In December, Zagat released its annual “30 Under 30” list, highlighting up-and-coming chefs, restaurateurs and mixologists in the Boston area. While you can dine with most of these rising stars within a few miles of city limits, you’ll need to make extra accommodations to visit No. 26 on the list, Shaun Brian Sells, the 28-year-old executive chef at the historic Harbor View Hotel on Martha’s Vineyard. A relative newcomer to the New England food scene — Sells moved to the Vineyard in 2011 after previously working at The Westin St. John and The Ritz Carlton in St. Thomas — the buzz that he’s created after living in the Northeast for only a few years argues that his food is worth the ferry trip…even in the winter.
PRIOR TO MOVING TO MARTHA’S VINEYARD, YOU LIVED ON ST. JOHN. WHAT IS IT ABOUT ISLAND LIFE THAT’S SUCH A DRAW?
The overall peacefulness of island life is what has always drawn me in. The rush of the high season brings great energy, and the quiet of the off season gives me a chance to reflect and recharge, and interact more with my local community.
MOST OF YOUR CAREER WAS SPENT IN TROPICAL CLIMATES. WHY THE DECISION TO COME TO NEW ENGLAND? DID IT CHANGE THE WAY YOU COOK?
I decided to come up north for the great variety in produce, farms and seafood. Working on Martha’s Vineyard is a chef’s dream. Between the bay scallops, striped bass and tuna, and of course, some of the world’s best oysters, this island has provided me with so much inspiration. I also love the time that I get to spend working with local farmers while supporting fresh, farm-to-table food. I don’t think the move has changed the way that I cook, but because I now have the opportunity to work with so many different ingredients, I have become even more creative with my cuisine, while still sticking to some of the more traditional culinary influences in the area, many of which came from the Portuguese.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE DISH ON YOUR MENU RIGHT NOW?
Sassafras-braised sliders, which consist of local sassafras that I collected with the help of my sous chef, Nate Gould.
OUTSIDE OF THE RESTAURANT, WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE THING TO COOK?
Although I always love to try new dishes at home, I definitely have my seasonal favorites (all of which are cooked in a Dutch oven):
Winter – Braised Venison with roasted root vegetables and fennel in a red wine sauce.
Spring – Roast of Lamb with Fresh Rosemary and Garlic.
Summer – Fresh fish (usually striper), pan-seared with Morning Glory Farm lettuce, citrus, olive oil, sea salt and pepper.
Fall – Cast iron grilled grass-fed beef, oyster mushrooms and sautéed arugula.
IT’S THE OFF SEASON ON MARTHA’S VINEYARD. WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF VISITING THE ISLAND NOW?
Guests always think that peace and quiet comes in the form of a summer visit to the Vineyard, but locals know that in the off-season, visitors will have the opportunity to have the island all to themselves. [Winter and spring] are perfect for bay scalloping, golf, target shooting and soccer.
HOW DIFFERENT IS IT WORKING ON THE ISLAND IN THE SUMMER VS. IN THE WINTER?
In the summer, we tend to have a larger budget to work with, so there’s room for more variety when designing the menu. The season is also perfect for large-scale events, which are always fun and challenging to plan. I also enjoy working with the new, seasonal staff members that arrive at the beginning of the summer. It’s great to train and exchange ideas with them and it’s rewarding to watch them grow and learn.
The off season allows me the opportunity to challenge myself while working with a smaller F&B budget, and also allows me more time to forage for food. We hosted a phenomenal New Year’s Eve bash at Harbor View Hotel, with great hors d’oeuvres, live entertainment and fireworks.
WHICH SEASON DO YOU LIKE BETTER?
I think a good balance between the two is always best and keeps things exciting and new.