Southern kitchen stays true to its roots

Story highlights

  • Chef Whitney Otawka is inspired by the culinary traditions of the South
  • In addition to a sustainable garden, Greyfield has apiary and sea-salt programs
  • The island's bounty includes bananas, citrus fruits, figs, olives, berries and acorns

Cumberland Island (CNN)When Whitney Otawka walked into a restaurant in Berkeley to apply for a job waiting tables, she couldn't imagine that in a few years she would be a contestant on "Top Chef" and running the culinary program on a historic island. But that's exactly what happened.

Otawka moved around, working in the front and back of the house (restaurant-speak for waiting tables or line cooking) at various places, but it wasn't until she moved to the South that she realized cooking was her true passion.
    She was enchanted by the culinary traditions of the South and its agricultural history that was visible to her on a daily basis in this region. "When I lived in California, 10 years ago you would not have seen grits on a menu, but now you can see them on menus from San Diego to San Francisco. I never had okra, zipper peas, benne, Carolina gold rice, persimmon, poke sallet, or ramps until moving to the South."
    That's where Cumberland Island comes in. The island is famous for its historical roots. Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie and his brother Thomas made this stretch of land off the coast of Georgia their family playground. Their legacy has lived on in the Greyfield Inn, a mansion that was converted into a hotel. People from all over the world travel to this remote getaway and take in the beauty of 17 miles of untamed beaches, wild horses and nature. It's also where visitors can partake in Otawka's unique culinary creations.

    No restaurants here. But the dining is fine.

    There are only two ways to stay on this Island as a visitor. Pack your food, pitch a tent and camp overnight or lodge at the inn, where Otawka leads the dining program.
    After leaving her post in city kitchens, she found her way here on Cumberland, becoming the executive chef at Greyfield Inn. Partnering with her husband Ben Wheatley on the inn's food program, the two don't have to look far for inspiration; they're embedded in lush natural resources.
    At any moment Otawka can step out the kitchen back door and walk to Greyfield's organic garden close by. She works in tandem with the team that tends to it, experimenting with produce and spice blends. Growing turmeric and peppers for her to dehydrate and make into turmeric powder and paprika. Or uprooting fresh spring onions and dandelion greens for her to toss into a bowl of lettuce to add texture and flavor. Whether it's baby squash or heirloom tomatoes, the garden overflows with fresh ingredients.
    The team's mission, Otawka says, "is to supply the Greyfield Inn with a variety of fresh produce, herbs, fruit, and cut flowers. We use sustainable and organic growing practices and utilize composting, cover cropping, and crop rotation to replenish and build our soils."
    Otawka's vision of using the land around her in her cooking extends beyond the garden. She recently started a sea-salt program. Collecting ocean water in big basins, she filters it so the sediment settles to the bottom, and then sanitizes it with a quick boil. That's followed by dragging tubs of the remaining water out into the sun, where it evaporates leaving her with crunchy salt crystals.
    But wait, there's more. Nearby bees swarm around honeycombs collected from the island's apiary program. Men and women in netted coverings transfer these combs with a delicacy as if they are handling bricks of precious gold. Otawka deliciously incorporates the homegrown honey into her menu -- stirring it into cold ice cream or crumbly cakes.
    Not all the food, however, comes from the island. While most of the seafood, including juicy shrimp, buttery clams and oysters, is from the surrounding rivers, Otawka also receives deliveries by boat. Purveyors such as Captain Snorkie drop off bags of local seafood from the Georgia and Florida coasts on the pier where Otawka makes her transactions before bringing her goods back to the kitchen to cook up for the evening.
    "Specific to the coastal waters, Georgia white shrimp, sheepshead, Cumberland oysters are three very prolific ingredients we get right off the island. The crazy thing about the island is that there is so much bounty from this 17-mile stretch of land: bananas, olive trees, calamondin, fig trees, wild persimmons, blackberries, blueberries, grapefruit, acorns, and passion fruit. It's astonishing the diversity of what grows on this island."

    From the wild to the plate

    On any given evening when the dinner bell rings, Greyfield guests head to the front porch to sip cocktails, like bourbon on ice, while sitting in old rocking chairs.
    Otawka slips out of the kitchen with a large wooden board hosting slivers of creamy Brie and glass containers of honey. She scatters toasted almonds among the containers and places them next to warm bread and spicy hummus for the guests to enjoy as an appetizer.
    In the kitchen, Otawka has set up with Wheatley an assembly line system that is effective and succinct. Everyone is laser-focused on the tasks at hand. Waiters scurry in and out, picking up dinner plates or providing cold bottles of champagne. Dressed in crisp white blouses and shirts, the wait staff at Greyfield operates with an old-timey elegance, serving with a steady charm and ease.
    Otawka credits her husband with helping to create the best dining experiences possible. "I would not be the chef I am without Ben. We are a team in the truest sense of the word. We offer two very different skill sets in the kitchen, but we have a shared goal and vision for the food we are producing. I am full of big ideas, organized, driven and loud and he is detail oriented, meticulous, precise, and we both have a constant desire to learn and push our technique and flavors. We love nothing more than sitting together at a table and sharing a meal together. We celebrate 10 years of working together this December."
    After a multi-course supper, guests at the Greyfield retire to their rooms, relax in the library or return to the porch to savor the setting sun. There is no Wi-Fi here. So unplugged patrons simply sit back and listen to the cicadas chirping and the fans humming while basking in all that is Cumberland Island.