“The man’s palate is extraordinary. His level of discipline is amazing…..In terms
of agility, he’s like a ballerina in the kitchen, he moves with such finesse,
a powerful man, very powerful….a different ball game this one, talented, talented man….in 3
or 4 years’ time, he can stand alone and compete with the best.”
– Gordon Ramsay, speaking to Restaurant Insider Magazine about Neil Ferguson, January 2007
2013 is shaping up to rival 2012 from the standpoint of extensive and varied changes on Nantucket’s restaurant scene, but none so far are as exciting as what is happening down on Cliffside Beach. A new Executive Chef was recently named at Galley Beach Restaurant…..and what a chef! Described by short-tempered and exacting culinary mogul Gordon Ramsay as having an “extraordinary” palate and praised by hard-to-please New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, who gave him two stars, for serving “sophisticated and accessible” cuisine, Neil Ferguson, 41, has come to Nantucket after a 20+ year career which has largely been spent cooking in some of the best restaurants in the world.
Michelin Guide stars are hard to come by and considered a high honor, given as they are to only a very limited number of restaurants of outstanding quality. Not only has Neil trained and worked in a series of Michelin-starred establishments over the years, but he earned his own star outright in 2008 while Executive Chef of Allen & Delancey in New York City. Also while at Allen & Delancey, in addition to garnering Bruni’s laudatory two-star review, he made Bruni’s list of the 10 Best New Restaurants in New York City, was awarded Best New Restaurant by Time Out New York, and was named Rising Star Chef 2008 by StarChefs.com, which recognizes chefs and culinary professionals who are considered to represent the vanguard of the contemporary American dining scene.
In partnering with Galley Beach, Neil will bring his acclaimed classic and refined, yet relaxed, style of cooking to Nantucket in the Galley’s chic, yet casual, European-inspired venue that seems to have been tailor made to showcase his work.
“I am all about cooking, and working in a beautiful setting with people I respect, using
the freshest possible ingredients.”
– Neil Ferguson
A Little Background – Early Inspiration and Impressive Experience
Inspired to become a chef by a fine dining experience he had while on vacation with his family in Scotland at the age of 12, Neil’s love of food and cooking had an earlier and deeper spark. “Looking back on it now, I feel almost spoiled,” he says when talking about the atmosphere in which he grew up, in Hampshire, Southern England. “My mother was a good cook and my parents, brother, and I sat down as a family for freshly-cooked, balanced meals on a regular basis, European-style without distractions like television.” His parents encouraged his interest in cuisine by taking him out with them to dine, particularly on family holidays to Europe, where he was “exposed to good food and the whole lifestyle that revolves around it.”
At age 19, after completing a course in culinary school, Neil landed feet first into a commis (apprentice chef) role at the 3 Michelin-starred Le Gavroche in London. A talented chef’s early life often entails a lot of movement, as he or she passes through a series of varying work opportunities, all meant to hone technical skills and awaken one’s own sense of creativity and style. Neil was no exception to this rule. Subsequent stints in several 2 Michelin-starred restaurants in London – including as Sous Chef in Gordon Ramsay’s first restaurant, Aubergine – gave Neil the opportunity to observe a variety of culinary and management styles as his responsibilities increased and he grounded his training.
Two influential years in France followed, during which he worked a year each with acclaimed chefs Marc Meneau (L’Espérance in Burgundy) and Alain Passard (L’Arpège in Paris) at their 3 Michelin-starred establishments. Neil then returned to London, where he rejoined Gordon Ramsay and worked for him for several years, first as Sous Chef at Ramsay’s flagship 3 Michelin-starred restaurant in London, then as Head Chef at Ramsay & Angela Hartnett’s restaurant at the Connaught Hotel, and finally as Chef de Cuisine at Ramsay’s first U.S. venture in New York City.
In 2007, Neil broke out on his own with Allen & Delancey, an extremely popular and critically acclaimed restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which earned 1 star from Michelin and 2 stars from both the New York Times’ Bruni and Adam Platt of New York Magazine during Neil’s one year tenure. To put things in perspective, in 2011 out of more than 800 restaurants reviewed in New York City, only 46 were awarded a star by Michelin, and only 16 garnered a higher rating of 2 or 3 stars. When the owner of Allen & Delancey began to experience general financial difficulties that impacted the restaurant’s operations, Neil moved on to Soho House, a private club in Manhattan, where he stayed for a year and a half until 2010 when he decided to move to Nantucket.
When asked about the chefs with whom he’s worked, he notes that all had different personalities and strengths from which he gleaned important lessons. “All of them were on the rise….that’s the best time to be there because you’re pushing boundaries,” he adds. Credit for the most profound influence, however, goes to Alain Passard, whom Neil describes as “a genius – very talented, graceful, and articulate in the kitchen – who conducted himself very, very well, but more than that, a master of technique” who impressed upon Neil the importance of careful sourcing of ingredients and employing all five senses when cooking.
As a result of his extensive and balanced experience, Neil comes to Nantucket a well-rounded, incredibly gifted and disciplined chef who employs his classical European training in inventive ways geared first and foremost to provide enjoyment to his customers. “We’re in the business of making people happy. I think you can really do that with good food – it affects people,” he says. “For me, there’s no greater thrill than standing at the kitchen door and seeing a room full of contented diners.”
Talk to Neil about his food and his enthusiasm is palpable. Gathering inspiration from many sources – books (including his large collection of carefully selected cookbooks), magazines, travel, eating out, talking with other chefs, and so on – he particularly enjoys “taking classic dishes and old favorites and reworking them.” He also loves to experiment with flavor pairings, his deep interest in this area and expertise contributing to his reputation for creating unique, bold flavors with an admirable sense of balance on the palate. Some of his pairing favorites include almonds and apricots, licorice and pear, and fenugreek with parsnips or pork.
To provide an idea of how Neil displays his passion and philosophy on the plate, following are a few of the mouth-watering critic and customer favorites he created while he was at Allen & Delancey: thinly-sliced raw hamachi with beads of pink grapefruit and pickled fennel; caramelized bone marrow with salty caviar and pureed shallots; seared sea scallops with braised cipollini onions, celery root cream and verjus; terrine of guinea hen, smoked ham knuckle, foie gras, and beetroot; braised fluke with brioche crumbs, marrow and prosciutto and cauliflower puree; roasted daurade with onion marjoram stew and eggplant puree; lamb chop persillade with braised lamb’s neck and potato puree; and aged sirloin with horseradish sauce, accompanied by cabbage-wrapped braised beef and a long-braised onion stuffed with cabbage and truffle juice.
It is worth it to note that while dedicated, precise, and zealous about the quality of his work, Neil is no tyrant in the kitchen. Soft-spoken and pleasant – by all reports, patient, polite, and thoughtful – he is a “big believer in talking to people the way you’d like to be spoken to yourself.” Nor is he particularly interested in the lime-light – “I’m not that kind of guy,” he says humbly. In fact, he is looking forward to running his own kitchen again, enjoying himself, and “just focusing on cooking good food” without all the pressure and distraction of a market like New York City that is crawling with critics and the media.
How Neil Ferguson Ended Up in Nantucket and at Galley Beach
Neil met his future wife, Shelley, who hails from the Boston area, while they were both living in London. When they decided to be married, she suggested Nantucket, which Neil had never heard of, as the perfect place for their wedding. Their August ceremony at Brant Point took place the same day as the Boston Pops, and afterwards they treated their guests to the concert. “It was a very fun, very memorable day,” Neil says. So, the “Nantucket Bug” bit, and it became Neil and Shelley’s long range plan to ultimately settle here, where Neil could open a restaurant and “do his thing.”
While working at Soho House, Neil began to tire of long work hours combined with the 4 to 5 hour round-trip commute between New York City and his home in Putnam County, which took away from his ability to spend time with Shelley and their son, Archie. It was then that they decided to accelerate their goal to move to Nantucket.
With each trip they made to scope out potential living and restaurant opportunities, they felt an increasingly strong connection to the island which gave them confidence that they were doing the right thing, and so they moved here in December 2010. “The driving force in coming here was about quality of life and balance,” Neil says. He loves the tight-knit feel of the community and has been enjoying putting down roots, making friends, and building relationships.
Shortly after arriving in Nantucket, a mutual friend introduced Neil to David Silva who, with his brother Geoffrey, owns Galley Beach. Neil was continuing his search for a viable restaurant site, and David provided assistance by making a few introductions to people he thought Neil ought to know on the island. When Neil hadn’t found a property that suited him by the time the 2011 season began, David offered him the opportunity to take over the day service at the Galley as a way to “work under the radar,” allowing him to delay his professional debut in Nantucket until an appropriate venue emerged.
As Neil and David worked together and got to know each other better, they found that they “shared common traits and values,” as Neil puts it, and ultimately agreed, at the end of the 2011 season, to look for a venture together. Not having found the “right spot” in time for the 2012 season, Neil continued running the day service last summer. “Working lunch at the Galley was the first time in my career that I had a normal workday and could go home for dinner with my family, so it was a nice break. It also gave me time to get to know the island better.”
Neil’s involvement at the Galley also gave him a good feeling for the kitchen operation, the restaurant’s rhythms, and the clientele. So when the decision was made earlier this year for him to take over as Executive Chef, he was able to hit the ground running. “I had a good opportunity over the past two years to see what worked and what didn’t, and I’m making adjustments in equipment and layout to help the kitchen run even more efficiently than it has in the past. David has been very agreeable and generous in allowing the changes I’ve wanted to make.”
Neil and David’s search for a second location on Nantucket, which they are conceiving as a non-seasonal restaurant that would be open for at least 9 to 10 months of the year, is ongoing. The opportunities they’ve seen so far haven’t been quite right for what they have in mind, but they are hoping to find something in time for the 2014 season.
Impact on the Galley Beach Dining Experience
Diners who walk through the door of Galley Beach during the 2013 season won’t immediately notice any significant change in the restaurant. They will still be greeted by the airy, stylish decor and familiar faces of the Galley’s friendly and professional staff. But they will see a big difference once they sit down and open the menu – while general structure (the a la carte format, number of options per course, and pricing) will be similar to the past, the offerings themselves will be entirely new.
“David has been very supportive and basically given me carte blanche to rework the menus,” Neil says. “We considered retaining particular favorites from the old menu, but David ultimately decided that my coming on board is a good opportunity to make changes.” That’s not to say that someone who loves lobster, escargot, or Cobb salad, for example, won’t find it at the Galley. “It’ll just be my take on it, based on my style and experience,” Neil points out, “and seasonality will have a lot to do with what’s offered and how it’s prepared.” Those familiar with his creations at Allen & Delancey will recognize Neil’s signature in the selections that ultimately make it onto the menu – while different, tailored as they will be to Nantucket and Galley Beach, they will reflect the building blocks that were apparent in his earlier work.
His overall objective is to create a balanced menu that will have “something for everyone,” but also cause diners to be torn between choices and eager to return again to try a different dish, with options ranging from salads and other light dishes to more robust alternatives. He and David are particularly excited about their planned makeover of the bar menu. “I’m applying serious thought to making it more approachable – more finger-type food with an elegant, light, fresh style,” Neil notes.
While his cuisine has often been described as modern or contemporary American, Neil resists being pigeon-holed. “Good, tasty cooking – that’s my style,” he says. “Nothing’s off limits, if it makes sense in the dish.” For him, the key is high-quality, fresh and natural ingredients. “Nature is more beautiful than anything,” he notes. “I think a chef’s role is to understand the product, respect the product, and apply proper technique to elevate and showcase it, but only to the extent that the result is harmonious and authentic.”
David agrees, noting, “As it has in the past, the restaurant will still source the best possible product and use local ingredients whenever quality permits.” Some of those local ingredients may ultimately come from the Galley’s own farm – seven acres of land on Tuckernuck Island. David is planning to establish an apiary there, and Neil is excited about using the honey it ultimately produces. In future, the farm may expand to supplying herbs and other produce to the restaurant, as well as cheese (from sheep kept on the property) and perhaps even locally grown and butchered meat, if the establishment of an abattoir on Nantucket comes to pass (a subject that has regularly arisen in food-related discussions on the island in the last few years).
Oenophiles will also note an expansion of offerings on the Galley’s already substantial wine list, with the wine import company that David recently established enabling him to present some interesting new selections. “I just got back from a trip with Denis Toner that involved traveling 3,000 kilometers in seven days, ranging from the southern wine regions of France (Provence, Rhone, Languedoc), to Bordeaux, and finally the Loire,” he says. “While there we found some great little ‘inside’ things that are not currently imported into Massachusetts and, in some cases, not even into the U.S.”
Speaking of wine, Neil’s formal introduction to the Nantucket food scene will commence with a bang, as the Galley’s May 10, 2013 season opening date coincides with the week of the 16th annual Nantucket Wine Festival. Though he isn’t preparing one of the dinners in Great Houses this year, Neil will be participating in the Harbor Gala and overseeing several other Wine Festival-related events that Galley Beach is hosting, including two dinners featuring the Peter Michael Winery and Veuve Clicquot, a Provençale-style luncheon showcasing the wines of Domaine de l’Ile, and the popular after-the-Gala late-night dinner with Cisco Brewery. “It means a crazy time for the staff, with eight different menus in a week,” David says. “A bit of a baptism by fire, perhaps, but a very focused way for us to get into the groove.”
A further exciting development is planned for this coming October, and involves a collaboration with Chateau Beychevelle. Though still working out the details, David and Philippe Blanc, director of the Chateau’s operations, are envisioning a Saint-Julien wine dinner at Galley Beach that will be held just after Columbus Day, to be followed by a second, smaller dinner a week later in France at the Chateau, considered one of the most beautiful properties in Bordeaux, with splendid architecture and exquisite gardens. Neil is already looking forward to creating the menus for these events, which will be based on the local products available in each location.
“The multi-million dollar renovation of Galley Beach in 2008 was a big move for the restaurant, driven by our vision of what we wanted the restaurant to ultimately become,” David notes. “Improving and expanding the wine program has been another step along that path. Having Neil join the Galley continues that trajectory, bringing us to the next level. I know that whatever he does will be exceptional and very well received. People are going to flip out at how great his food is.”
(Originally published in the March 6, 2013 edition of the Mahon About Town Newsletter)