Max Eagan has always known the kitchen is where he belongs. He’s worked in restaurants since he was 14, studied under Island chefs such as Joe DaSilva and now he’s the executive chef of the Lambert’s Cove Inn, all without ever stepping foot in a culinary school.
“I’m completely self-taught,” Mr. Eagan said unabashedly before dinner prep on Wednesday morning. “I always helped my mom cook in the kitchen and it started from there[she] knew somebody who was working here for Joe and said basically, ‘Can you give this kid a chance in the kitchen?’ I came up and I’ve been here ever since.”
The Vineyard-born chef grew up working at Papa’s Pizza in Oak Bluffs and Mrs. Miller’s Muffins in Edgartown.
“I was Mrs. Miller for a while, I was the muffin man,” he said with a smile. After attending the University of Connecticut for two years, Mr. Eagan ended up working at a restaurant more than he was attending classes. It was time for him to turn all of his attention to the stove.
Now he’s running his own kitchen at the age of 27
“It’s going great, I love it. I have fun, which is the best part,” he said. “If you get to go to work every day and have fun, nothing beats that.
“I have a really good crew. I work with people my age and it’s always nice to have peers to work with. When we started I said to them, ‘I want to come here every day and have fun and enjoy cooking and not be an angry chef in a mean kitchen, throw sauté pans at people.’ It’s a much better atmosphere to come into work every day and enjoy what you do and have fun with it.”
Mr. Eagan worked at the inn under Mr. DaSilva for seven years, and the rhythm between the two chefs became effortless. But he has a new staff with him this year, and he’s learning what it means to be a leader in the kitchen.
“I worked with Joe for so long we didn’t need to talk to each other, we knew what each other were thinking and what we were doing, so I could help him and he could help me without even having to say anything to each other,” Mr. Eagan said. “I have to be a lot more vocal and talkative with my crew and say what’s going on. It’s a totally different atmosphere than what it was in the past.”
Mr. Eagan has taken what he’s learned from Mr. DaSilva, his mother, and other chefs and made it his own. The menu has completely changed; everything except the Caesar salad is new.
“The Caesar salad stayed the same but I was the one making the Caesar salad,” he said laughing, reflecting on his old post as sous chef. “But I enjoy it. I love cooking my own food. It’s not to say I didn’t cook it all before, but now it’s all mine.”
“Cooking over the years, you get certain ideas in your head that you save for when you have your own place,” he continued. “I have to give Joe a little bit of credit because he taught me some of the things that stuck with me that I really enjoy cooking.” One of the dishes he just couldn’t part with was Mr. DaSilva’s cod brandade.
Mr. Eagan’s cooking style is simple, but he likes to do things with a twist — roast chicken is also served with a confit chicken ravioli, cod is served with a salt cod cake and pork tenderloin is served with smoked pork and beans.
They’re healthy portions but not overwhelming.
“I like not having teeny portions,” he said. “I’m in favor of not huge, overwhelming things, but I don’t like going to a restaurant, especially in a fine dining establishment, spending a lot of money and getting two bites of food out of it. I like to fill people up.”
As an Island kid, it’s natural for Mr. Eagan to be inspired by his natural surroundings. He has the first restaurant share with the Whippoorwill Farm community supported agriculture (CSA) program, and he’s constantly sourcing from Vineyard farms. Mr. Eagan doesn’t like to flaunt it, but if something’s available from someone around the corner he’ll buy it from them.
“My inspiration really comes from whatever is around me, whatever is available to get and looks good,” he said. “I also buy stuff I have never seen before or heard of because I want to know what it is and what I can do with it. Sometimes it works, and sometimes I buy a pound of something and I go, ‘I’m never using this again.’”
Baby purple artichokes, for one, will never be on his menu again.
“Not only did they not stay purple whatsoever when you cooked them, but they were a pain in the butt to clean and at the end of the day you ended up with nothing good.”
Mr. Eagan enjoys foraging in Island woods as well. His favorite fruit, wineberry, is just ripening now and he enjoys the challenge of coming up with a new dish that highlights the tart red berry. Vanilla bean panna cotta with wineberry gilée was his pastry chef’s latest concoction.
Foraging is a longstanding Vineyard tradition, but in summer months his time is limited. He’ll often pick the wineberries, black raspberries and lemon balm the inn has growing on the property and experiment with them. Last year he made 10 different types of jams and jellies.
Mr. Eagan is also a traveler and stimulated by the places he’s visited — Southeast Asia, Australia, Fiji and across the United States. He’s collected flavors over the years and brought them back to his menu.
“Right now we have mussels on the menu with very Thai flavors,” he said. “I always take something from somewhere I go, whether it’s driving cross-country or all over the world.”
Even with all the world traveling he’s done, sometimes cooking for his friends is the greatest pleasure for Mr. Eagan. His dream meal is catching a striped bass, baking it whole in a salt cask and cracking it open tableside.
Straight from the sea to his plate, Mr. Eagan embraces his Island and doesn’t forget where he comes from.
“I never thought I’d be where I am right now today, at the age of 27, to be honest,” he said. “But I’m going for it and I love every minute of it.”