Island Profile: Acting was in her blood, but cooking was in her heart

Carrie Mitchum has traveled a very long and winding road. Beginning life in Los Angeles, with stops along the way in Spain, North Africa, Asia, Paris and also Alabama during Hurricane Katrina, this young woman, who is now the head chef at SALT, the restaurant at the Island Boatyard, hopes to make Shelter Island a permanent home.

She was born in Los Angeles into a theatrical family. Her mother’s uncle was Harold Lloyd, the silent film star who was famous for his comedic antics. Her grandfather was actor Robert Mitchum and she has many fond memories of him as not at all the hard-hitting tough guy he so often portrayed.

“He was very poetic and loved horses and took me to the race track. He used to pretend he was a monster and chase me and my brothers and my sister all over the house. He was very playful and very fun. When we’d go out, we couldn’t figure out why people were coming up to him and tugging at him and asking for his autograph. It didn’t really register. To me he was just my family.”

Her father is Christopher Mitchum, one of Robert’s two sons, a martial arts action star specializing in karate. “My family moved to Spain when I was five,” she remembered, “and we lived there until I was 12. We traveled all over eastern Europe and Asia and northern Africa because that’s where the work was. It was interesting. It was the family business, really, and growing up on movie sets with my dad was really fun.”

But going to 18 schools before she had turned 13 wasn’t so much fun. Finally she was sent back to the States for boarding school. She attended Stoneleigh-Burnham in Greenfield, Massachusetts and loved it. After graduation in 1986, she went on to Dartmouth College, which, she says, “was a mistake. It didn’t really prepare me for the things I like in life.” Her two passions were acting and cooking. She left after a year, moved back to Los Angeles and landed a role in a new daytime series, “The Bold and the Beautiful,” continuing there for five years through 1993 and then making films through 1997. “I tried acting first,” she said of her career choice, because it was the family craft.

But after 10 years at it, she turned her sights on her second passion: cooking. Although she thought of herself as a “good home cook,” she knew she wanted more. She left Los Angeles, moved to Paris and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu and loved it. After graduation, she traveled for a time, taking cooking jobs as she went, before returning to the States in 2005 when she began work cooking for film catering companies.

She was with one of these companies, working on a film in coastal Alabama, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The caterers were asked to stay and cater for the relief effort. “We were in a men’s camp with 2,000 men, 15 of us doing three meals a day after Katrina hit. Then Rita hit” in western Louisiana and eastern Texas.

Rita, another 2005 storm, was the fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. The crew was sent to Beaumont, Texas, again catering in a camp, again living in tents, again cooking seven days a week, three meals a day.

In the years that followed, Carrie returned to Los Angeles to complete the academic part of her Cordon Bleu degree in the school’s branch there. When she finally finished the class work and obtained her associate’s degree, she went back to catering. In 2007, while working a film in Louisiana, she met another caterer, liked him a lot and moved back with him to his home in Memphis, Tennessee, where they opened a restaurant. Things went well until last year, when they had a falling out.

She moved back to Los Angeles. “I wasn’t sure where to go, or what to do. Then Jack Kiffer, who was a family friend, said I should come here and cook for the summer.” But she found working at the Dory not “a good fit.” She was planning to go back to Los Angeles when she heard that Keith Bavaro and Allie Bevilacqua, owners of SALT, were looking for a chef. “I sat down with them, we talked, said let’s see if it’s a good fit. It’s worked.”

The summer went really well for her, she said. The restaurant has been crowded all season and they hope to stay open until December. “Allie and Keith have a lot of friends here on the Island, a really good local following. Allie was at Planet Bliss and Keith was at Sweet Tomato’s, so people know them and it’s really more like family.”

Carrie said she was excited now about fall, developing a new bar menu and preparing for a number of big parties that are planned — including a wedding rehearsal dinner for 140 people that took place last weekend. “As for the fall menu, she said she was thinking “a little spice instead of bland, a little African influence that comes from having traveled there. I like curry and using almonds, nuts, a little heat in the food. I like garlic a lot and braised foods. You can integrate fresh herbs nicely when you’re braising something.” She’s also excited about new things. Her sous chef, Darren Boyle from Montauk, has taught her a lot about local fish and she’s just learned how to shuck oysters.

She said she also was looking forward to the winter, here on her own. She loves the cold, having gone to school in “New England weather.” She isn’t worried about finances. Working in films, she pointed out, teaches you how to budget because work and no work are always intersecting. She did write and sell a screenplay, which is “still sitting on Billy Crystal’s shelf somewhere” and thinks a Shelter Island winter would be the ideal time to try her hand at that again.

As for acting and Los Angeles, “I don’t miss it at all,” she said. “I think being away from it is really nice. It’s kind of  a bittersweet memory but actually being there is kind of weird. Especially after living in Memphis and being part of a smaller community and making my own path, which no one else in my family has done. It’s really nice. I can go into the Eagle Deli in the morning and they know me and they know I like coconut drinks and they know my name and I like the feeling of community.”

It sounds like she’s here to stay.