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Dining Out

Treasure island

Many chefs say working summers on Nantucket is like working 60 Saturdays in a row. But that is part of the rush.

The clambake from Straight Wharf on Nantucket. The clambake from Straight Wharf on Nantucket. (Rob Benchley for The Boston Globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / June 23, 2010

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NANTUCKET — Todd English is in the house. The Summer House, that is. The celebrity chef is sitting at a round table at the Sconset restaurant, watching friend and lawyer Danielle de Benedictis waltz with the piano man. Up on his feet and away from the ivories, the singer continues to serenade her as they twirl.

English is here for dinner tonight, but he’s more than just a diner. As of this season, he’s the Summer House chef. It’s the second Nantucket restaurant with which he’s involved; last year he helped revamp 29 Fair, turning it into Figs at 29 Fair. Both restaurants are owned by de Benedictis’s family. She and husband Peter Karlson have been close with English since his early days at Charlestown restaurant Olives.

“The Summer House is so pretty and quaint and charming,’’ English says later by phone. “It’s a special place. I’ve been up there almost every weekend since we opened, for selfish reasons and for the business.’’

He’s among the many Boston-based chefs with a Nantucket presence. Fourteen miles long, 3 1/2 miles wide, and with more than 80 restaurants, Nantucket deserves its reputation as a dining destination. Combine that with a talent-attracting annual wine festival and a quick flight or ferry ride to the mainland, and it’s no wonder the city and the island have strong culinary ties.

“We have a Boston pipeline in my kitchen,’’ says Gabriel Frasca, who with wife Amanda Lydon heads up Straight Wharf, a restaurant overlooking the harbor. The two have cooked all over the world together, including Boston-area stints at the likes of Radius, UpStairs on the Square, Ten Tables, and Spire. In 2006, they came to Nantucket to take over the restaurant Lydon sold hand-picked berries to when she summered here as a girl.

Frasca describes an intricate island-to-mainland shuffle: One chef alternates between Straight Wharf and Craigie on Main. Another was at Straight Wharf but went to Ten Tables in Cambridge; a former Straight Wharf chef now working at Rialto is sending one of his chefs to Nantucket for a few weeks. In the kitchen are employees who have worked at Myers + Chang, Garden at the Cellar, and Om. And so on. When on vacation, you’re likely to be eating dishes prepared by some of the same people whose food you eat at home.

“There’s this nice little cycle going on,’’ Frasca says. “We try to place people in good spots in Boston with people we respect; when people [in Boston] start going stir-crazy, friends steer them to us. We’ve always envisioned there should be a website. ‘I can send one cook for three months.’ We could call it Facecook.’’

It’s a convenient arrangement. For chefs, summer on Nantucket is no relaxing idyll. They leave strolls on the beach and window shopping to the tourists. While vacationers are kicking back, and as business in the city is slowing down, island restaurants are gearing up. The season is a two-month sprint, exhausting, sometimes exhilarating, and — if all goes well — lucrative. A Nantucket restaurant can make more than half of its year’s profits in July and August alone, and rents are astronomical. For someone working at one, life in the city can look like vacation.

“I’m a real adrenaline junkie,’’ says Marc Orfaly of Boston restaurants Pigalle and Marco. He spent several seasons as Summer House chef before English. “During the season it is like 60 Saturdays in a row. If you’re not used to that, I don’t recommend it. It’s rough. It’s also exciting and great at the same time.’’

Nantucket restaurants must contend with the dual challenge of operating a seasonal business and being on an island. “You’re kind of opening a new restaurant every year,’’ Frasca says. With a new group of vacationers each season, there’s not the kind of return business a year-round restaurant sees with a fixed population. And getting supplies can be tricky and expensive. Ingredients need to be ordered far in advance. And if the weather isn’t cooperating, they may not arrive when needed.

The logical solution is to use as many Nantucket products as possible. Eating locally has never been more practical, and it’s one of the main joys of cooking on the island, expat chefs say.

“With Nantucket, as the season goes along, one of the great things about it is the farms, getting what’s local and planning the menu around that,’’ English says. “I love that.’’ (Famously peripatetic, he has staffed the kitchen with a team headed by executive chef Seth High. But English has cooked here each time he’s been in town, says general manager Christopher Karlson.)

Some chefs have their own gardens. Most work very closely with nearby growers, whose produce they rave about. And the seafood doesn’t get much fresher. It’s right in their aquatic backyard.

“It’s great,’’ says Tom Berry, executive chef at Great Harbor Yacht Club, who has worked at such mainland places as Blue Ginger, Bambara, and Temple Bar. “We can truly do as local as possible. We’re not dealing with winter. Bartlett’s Farm has these lettuces that I adore. We buy them every day — lolla rossa, red oak, green oak. . .’’

Frasca sounds equally reverential when discussing fish. Last week, he says, several cooks went on a fishing trip and brought back eight black bass. They stuffed them with orange, fennel, ramps, and chilies, then cooked them on a wood grill. “It was the best thing I’ve eaten in a while. That part is incredible. You don’t feel like you’re just calling a 1-800 number [to order supplies] — it’s less like buying from Amazon and more like you’re in the Amazon.’’

It’s a jungle out there, at least until winter. Then, there’s still work to be done, but much less of it.

“I don’t want to say I relax, but we’re not open,’’ Berry says. “I pursue other things for the betterment of myself and the club. I did some traveling. I ate out like a critic; I went to every restaurant I could get my hands on. It’s inspiring to see what all these other people are doing.’’

“We made a very happy deal with the devil here,’’ Frasca says. “In the winter, we get to spend a heck of a lot of time with our kids and with each other.’’ Time together was rare when he was at Spire and Lydon at UpStairs on the Square. “It’s like everything in life. There are tradeoffs. You just have to feel like you’re on the right side of the equation.’’

There are plenty of things that former Boston chefs say they miss about living in the city — Starbucks, bibimbap, Red Sox games, cooking richer, heavier cold-weather food. But overall, life on Nantucket is good, even when you’re working what feels like 60 Saturdays in a row.

“We get to throw a great party every night,’’ Frasca says. “That’s incredibly satisfying, no two ways about it.’’

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.