Meet Whitney Otawka, the Wild-at-Heart Chef on Cumberland Island
On pastoral Cumberland Island, chef Whitney Otawka celebrates coastal Georgia's fertile land and bountiful waters.
In Cumberland Island, a rustic Eden off the coast of southern Georgia, chef Whitney Otawka found the perfect intersection of her particular interests: colleagues at the forefront of the culinary zeitgeist, and food with deep cultural roots. The island's history and unfettered natural beauty—live oaks dripping Spanish moss, undeveloped white beaches harboring hundreds of feral horses, and landmarks such as Dungeness, a ruined 19th-century Carnegie mansion—drew Otawka to Cumberland first as a vacationer, and then as a young chef with the "gumption," she says, to ask for an executive chef position in 2010 at the prestigious Greyfield Inn.
A Berkeley grad with an anthropology degree and experience in professional kitchens working for superstar chefs such as Hugh Acheson and Linton Hopkins, Otawka had found herself at the crossroads of her shared passions. "It was a tenuous time," she says. "I was considering going back to school to get my master's in archaeology, but I kept getting romanced back into the kitchen."
At Greyfield, Otawka has created a near self-sustaining ecosystem along Cumberland Island's 40 square miles. A 1½-acre organic garden yields most of the inn's produce. An onsite apiary provides honey for the restaurant. And the menu centers on the freshest seafood pulled from local waters.
"There are so many things that go into that definition of "coastal Southern food,"" Otawka says. "When people think of the Lowcountry, they don't necessarily think of Georgia like they do South Carolina. But we also have the influence of [nearby] Amelia Island, now the hub of the modern-day shrimping industry." Greyfield guests may open their picnic lunches to find those wild shrimp in Otawka's Southern twist on the New England lobster roll, lightly tossed with a creamy dressing and tucked into soft buns with crisp Bibb lettuce from the gardens.
Related: How to Make a Classic Shrimp Boil:
College anthropology major inspired by: A childhood infatuation with Indiana Jones
Food epiphany: Shopping at famed indie supermarket Berkeley Bowl as an undergrad
You might have seen her on: Top Chef: Texas (season 9)
Eliminated for: "Potato gratin was the dish, but the real culprit was fatigue."
Make Her Recipe
Otawka's Southern Shrimp Rolls bring a New England favorite down South. Take note from Otawka’s local leanings and seek out the freshest shrimp available, then serve on lightly toasted buns.
Recipe: Southern Shrimp Rolls