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Chef Spotlight: Justin Melnick of THE TERRACE at The Charlotte Inn at Martha's Vineyard

Justin Melnick, Executive Chef at The Terrace at The Charlotte Inn, a member of Relais Relais & Châteaux worldwide association of luxury boutique hotels and gourmet restaurants. Melnick trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, with on-the-job experience alongside celebrated chefs Todd English at Olives and Barbara Lynch at The Butcher Shop.

Justin then spent six years (including four as executive chef) at Southborough's Tomasso Trattoria, where he garnered awards and accolades from Zagat, USA Today, Yankee and Boston magazines, among others. During a three-month sabbatical in Italy, he and his wife, Emily, an accomplished pastry chef, honed their considerable skills working in restaurants, wineries and farms throughout the country, gathering inspiration along the way.

Since 2012, Justin and Emily have made Martha's Vineyard their home, along with daughters Amelia and Gracie.

Broadwayworld.com had the opportunity to interview Justin Melnick about his career and the Terrace at the Charlotte Inn.

What was your earliest interest in cooking?

I was always interested in cooking. From the time I could reach the stove, I would make breakfast, bake etc. But what really stands out is when I was about 10 years old or so. My two older brothers and I would wait until my parents went to bed, and then sneak out to the garden, which my father kept looking great, to pick the beautiful baby zucchini and squashes. Normally they wouldn't get picked until they were very large, so that they could help feed the whole family. But we'd cook meals for ourselves with them. That's when I started to think about capturing ingredients at their peak and letting the food speak for itself.

Who were some of your career mentors?

I was fortunate to have great mentors. I worked in Boston with Barbara Lynch at The Butcher Shop, and Todd English at Olives, but my time spent at Tomasso Trattoria with Chef Tony Bettencourt is really where I started to hone my skills, develop my own culinary identity and figure out what direction to take it. That led me to Martha's Vineyard and The Terrace, where I can build on my past experience, and continue to learn every day, always trying to find ways to improve myself and my surrounding staff. It is very important to me, as it is for Chef Tony, to keep moving forward, learning new techniques, discovering different ingredients, fine tune, and motivate the people around me to do the same.

What culinary styles have influenced your career?

Italian food will always be the foundation for my cooking. I worked in a number of Italian restaurants from the beginning of my career, and it really set the tone for my future. I've spent time traveling in Italy and working with some great chefs. That, along with the traditions of my wife's family in Umbria, gave me a deep understanding and appreciation for seasonality, importance of quality ingredients, cooking from scratch, and never taking shortcuts.

What do you consider the most distinguishing features of your work as a chef?

My style of cooking is pretty straightforward: find the best ingredients, enhance them just enough to let the true flavors shine, and keep it simple. I try not to over manipulate a dish, in the same way that a great winemaker allows the terroir to shape the wine, helping just enough to facilitate the grapes into what nature intended them to be. A good example of that approach is in our chicken dish at The Terrace Restaurant. We serve a roasted Misty Knoll Farm chicken breast with fingerling potatoes, sweet and sour cippoline onions, and baby arugula. Although there are only a few components to the dish, each one is carefully prepared to complement the other elements of the final product. The chicken is carefully seasoned, roasted to have a crispy skin, rested properly before slicing. The fingerling potatoes are often sourced from one of our local farms here on Martha's Vineyard, slowly blanched in salted water, sliced prior to searing, and then deglazed with the cippoline onions. The onions are pan-seared ahead of time and simmered in a white wine vinegar & sugar mixture until tender. Finally, the arugula is added just at the right moment so it wilts slightly before being mounted with butter and plated. So we have four main ingredients, all prepared in a well calculated manner, hopefully achieving the balance and flavor profile we are looking for, while maintaining simplicity and creativity at the same time.

What is your favorite meal?

My favorite meals are the ones that I can share with family and friends. There's nothing more rewarding to me than starting with a table full of flour and eggs, and teaching someone how to go from that pile of ingredients to fresh, handmade pasta, and sharing the finished dish with a crowd. The process of cooking is more rewarding sometimes than the final product, and when I can share that process with loved ones, it makes it that much more special. I am always partial to making and eating fresh pasta dishes, whether it is a Bolognese sauce with tagliatelle pasta, fresh basil pesto with chitarra pasta, spaghetti al la carbonara or arrabbiata sauce. There are so many fine details to creating a great meal, and my favorite part is sharing that knowledge with others.

Tell me a little bit about your restaurant for our readers.

The Terrace is located on Martha's Vineyard, within Edgartown's Charlotte Inn, a member of Relais & Châteaux the worldwide association of luxury boutique hotels and gourmet restaurants. The menu fuses classic American cuisine with Italian and French accents, highlighting the best locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. We really put an emphasis on creating a special evening for each and every guest, from the time they walk in the door to their departure. It is an upscale, relaxed dining experience with a staff that provides excellent service and who are passionate about hospitality. And we're open year-round, so you can enjoy the peace and tranquility of Martha's Vineyard without the crowds.

The Terrace restaurant at The Charlotte Inn is located at 27 South Summer Street, Edgartown, Massachusetts 02539. Call 508.627.4751 or visit their web site, www.thecharlotteinn.com.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Justin Melnick

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