The (Not So) Quiet Season
Many Cape Cod year-rounders would agree with me that the winter holiday season is a special time of the year to live on the Cape, a reward for enduring congested, hectic and chaotic summers. Indeed, the fall allows many of us to catch our breath from the hustle and bustle of summer, but it’s the winter holiday season that is reason enough to live on Cape Cod.
Soon after Thanksgiving the villages and towns of Cape Cod usher in the holidays. The Cape Cod Times’ and Cape Codder’s calendars of events during December are busier than our main roads and beaches in the July 4th week, with each village hosting harbor lightings, tree lightings, village strolls and more.
What you won’t find listed or highlighted anywhere is the Cape’s spirit of embracing the season in the seemingly abandoned (or forgotten) ways of the 19th century. Every day, both young and old have their spirits touched and senses delighted by simply getting out and about. Warmth, camaraderie and kindness in a timeless and classic sense brim in a fashion rarely seen or found anywhere else. Many small restaurants, local retailers and merchants adorn their establishments in a magical and heart-felt fashion for our pleasure and enjoyment. Cape Cod, thankfully, is a place where commercialization has yet to impose its hideous and vicious grip, where local businesses take great pride in their holiday decoration and fare.
I’ve sought the perspective of three others to share my view: Bill Atwood, chef/co-owner of the Red Pheasant; Heather Cantin, Chatham Cheese Company owner; and Phillip Hunt, chef of Winslow’s Tavern.
I’ve visited many restaurants on Cape Cod (as my credit cards will attest). Having lived here year round for just over five years, I’ve realized my restaurant visits seem to rotate seasonally. When the smell of fallen leaves lingers faintly and the air has turned crisp, I know a visit to the Red Pheasant, located in Dennis along Route 6A, is imminent. Pulling up to the 200-year-old converted barn when it’s dark and chilly, I feel as through I’ve entered a Currier & Ives winter scene. I am warmly greeted by co-owner Denise Atwood (Bill’s wife), a crackling fire, warm lighting and delicious aromas. I get the sense that I’m joining the Atwoods for a home-cooked meal. Bill explains that the larger portion of the converted barn is a private residence where he and Denise raised their three daughters, enjoying many winter holiday seasons there together.
In 1978, a year after Bill Sr. opened the Red Pheasant, Bill Jr., aged 26, joined his father in the kitchen and hasn’t needed a job since. Although the Red Pheasant is open year-round, Bill will tell you the winter holiday season is one of the busiest times of the year. Bill has yet to miss a Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve behind the line in the kitchen. “Like father, like son,” Bill says.
Growing up in New Jersey, Bill recalls his father was always running a restaurant during the winter holiday season. “He was very much a part of Christmas Day and all its festivities. But, on Christmas Eve, it was my mother who escorted my two sisters and me to church while Dad cooked,” Bill explains. “It was normal for us growing up that Dad cooked during the holiday season, and it was normal for my three daughters that I cooked during the holiday season as well.” As busy as they were running the Red Pheasant, Bill and Denise made sure to teach their girls the true meaning of Christmas, and to appreciate the charm and simplest joys of Cape Cod during the winter holiday: fine food, holiday ambiance and family togetherness.
While many restaurants come and go every year, the Red Pheasant continues to steadily build on its reputation as one of the finest restaurants on the Cape, earning many distinctions and awards for its menu, wine list and service quality. Put a visit to the Red Pheasant on your winter holiday “to-do” list—it’ll become one of your special gathering spots to enjoy a fantastic meal.
Giving, like gathering, is another important element to the winter holiday season. That being said, my mother always taught me you should never show up to a winter holiday party (or any party for that matter) empty handed. A practice that’s stuck with me is that I’m the guy who brings wine. When I need to bring something special or different, like when I’ve been invited to a holiday party and the hosts boast a wine cellar that would make the late Robert Mondavi blush, I zip over to The Chatham Cheese Company.
Opening to much fanfare in the summer of 2008 and nestled on Main Street (902 to be exact, across the street from the restaurant Del Mar) in picturesque Chatham, The Chatham Cheese Company is a shrine to all good things. Although the shop’s focus is artisanal cheeses, fine wines, tasty gourmet items and party platters, you’d think they’re selling smiles by the pound—everyone leaves the shop grinning. A destination for foodies, Chatham Cheese is open from April through New Year’s. It is a festive destination for holiday shopping, a can’t-go-wrong shop for your holiday entertaining and gift giving needs.
For The Chatham Cheese Company and many other local businesses and restaurants, the winter holiday season on Cape Cod is the last hurrah before hibernating ‘til spring. “Fortunately,” says Heather, “the winter holiday season is my busiest time of year. Perhaps the hours and hours she and her fantastic staff spend tirelessly putting together beautiful arrangements of gourmet food items, wines and cheeses are paying off. Perhaps it’s Heather’s old-fashioned approach to retailing—each customer receives patient, personalized and enthusiastic service. If she doesn’t know your name, it must only be your first or second time visiting.
Once you get to know Heather a little bit, it seems it was inevitable that she’d put up her own shingle and open a business centered around cheese, food and wine. She reluctantly admits that her rather humble entrance into the food service industry began in Stamford, Connecticut, interestingly at one of Bobby Valentine’s restaurants. I bit my lip (almost drawing blood) and resisted asking her if his leadership was as disastrous then as it was this past season managing the Red Sox. Although the pursuit of her passion for food and wine culture took her as far as Hawaii and California, when her parents moved to Provincetown year-round, she faithfully returned every winter holiday season to spend time with her family in a place known for its unique small businesses.
Heather will tell you how lucky she was to spend her summers growing up in Provincetown (during the school year she lived in Connecticut). It’s a challenge, however, to stop her from going on and on how much she loves the Cape during the winter holiday season. “When my parents moved to P-Town year-round and I’d visit during Christmas, walking the seashore, the streets of Provincetown without all the summer congestion, enjoying the relaxed yet festive atmosphere was something that I cherished immediately,” she gushes. “My mother owned a boutique in P-Town called ‘The Cat House’, which was dedicated to all things cats. I loved the small, boutique-ish nature and charm of the shops on Cape Cod.”
As a high-end personal chef around different parts of the country, Heather always felt the tug of Cape Cod calling her home. When the stars were aligned, Heather and her best friend, Leslie Polk (former co-owner and co-founder of Chatham Cheese) made it happen. Like mother, like daughter, Heather established her own beautiful boutique shop in Chatham.
Heather is kind enough to share a simple recipe for “Holiday Scallop Potatoes” her mother made every year. I suggest you get the cheese at the Chatham Cheese Company!
Phillip Hunt, chef of Winslow’s Tavern, fell in love with Cape Cod’s winter holiday season before he even experienced his first one. A native of Durban, South Africa, Phillip explains that Christmas fell on his summer holiday, so, “Santa could be sometimes seen wearing his Speedo and flip flops. Christmas Day was traditionally spent at a cottage on the beach with extended family and friends, where we held all-day braais [barbecues] around a large fire pit. Eggs and bacon were cooked in cast iron pans shortly before a whole lamb was set on a spit and cooked all day and into the evening.” The ocean, cottages, beaches, families and friends gathering, lots of food…I sense a similarity here.
While living in New York, Phillip met his future wife Tracey (Barry) Hunt. Tracey brought Phillip to Wellfleet for the first time over a weekend in March and they were caught in a random and rather sever snowstorm. Phillip was mesmerized and felt it a magical experience to see a rather dormant summer town and all its surrounding nature under a blanket of snow. To this day, winter is Phillip’s favorite season on Cape Cod.
Oftentimes witty in his remarks, Philip is straightforward when professing his love for the Cape. “After we got married in Wellfleet, the decision to move here and open Winslow’s Tavern was an easy one.” Formerly a sea captain’s home built in 1805, and once the home of Massachusetts Governor Channing Cox, Phillip and the Barry family (one of Wellfleet’s restaurant “First Families”) spent almost a year updating the building and restoring its natural beauty. Winslow’s Tavern opened its doors for the first time in June of 2005 and is open seasonally from mid-May ‘till the Wellfleet Oyster Festival (mid-October). Tucked neatly in charming Wellfleet center, a visit to Winslow’s Tavern, perhaps best made during the shoulder seasons, will absolutely delight all your culinary senses.
Unfortunately Winslow’s Tavern is closed during the winter holiday season, but Phillip is still busy. “Our time in the ‘off season’ is usually spent doing lots of cooking—all of the holidays and every weekend offer the perfect excuse to try out new dishes and ideas that might find their way onto the next season’s menu.”
Along with Tracey and their two young sons, Hunter and Romanee, Phillip continues the Christmas day tradition of cooking eggs and bacon over a large fire, albeit in a fireplace. As the gifts are given and received, Phillip hooks a large leg of lamb in front of the fire where it slowly roasts all day, getting basted in its juices by passing hands. Dishes of root vegetables are pushed into the corners of the fireplace, until coated in ash and “meltingly tender”—just the way they did in South Africa. “Christmas cooking without the sunburn!” Phillip says, chuckling. If he and Tracey are expecting company as they often do, Phillip debones a second leg of lamb marinated overnight based on a recipe that his mother used every New Year’s Eve. This second leg of lamb goes onto the Weber grill outside, snow or shine! Phillip is kind enough to share his mother’s recipe.
Many thanks go out to Bill, Heather and Phillip for sharing some of their Cape Cod winter holiday traditions and anecdotes. It’s the places like Red Pheasant and the Chatham Cheese Company that make Cape Cod such a unique and special place to experience the winter holiday season. So bundle up, enjoy a brisk walk along the seashore, swing by the Chatham Cheese Company for some shopping and enjoy dinner at the Red Pheasant. Along the way you may bump into Phillip as he shops for wine and ingredients for his off-season cooking ventures. Enjoy the Cape this winter holiday season! I know I will.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, thinly sliced
- 4 large russet potatoes, peeled & thinly sliced
- Salt & pepper
- 2 cups grated cave-aged Gruyère
- Cream (light, heavy or half & half)
- Heat oil in sauté pan. Cook onion until browned and soft. Layer the potatoes in a large baking dish, overlapping a bit. Scatter with browned onion, salt and pepper, and a layer of Gruyère. Repeat until you get to the top of the pan. Pour in cream to about half way up the baking dish. Bake at 350° for about 40-50 minutes until golden brown.
- 1 tablespoon turmeric
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted and crushed
- 12 cloves garlic
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 1 tablespoon ginger
- ¼ cup honey
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- 2 cups extra virgin olive oil
- salt & pepper to taste
- 1 large onion, chopped
- Deboned leg of lamb
- Combine all of the ingredients except onion and lamb in a blender and purée until smooth.
- Stir the chopped onion into the mixture and smear all over the lamb. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
- Pre-heat a grill to high (medium heat if your grill is on the stronger side) and grill the lamb turning once. Don’t be afraid to let the lamb char—it adds a wonderful smoky flavor. The grilling should take no more than 30 minutes; the lamb is best served rare to medium rare. Alternatively, roast the lamb in a 400° oven in an open roasting pan for 30 minutes.