The Limpopo is a river in Botswana. It is also the name of a doughnut served at State Road Restaurant in West Tisbury. But this is not just any doughnut as anyone who as eaten one, or 30, say, in a week-long binge will attest. It is the perfect doughnut.
Brown and slightly crispy on the outside. A brioche dough interior that is neither too dry nor too moist. And a constellation of sugar crumbs coating the outside, sweet but not cloying. To call this a mere doughnut would be like calling your dog just an another animal. It would not be right.
Naming rights for this pastry go to Mary Kenworth, who with her husband, Jackson, own State Road Restaurant. “It [the name] was in a book that I was reading and I loved the name so much I kept thinking it would be so great to live there and be able to say Limpopo everyday,” Mrs. Kenworth said. “So we decided to find something we thought would become a beloved bakery item.”
Names are important, but ultimately food will be judged on its taste. And the bragging rights for this go to Rose Sarja, the pastry chef at State Road.
A glance at any cookbook reveals ingredients. However, the ingredients to making the perfect Limpopo are not found in any cookbook. And even if they were this could not conjure up what makes this pastry, not to mention all the other treats and desserts Ms. Sarja creates daily for the restaurant, so delicious. That’s because a chef’s creation is never just a set of stock ingredients. What really goes into the mixing bowl, so to speak, is the chef’s life story, the full menu of experiences, mentors and, for Rose Sarja, the bold leaps of faith into the unknown which allowed her to keep growing as a chef and as a person.
Her story begins, as it often does for chefs, in the kitchen watching her mother cook. “Growing up, Mom made everything. She made all of our bread. We never, ever bought bread. That was a huge influence on my life,” she said.
And then, of course, the next step is extensive study in political theory. Excuse me?
“I had no idea I wanted to do this [cook] or could do this. I studied political science with a specialty in political theory,” she admitted.
After graduate school, Ms. Sarja moved to Brooklyn and began working on political campaigns. She also did community development work there, helping to bring businesses to impoverished neighborhoods. She was now in her late 20s. The work was interesting and rewarding. But it didn’t completely fulfill her. It wasn’t organic to her nature.
Sept. 11, 2001. A time, especially for New Yorkers, of intense emotions. A time of realization that life could be fleeting. For Ms. Sarja it was a time finally to dare ponder that vital but so often unasked question: What is it that I really want to do with my life?
“I guess I had been playing with the idea of trying this profession [cooking] but I didn’t really know what to do. I had already been through several stages of school and I didn’t want to go back to school before I had tried it. So I thought it would be smart to just jump in.”
A friend of a friend introduced her to the owner of a small Austrian bistro in Park Slope, Brooklyn, called Cafe Steinhof. The man had an opening and took a chance on Ms. Sarja. No experience, but already her passion for the craft was showing.
The pay was so low she couldn’t survive for long; after five months she had to say goodbye. She applied for a job at Cucina, a grande dame of an Italian restaurant in the neighborhood. But because she needed to earn a livable wage, not something an inexperienced cook could expect, she applied for a job as a server. During the interview she let slip what she really wanted to do. She wanted to cook.
The interviewer was Mark Straussman, a renowned chef who had made a name for himself in Manahattan with restaurants such as Campagna, Coco Pazzo and Fred’s located in Barney’s. After hearing Ms. Sarja speak about her dream he walked her back to the kitchen and gave her his very own chef’s coat.
“If this is what you want to do, then do it,” he said.
Ms. Sarja worked with the head pastry chef at Cucina and learned the art of plating, the service part of the job involving executing the food orders as they come in. After that it was on to a restaurant called Bistro St. Marks, where she began working on the production side of the restaurant business, in other words, creating the food. But although the food was delicious, the desserts tended to stay the same. A complacence or rut had settled in.
“Finally, I said I’m tired of this. Why don’t we do something different. And they said, well go for it. You figure it out.”
Ms. Sarja began experimenting, essentially teaching herself the pastry chef’s craft by trial and error. The restaurant was open to her experimentations and she flourished.
But after awhile she began to feel unsettled. She had discovered what she wanted to do; creating pastries felt as natural and life giving as breathing. But she also knew she was far too green to be leading the way. She needed a mentor.
She looked across the river to Manhattan, the final testing ground for so many professions. As the time-honored cliche goes, if you can make it there you can make it anywhere. Although she had been working in kitchens for over two years, she still didn’t have many solid contacts. But when you know what you want to do, really and truly know it to your core, the idea that there are any boundaries seems to evaporate. To be sure, there is still fear and nervousness; you just don’t pay those feelings any mind.
“I just felt so driven to find the right job,” Ms. Sarja said.
She made copies of her resume, dressed in her finest outfit and began cold calling, literally knocking on the doors of the handful of restaurants she felt could teach her what she wanted to know.
One of the restaurant doors she knocked on was Babbo, Mario Batali’s famed place in Greenwich Village. Head pasty chef Gina DePalma talked with Ms. Sarja, saw something in her and introduced her to Dan Barber, who was then in the beginning stages of his restaurant celebrity. He owned Blue Hill in New York city and was about to open Blue Hill/Stone Barns in Tarrytown. Mr. Barber, at the time, was at the cutting edge of the farm-to-table movement. He had Ms. Sarja come in and cook at his restaurant for a three-night trial. She earned her place on his team.
“That experience was a pivotal part of my career. It was incredible to be able to go to Union Square Market, the farmers’ market there, and find great fruit and take it back to the restaurant and think up creative ways of using quince. I don’t think I had even heard of quince until I started working there. It really helped shape the way I think about food and my own philosophy on how I approach dessert,” she said.
It was also demanding. She would arrive at work around 10 a.m. and stay until one or two in the morning.
After about a year and a half, she moved on to Grammercy Tavern and then to Per Se, Thomas Keller’s four-star restaurant in Columbus Circle. To keep learning you need to keep moving and experiencing different kitchens, absorbing what you can and then pushing yourself to take another leap into the unknown. At Per Se, Miss Sarja baked bread. She did this for two and a half years with a stint in Paris as part of the company’s scholarship program. Then they offered her the head bread-baking position. Prestige, plenty of pay, a company on the rise that knew how to treat its employees.
She turned them down.
“At the time I had the sense that I just needed to try something else. It was a heart-wrenching decision for me. But I decided ultimately, and it happens sometimes in this industry, if you feel like you’re not growing or learning you come to a standstill. I felt like I really wanted to take a leap into the unknown,” she said.
Hello Martha’s Vineyard.
About this same time, Mary and Jackson Kenworth were in the planning stages for State Road and were looking for a pastry chef. They advertised on Craig’s List.
“Their advertisement was perfectly worded to attract someone like me focused on seasonal and farm-to-table food. I heard back from Jackson in about an hour,” she recalled.
They made a date to meet at a coffee shop in New York city. For the Kenworths, Ms. Sarja sounded great on the phone, but they wanted to make the most of the interview opportunity.
“[Mary] said why don’t you have her pick out the place and that will give us an insight as to who she is and what she likes,” Jackson recalled. “Rose found a cafÃ© in Manhattan and it was off the beaten track. We sat down and had coffee and tea and then Rose actually brought out some of her desserts that she produced. She came equipped. She just went ahead and did it. I don’t know how we got away with it but we tasted them in the cafÃ©.”
They offered Ms. Sarja the job as head pastry chef.
She arrived on the Vineyard last spring. Now a little over a year later, with all her moving from restaurant to restaurant do those who have grown to love her baking have anything to fear? After all, prior to coming to the Island to work and live, Ms. Sarja had only experienced it as a day-tripper, one three-hour glimpse many years ago.
“I love being here,” she exclaimed. “I’ve had such a blast being in a place where you can be outside. I have a dog, her name is Lucy. I have good friends and time for them now.”
Excellent. Now how about some advice for home cooks not ready to commit their lives to the kitchen but still yearning to make the best tasting meal or dessert they can?
“Just be fearless. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid of not being perfect,” she said.
On Sunday, Oct. 24, at 6 p.m. State Road Restaurant will host a special local meal to support Island Grown Schools (IGS). The food will be sourced from Island farms; beer and wine is included. Tickets are $100, with all proceeds going to IGS. Tickets are available at State Road and are limited. For more details, visit islandgrown.org