Red Tablecloth, oil on canvas, 20 x 15 inches.

Max Decker


Secret Sauce

Step one: score a chef’s proprietary recipe. Step two: recreate the magic. Or not.

A little pine work table winked at me at a tag sale. It whispered: Take me home to your farmer’s porch. The wee flirt was heavy as heck, obviously made from old wood. It was a smidgen too leggy to squeeze into my car, but a tag sale junkie will not be denied.

My house was 300-some yards away, given a generous interpretation of “some.” Surely I could lug the table there by hand. Just as I gave it the heave-ho, a fellow shopper dashed over.

“Let me help you with that,” he said. His face was familiar, but hey, it’s a small island. And our tag-yard-garage sale cult is smaller still. The gentleman insisted he had plenty of time to carry my table to my house before he had to go to work. My protests were feeble.

We made our way down the road, making polite chit chat. And what kind of work did he do, by the way? He was a chef. Personal chef? No. He owned an eatery. Oh, which one? Back Road Restaurant.

Oh, shoot.

The very night before, a friend and I had eaten dinner at Back Road, as I have redubbed the restaurant for publication. We started with a corn soup in a clear broth so brilliant, it made our hair follicles tingle. We attempted to deconstruct the magic of this broth, but our culinary instincts failed us. My friend pointed toward the kitchen door. What? “Go back in the kitchen,” she said between spoonfuls, face never rising from the fragrance. “Ask the chef how it’s made.” She was only half joking. I ignored her.

Later, as we awaited dessert, Chef Jack, as I will call him, appeared tableside to inquire after our satisfaction with our meal. We exuded praise. My friend nudged me under the table. No, I am not asking a world-famous-on-Martha’s-Vineyard chef for his recipe. And don’t you do it either.

So now, some twelve hours later, the talented hands of Chef Jack, which should be pinching herbs or filleting flounder, are clutching a rugged antique with scratchy edges of peeling paint. The lower shelf is bumping his bare shins with each step. His face is visibly moist. He asks politely how much farther we’re going. Not far. I am mortified. And all I can think to do to make up for this indignity is to reprise my praise for the dining pleasure he made possible the night before.

My friend’s spirit is in my ear: This is a sign. You’ve been granted another chance. Ask for that recipe. Me: He’s carrying my table! Are you kidding me?

But I suppose there’s no harm in a throwaway comment about the enigma of the broth.

“Oh, it’s real simple,” says Chef Jack. And as we trudge on, he proceeds to recite the whole dang soup recipe. With relish. “You just cut up some fresh _____________ and simmer, then add some ____________ and _________  and finish with a little ____________.               .

When we reach my house, I gush with gratitude for service beneath Jack’s finer calling and bid him farewell. I do not pause to admire the new addition to the family of porch objects. Instead I bolt indoors and grab the nearest writing tools – a dull pencil and a paper towel – and scribble down the recipe before my Teflon memory takes flight.

Knowing a chef’s proprietary recipe is a high honor. Like being the only cousin who knows how to make grandma’s biscuits.

Ah, biscuits: someone once entrusted me with the recipe for the sweet potato biscuits at ArtCliff Diner. Big as a cat’s head, as southerners say. Curiously light for an amalgam involving tubers. The biscuits are so “short,” in baker speak, they nearly crumble at the mere thought of touch. If you place a warm one on a napkin, a wee oily stain will appear to woo your salivary glands.

“I got the recipe directly from Gina,” my benefactor boasted. Because, of course, everyone knows Gina, the chef-owner of the ArtCliff. Except me, at that time.

My attempt at the recipe yielded belly busters. Dense and joyless. Was there a typo in the leavening measurement? Did my oven behave differently than Gina’s? Do my hands simply lack the knack? It doesn’t matter. I have resigned the magic to the ArtCliff Diner kitchen. I can still smile with pride whenever I happen upon the keepsake formula in my recipe files.   

Back when I was head concierge at the Harbor View Hotel, working on Sundays included a terrific perk: we staffers could have our way with the leftovers of the hotel’s signature buffet brunch – raw bar, entrées, glamour desserts, and so on. On one such Sunday, a new side of cheesy grits appeared in fluffy, golden splendor. The sensation on my taste buds launched me through the swinging kitchen door like a torpedo.

“How did you make those grits??” The chef corrected me: “It’s polenta.” This from a good ol’ boy from Texas. Whatever. The artisan can call this exaltation of the ordinary whatever he wants. 

“Oh, it’s easy…” he began: Chicken broth, seasonings, cream, aged parmesan, fresh kernels… I was flattered by the presumption in his cook-to-cook tone. I speed-scribbled the recipe onto a paper napkin and took it home, along with a container of the last of the leftovers. Because heaven forbid if I never tasted them again made right. 

Note to my Back Road Restaurant companion: it’s okay to enter a restaurant kitchen (when it’s not busy) and inquire after a recipe at one’s own place of work. Being an insider has its privileges.

Which is how I also scored the recipe for the hotel’s popular go-to-hell chocolate chunk cookies. A single one of those monsters could take days to eat. Or minutes, depending. I calculated the pounds and quarts of the mass production formula down to home kitchen scale. Accurately, it seems. I nailed it. As well as I nailed that polenta.

I bet I could recreate an Eileen Blake strawberry rhubarb pie, too, if I had the recipe and the will. I have neither. But an apple fritter à la Back Door Donuts? I’m game. Giordano’s fried clams? Heck no.     

Truth is, on this Island, one hardly needs to be wily, flirtatious, light-fingered, privileged, or plain lucky to score a special recipe. The Island’s spirit of generosity infects many a local chef just as it does most everyone else. Many spill their “secrets” in local magazines, newspapers, and demonstrations. Thanks to the best-selling Morning Glory Farm cookbook, I’m probably one of thousands who bake their namesake muffins. So much for being uniquely anointed. It’s all good.

Did my friend ever get Jack’s soup recipe out of me? Of course she did, after some short-lived teasing on my part. Did she ever prepare it? Probably not. She’s dearly departed now, I’m sad to say, but if there’s a heaven, and if it’s as nice as advertised, she’s savoring that soup regularly.   

In the meantime, I have my eye on yet another soup recipe. Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company: how do I make your award-winning chowder? I’m asking for a friend. A different friend.