“Something I think a lot of cooks lack is an access point to nature,” says Whitney Otawka. That’s not a problem for her. As the chef at the Greyfield Inn, on Georgia’s Cumberland Island, Otawka experiences it every time she walks the hundred or so yards from her house to work on the largely uninhabited barrier island, which was once a Carnegie family winter playground. “Restaurant kitchens can be very intense. But here, when you step outside, you’re surrounded by beauty.”
Each season brings a new kind—in summer, the inn’s garden bursts with tomatoes and cucumbers, while winter brings oysters and clams ready for harvest from the wild beaches, tidal creeks, and marshes. She and her husband, Ben Wheatley, also a chef at the Greyfield, sometimes fish from the inn’s dock on the Intracoastal Waterway or wade into the Atlantic breakers with a seine net. “When we are just cooking for ourselves, it’s really nice to go out and see if we can catch a sea trout, sheepshead, or flounder,” she says. For the past two years, she has devoted most of her time away from the hotel kitchen to writing a cookbook, The Saltwater Table, which comes out this fall.
“Fish and grits was the first meal I was served on the island,” she recalls. She couldn’t have been farther from home—Otawka grew up in a small Mojave desert town, and worked her way east from California, with stops in the Georgia kitchens of Hugh Acheson and Linton Hopkins, before she boarded the ferry from Fernandina Beach, Florida, to interview for the Greyfield gig. “What I loved about it is that it was soulful and felt very authentic to the place,” she says. “Shrimp and grits is so ubiquitous. I feel like fish and grits has flown under the radar, but I find it just as satisfying, if not a little bit more so.”
This version is her tribute to that memorable meal, but she’s made it her own—building on a base of rice grits in place of the traditional hominy kind, with luxurious shrimp butter stirred into them as a nod to the familiar flavor of Lowcountry tradition.