composition between texture and taste. Our starter was the dish Berke served Ed McGovern all those years ago, and I can see why he was given the job on the spot. Sea scallops were seared to be perfectly glazed and slightly sweet on the outside, but creamy inside and sprinkled with tasso ham, showing the chef’s interest in mixing meat and fish tastes. Nestled in a luxurious beurre blanc sauce with shallots and thyme, this dish is meant to be savored slowly to best appreciate the rich blend of flavors.
Our meal concluded with the grilled halibut entree which epitomizes the cuisine philosophy that Chef infuses into every menu item — French with a southern twist, and keep it simple to let each ingredient speak for itself. The fish had a wonderfully smoky sear and was fork tender, with the tangy chimichurri adding just a hint of heat at the end of each bite. Roasted pepper rajas accompanied the dish, perfectly julienned and playing the soft onions against the crunchy peppers in a satisfying way. My dining companion and I scraped clean the jalapeño cheddar potato au gratin side dish, an absolutely delicious chewy, crunchy, cheesy, tender mix of flavors that made this entree one of the most balanced dishes I’ve had in a long time. We left the restaurant feeling as Chef hopes all his patrons feel — happy that we had a great evening with great food.