Where good stories get told
by Sydney Bender
Tina Miller drives down Barnes Road one night in the middle of a rainstorm. Up ahead, she spots what she thinks is a little boy holding a skateboard, sticking his thumb out and hoping to catch a ride. With two children of her own and an Island alliance for people growing up on the Vineyard (she and her best friend hitched all the time back when the Vineyard was a “different time”), Tina pulls over to offer him a lift.
“But,” Tina says, telling this story in her home kitchen, “then I realized it wasn’t a little boy,” raising a finger in the air and turning down the volume of her voice, eyebrows raised, Tina whispers the punch line of her story: “It wasn’t a little boy with a skateboard…It was an old man with a chainsaw!”
Tina is a good storyteller. And she’s just as modest about telling stories as she is about her cooking. Her stories finish just like a good meal: they make you smile, linger in your mind, satisfy some sort of craving and fill a void you didn’t realize was there.
The daughter of a Black Dog restaurant founder, food found its way into Tina’s life early on. Tina’s father raised her and her two brothers alone, working around the clock and not always able to fill the home refrigerator, let alone his kid’s stomachs. “I love to make people happy through food,” Tina writes in her cookbook, and her stories make this undeniable.
Her food is simple but, boy, it is good.
“Food is like, not something you can walk away from. The food thing—you get out of control with it. The food thing—I love it,” Tina says, in her signature raspy yet feminine voice many have heard on the baseball field, where she is always cheering on her sons, or during a live taping for a Plum TV show, where Tina serves as the General Manager for the Emmy-Award winning network.
Add mother to her list of jobs and Tina isn’t too different from any superhero we read about in comic books. “Like every Vineyarder, you wear a million hats, have a million jobs,” Tina says. “Adaptability is survival. I believe in chapters, the ability to reinvent and jump on your feet again.” And on the Vineyard, Tina knows nothing is ever out of reach, especially in the food world. “People can deny it all they want. Most of us like to feel like we accomplished something and you get that with food.”
In 1987, Tina worked as a gardener and general multitasker in Chilmark for the Whiting family. She grew up spending hours on different Island farms, where she asked and answered questions about where exactly the food she was eating was coming from. At the age of 16, she relished memories of L’Essart, a sheep farm in central France. Her résumé would probably best be represented as a map, where she could mark all the farms and restaurants she’s worked at with pushpins.
Tina received her diploma in French Cuisine at the Ecole de Cusine La Varenne, and it was only after being educated there that she began calling herself a chef. She was the owner and chef of two popular Vineyard restaurants, The Roadhouse in West Tisbury on State Road (1989-1992) and Café Moxie on Main Street in Vineyard Haven (1998-2001). Ironically, both restaurants burned down, but this was after Tina left.
And perhaps the most important thing in Tina’s life is why she left the restaurant business: her family. The only thing Tina loves more than food is friendship and family, which, she says, are interchangeable. “You know you choose your family, right?” Tina asks.
When Tina was running The Roadhouse, she hired all her friends and family. “I did all the stuff they don’t recommend doing and it was crazy successful. It was a weird moment in time. It was magic.”
Henry and Theo, her sons with her husband, Steve, are the center of Tina’s world. “When you have kids, they suddenly become everything,” Tina says. Catch up with her on Main Street and this proud mom will give you a quick slideshow of her sons on her iPhone (the modern day wallet picture-fold-out way of showing off children). “They are my loves,” Tina boasts. And whether she’s heating up a sauce-pan with bacon, looking for a place to showcase a five-leaf clover her son found outside, or yelling out the door to make sure nobody forgets sunscreen, Tina’s number one kitchen principle is always present: “You need constant humor in the kitchen.”
So Tina tells stories in her kitchen, she laughs and puts on lipstick (Rouge Coco Shine by Chanel is her favorite) and cooks and hangs out with her friends and family. In the summer, Tina takes all the fun outside and her family enjoys a little alfresco dining. “We eat outside all summer long,” she says grinning, “and we eat all summer.”
Before picking up the plates to enjoy her cookbook creations outside, Tina stops to finish her story.
“Oh! So I had to pick up that man and give him a ride.” She says, holding an airchainsaw (similar to an air guitar but more dangerous) and nodding her head. “I mean he was soaking wet!” She gave the old man hitchhiker a short ride, or at least this is the story she tells in her kitchen.
“So I picked him up and he was really polite,” she continues. He called her ma’am and said thank you and after all, he was just looking for a ride out of the rain. But today, even if the Vineyard is a little behind on everything, Tina knows the Island is a different place. “So I pulled over after driving a little to drop him and his chainsaw off, and said I had to take a turn in the other direction to pick my kid up from tennis,” she said.
And to make the story better, just like she makes all her simple dishes from her cookbook more exceptional, she adds a little Tina Miller touch to it. Laughing and beaming Tina leans in and whispers, “My kid has never played tennis.”