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Island profile: Seth Nathan, a chef rising from his roots

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Seth Nathan at Isola in the Heights.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Seth Nathan at Isola in the Heights.

Seth Nathan is the executive chef at Isola, a restaurant in the Heights. Halfway through his first winter on Shelter Island, he’s still — remarkably — smiling. For a guy born in Ojai, California, and raised in Malibu, staying warm and cheerful in a Northeastern winter is no minor accomplishment.

He points out that it’s been a rough winter in SoCal, as well. The area ravaged by the largest wildfire in California history is still home for most of his family, including his aunt and uncle who had 15 minutes to get out of their house, which was reduced to ash.

“It is a part of life there,” Seth said.

When he was 6, his parents split up. He and his father settled into a beachside community called Paradise Cove, where his father still lives (and surfs). Seth’s mother stayed in Ventura, where Seth’s grandfather, Jaime Santana, ran a popular bakery — a place that had been supplying wedding cakes and challah to the community since the 1960s. Seth had his run of the place.

A 6th-grade chemistry class on the science of chicken parmesan stimulated the boy’s first solo foray in the kitchen. After taking copious notes on the recipe, not the chemical principles it demonstrated, Seth found all the necessary ingredients on hand when he got home from school, and decided to surprise his working, single father with dinner.

“I can’t tell you if it was any good,” Seth said. “And I didn’t do well in chemistry, but the science of cooking has always intrigued me.”

Chicken parmesan is now a regular item on the menu at Isola, and judging from its popularity, Seth overcame any difficulty he may have had with the recipe when he was 11.

In spite of his early interest in cooking, Seth bounced around after graduating from high school, thinking about culinary school, but never quite getting there. It took an accidental visit to San Sebastián on the Spanish coast to lead him to a career as a chef.

“It was a wrong turn that turned out right,” he said.

In the summer of 2000 while traveling around Europe with friends, the group rented Vespas to tour the area near Biarritz, France. Seth, who was not familiar with roundabouts, got disoriented as his friends rode off in one direction, and he rode in the other.

He found himself on a highway, crossed the border into Spain, and arrived at a beach in San Sebastián at sunset, where he felt something special about the place. “That night I made it back somehow,” he recalled, “and told my friends, we have to go there.”

Seth stayed for close to six years, working in a bar, and later enrolling in the Escuela de Cocina Irizar, a small, excellent culinary school with a list of prominent alumni, some of whom have become stars in the cooking world. The school is known for the internships that place its students in one of San Sebastián’s renowned restaurants for hands-on experience at the highest level.

For Seth, that meant a stint at Urepel, a family-owned restaurant with one Michelin star. The green American intern who barely spoke Spanish was put in charge of cleaning artichokes, a complex and spiny vegetable that requires knife skills and dexterity to process. His internship became a job, and he worked at Urepel for three years. “I became part of the family,” he said.

Back in Ventura for the funeral of an uncle, Seth noticed the food scene had undergone a renaissance while he was away. Farm-to-table restaurants were opening up, and even his grandfather had closed his bakery and gone into farming.

Seth stayed in Ventura, doing pop-up events, and opening restaurants using his European experience to create a menu, train a staff, and establish relationships with vendors until the new restaurant was on its feet and he could move on to the next one.

While running a wine bar in Ventura, Seth met Casey Garrison — a journalist who is now his partner — when Casey came in with a mutual friend. The friend was the one trying to get cozy with Seth, but that was not what Cupid had in mind.

“Casey and I just knew there would be something,” he said. Casey moved to Washington state and for two years they kept in touch.

When Seth agreed to open a new restaurant in a 40-room hotel in Solvang, California, he and Casey embarked on the adventure together, naming it Mad & Vin, (Danish for food and wine) and it was a hit.

In the spring of 2017, Seth heard that Brad Kitkowski was looking to hire a chef for the new restaurant he was opening on Shelter Island.

Shelter Island was not what Seth was expecting. “I expected the Hamptons,” he said. “I grew up in Malibu, so I’m familiar with that. I’m glad it’s not that.”

In April 2017, Seth and Casey got engaged, and moved to a cabin on Rocky Point Road behind the Pridwin.

Seth was delighted to find a supportive restaurant community on the Island.

“Everyone has a huge amount of pride in their establishments, and could see us as direct competition,” he said. “But we help each other out. On an island where vendors can’t always get here, if we run out of something it’s nice to know we have good neighbors.”

At Isola, Seth is finding a good match for the skills and interests he’s developed, from his 6th grade chemistry class, to Basque Country cooking to contemporary farm to table.

He’s excited by the rich variety of seafood here, including some fish he cooked with in Europe, but could not get on the West Coast, such as hake, which he prepares at Isola Basque-style with an Italian-influenced salsa verde and local littleneck clams — a dish equal parts Europe and the North Fork.

He loves to cook slow. “The technique of braising is my calling card,” he said. “There is always a lamb shank or a short rib on my menus. I’m enthralled by the science of it, the way meat will break down at the right low temperature. The change in aromas, when everything softens and gets caramelized.”

As Seth’s tattoos reveal, he’s an admirer of David Bowie. A large inked area on his chest is a portrait of Bowie as the Goblin King Jareth, from the 1986 film “Labyrinth.” The other, a lightning bolt, was added to Seth’s forearm on the day the star passed away.

“Bowie reinvented himself, but he always kept a signature,” Seth said. “It’s how I’ve fashioned my career. Ever changing but still keeping those roots.”

Lightning Round

What do you always have with you?  A photo of a Chihuahua named Peaches.

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  Rocky Point Road, leading down to the beach.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island?  San Sebastián, Spain.

Last time you were elated?  Last time I bought a plane ticket.

What exasperates you?  Lack of work ethic.

Last time you were afraid?  I’m always afraid of things not going out of the kitchen properly.

Best day of the year on Shelter Island?  The Tumbleweed Tuesday beach party, a day when all the restaurants are closed after a season of hard work.

Favorite movie or book?  The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Do you have a most-respected elected official?  I’d like to.