If you're wandering early any morning from May through October on the southeastern tip of Nantucket, you might see Mark Gottwald heading out through the churning Atlantic waves in his fishing boat. Or you might spot him with Bear, his Belgian herding dog, combing the shallows of the sound on the lookout for dinner.
While many dedicated chefs get up at daybreak to scour their local fish markets, Gottwald, the owner and chef of the Ships Inn here in Nantucket, does them one better. During the season, he spends every morning on his 36-foot Jersey Devil, catching bass for the evening menu. At least once a week he ventures out overnight in pursuit of bigger game--mahimahi or albacore, bluefin or yellowfin tuna. "Sometimes I'll bring back a bigeye tuna, which can weigh between 175 and 275 pounds," he says proudly. "That's enough to feed my patrons and my staff for a full week."
When he's planning to cook at home, Gottwald sets lobster and eel traps and gathers scallops, clams and mussels. On a recent visit to this windswept Massachusetts island, which seems perpetually bathed in Edward Hopper light, I joined him on a foray into the shallow waters near his beach shack, which stands on a tapering spit of sand and sea grass called Esther Island.
For 20 years following 1957's Hurricane Esther, this actually was an island, and even now it's so narrow that from any one spot you can see both the sea and the harbor. Its beauty is a desolate beauty: a few scattered pine trees reach toward the sky, their branches twisted by the constant wind. The late-day sun gleamed off the Atlantic as Gottwald led me into the water. As we waded, we dug into the sand with our feet and simply grabbed the clams we found.
Virginia born and raised, Gottwald grew up fishing and hunting with his father and brothers. His career began with stints at Le Cirque in New York City and Spago in Los Angeles, where he met his future wife and business partner, Ellie, an actress who had starred in Halloween IV (in which she survived) and Halloween V (in which she did not). Mark and Ellie both spent time on Nantucket when they were growing up, so when they heard that the Ships Inn was for sale, they flew east to check it out.
"It was a disaster," Gottwald says, recalling the former bar and chophouse. "It was a kind of disreputable local hangout." That was eight years ago. Today the refurbished Ships Inn, which was built in 1831, has 12 cozy guest rooms and a candlelit restaurant where locals and tourists come for such signature dishes as crispy salmon in a Cabernet sauce. (During the winter, the Gottwalds close the Ships Inn and head south to their Florida restaurant, Ellie's, in Vero Beach.)
Although he has a spacious cottage close to town, it's at the beach house that Gottwald seems happiest and most himself--one part chef, two parts fisherman and beachcomber. The small, shingled building is hidden by sea grass and tall sand dunes in a protected nesting area for plovers. Inside the shack, the only sounds you can hear are the wind and the sea and the flames crackling in the woodstove.
The Gottwalds spend most of their Sundays here with their two beautiful daughters, Rose and Grace, and the couple often entertains here as well. When friends are expected, Gottwald begins preparations early. "First thing, we go out into the harbor to get some clams," he says. He also dives for mussels, which are attached to the rocks about 100 yards offshore, and takes out his skiff to empty the lobster traps.
When the guests arrive, they crack open bottles of Cisco, the local beer, and gather on the deck to watch Gottwald grill lobster tails and corn. A boom box appears, and suddenly jazz drifts out over the sand dunes and the water. The intense ocean light is low, the sea grass bends in the breeze--a perfect summer Sunday on Nantucket.
Alan Brown is the author of Audrey Hepburn's Neck (Washington Square Press).