Ahh, the off-season – when busy Vineyard chefs can hang up their spoons, doff the aprons, and kick back for days, weeks, or months at a time. Maybe chef Deon Thomas didn’t get the memo. More likely, he got the memo and created memo flambé. When the tireless restaurateur isn’t commandeering the kitchen at Deon’s, his stylish new eatery in Oak Bluffs, he’s minding a hotel restaurant a world apart, on the Caribbean resort island of Anguilla. If it’s not high season on one island, it’s high season on the other, and Deon deftly plies his trade in both places.

Deon has been pleasing taste buds on the Vineyard since 2000, when he opened At the Cornerway in Chilmark. Like many celebrated Vineyard chefs who lean toward New American cuisine, using traditional techniques but sourcing global flavors, Deon serves up an eclectic menu, incorporating fresh Island and regional ingredients from sea and shore. What sets his cuisine apart is the gentle taste of the Caribbean – in an appetizer of mussels steamed with coconut rum and curry, for example, or in the mango-lime chutney he serves with his signature roast grouper. Hints of Asia and Latin America also wind up in his creations. Though he also offers a mean jerk chicken, he eschews the stereotype of basic home cooking that typically follows Caribbean chefs.

Much of Deon’s culinary inspiration is rooted in memories of the tastes in his grandmother’s cooking when he was growing up in the countryside of Jamaica. “My biggest regret,” he says slowly for emphasis, “is that I never learned how she put together her sauces and other creations.”

In high school, Deon was infatuated with a girl enrolled in a cooking class. He enrolled too. Still, cooking seemed like a girl thing, until he discovered male chefs on television shows like The Love Boat. His aha experience was a high school training assignment at a hotel kitchen in Jamaica. He continued to understudy the hotel chefs long after the class was over. He enrolled in culinary school. He was hooked.

Deon’s next island was Long Island, where he worked his way up to head chef for a consortium of seafood restaurants in the Hamptons. He also refined his expertise at the Culinary Institute of America. When the Hamptons restaurant owners decided to invest in the high stakes restaurant scene in Anguilla in 1990, they sent forth Deon, who set the tenor of the operation and ran with it. Six years later, an even better location became available, and Deon grabbed it. High on a hilltop with a renowned harbor view, he created The Overlook – a Caribbean-inspired fine-dining experience in a cozy, laid-back atmosphere. Deon eventually assumed full ownership of the successful establishment, which operated for thirteen years and galvanized his reputation.

Oddly enough, Deon’s Caribbean bent was unique even in Anguilla, according to Vineyard building contractor John Early. John has vacationed on Anguilla off and on since 1986. “There are something like twelve or fifteen really good restaurants on Anguilla, but the menus are mainly Continental or American,” says John. “The competition is quite fierce, and The Overlook was one of the best. Great food well presented and well served. It was also a very friendly place.”

John is just one of several Vineyarders who became enamored over the years with Anguilla, The Overlook, the personable young chef, and the chef’s savvy partner and wife, Emily. Also smitten was Vineyard real estate broker Eleanor Pearlson, principal and owner of Tea Lane Associates, who dined at The Overlook while on vacation in the nineties. “I don’t remember what I had, but it was delicious,” says Eleanor. “I was taken with his charm and his abilities. It was easy to like him.”

A determined Eleanor beseeched Deon to open a restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard “and didn’t stop,” he reminisces with a fond smile. Alas, some investors from Nantucket had been wooing him for a couple of years already. He nearly had one foot on a plane, ready to open an eatery on their island. “But Eleanor said, ‘No sir, you don’t want to go there.’ That was twelve years ago. I’ve still never been to Nantucket.”

Eleanor says, “I felt Martha’s Vineyard was more of a melting pot than Nantucket.” The Thomases had no clue before they arrived that the melting pot included fellow Jamaicans. On the first day, Emily went into the newly leased Chilmark restaurant to clean – and five Jamaicans walked in to apply for jobs.

Deon lost friends in Nantucket over the chain of events, but At the Cornerway’s unique dining experience quickly earned him a broad and diverse set of devotees on the Vineyard. He became a favored up-Island caterer as well. Bill Clinton dined at the restaurant on several occasions, including birthdays. When he had to undergo emergency heart surgery in 2004, someone jokingly blamed Deon’s Decadent Chocolate Rum Cake, which the former president may have eaten just days before.

By 2007, the Thomases were overseeing four restaurants on two islands – oh, and their two young children. Their two newest eateries opened that May. In North Tisbury, Deon’s – the original one – served up inspired New American breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. It was an immediate hit among up-Islanders, who otherwise lacked for eateries in the area that were inviting as well as affordable. Perhaps the concept was too good to be true: The restaurant met its doom in a devastating kitchen fire six months after it opened.

Meanwhile, on a stunning Anguilla beach, Deon’s casual, new, canopied outdoor restaurant and bar at Ku Hotel was quickly drawing a lively stream of vacationers from across the island. Vineyarders have been among them. Unlike the Vineyard, Anguilla is no mecca for fresh, local ingredients. Nearly all foods, save the fish, are imported. “I have to pay through the teeth to get fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Deon.

Deon owes the success of his international multi-tasking to a well-trained cadre of lieutenants – “they call me ‘restaurant boot camp’” – not to mention his own history of frequent island hopping. Some of his staffers island hop too. Yet with a growing family and a yearning to settle down – relatively speaking – Deon is back to running two places only: the restaurant at Ku and the new Oak Bluffs incarnation of Deon’s on Circuit Avenue. Deon closed The Overlook in January 2009, to a chorus of popular whining. Providing consistently high-end fare to a select clientele was a growing challenge, economically, compared with serving scores of light meals and beers at Ku.

At the Cornerway closed after the 2008 season. For several years, Deon and Emily had been seeking to relocate down-Island, where business could benefit from walk-by traffic, a liquor license, and the potential for a longer operating season. They finally scored the former site of Pomodoro Pizzaria on Circuit Avenue, which Emily transformed into a casually elegant salon in bold hues of red and black. The paint was barely dry when Deon’s opened Memorial Day Weekend 2009.

The cuisine that made destination spots out of The Overlook and At the Cornerway is now Deon’s claim to distinction. John Early has followed his favorite menu item – garlic-crusted snapper – from place to place to place. “The roads have reversed,” says Emily, noting that up-Islanders have followed them to Oak Bluffs, just as down-Islanders used to trek to Chilmark. Moreover, their following has mushroomed. In midsummer, Deon’s regularly served more than a hundred diners a night. She says, “Our worst nights at Deon’s exceeded our best nights at the Cornerway.”

Deon and his crew have scrambled to keep up with the new pace. “This business is not about me; it’s about my diners,” says the culinary artiste, who still likes to taste every salsa and condiment before it leaves his kitchen. “It saddens me if someone doesn’t enjoy what I prepare. I tell them ‘Let me try to make something that will make you happy.’”

Deon will keep striving to make diners on both islands happy – at least until he moves on to the next place. “I’m an explorer,” he says. You never know.