Give me the right group of folks and I’ll talk politics, bathroom cabinet painting or subjunctive mood (look it up). It wasn’t until Covid Years that talking about kitchen knives and the relative merits of Mexican or Italian oregano became an actual thing.
That’s when Key West chef Martha Hubbard started online cooking classes that not only passed the time but taught me salt didn’t mean just the kind in a blue box with an umbrella.
I’ve been cooking since I was 10, which without having you do the math, is a really, really long time. But there’s a wide river between cooking and, well, COOKING. Having Martha whisper in my ear or point a giant butcher knife at me gave me courage to open the refrigerator and the cabinet and make something edible from just what was there.
Ranger Ed’s been known to quip that Covid will be memorable for Chef Martha’s having upped his menu choices. With her new cooking workbook, “Old Island Eats,” Martha combines her love for traditional Key West recipes, her years of experience and her joy in feeding friends. Using the workbook is like having Martha whispering in your ear, minus the knife.
Martha, culinary director at Key West’s Williams Hall and executive chef for Unity Table, cooks for friends. Longtime friends like the ones she made 50 years ago in Brussels and the friends she met just yesterday when they came to a “counter dinner” at Unity Table.
For Martha, a nibble pulled together from whatever is in her pantry, her refrigerator or her imagination and then paired with a perfect sip of wine is as carefully curated as her layered, gloriously extravagant multi-course dinners in the Unity Table’s perfect chef’s kitchen.
There are few on the island who haven’t brushed in some fashion alongside Martha Hubbard. She’s the White Street Pier’s unofficial photographer, found most mornings before sunrise on that concrete quarter-mile extending into the Atlantic Ocean.
She’s the chef who helped open 915 in the Key West way-back years. She did two five-year tours at Louie’s Backyard. She donates her Key West cooking talents and time to countless not-for-profits and to preserving traditional island recipes and food culture.
She makes frequent character appearances in Key West novels as a photographer, a cook and a murder suspect. Writers know that name-dropping Martha Hubbard somewhere in their pages is just plain good for business. (I do it, too, obviously.)
Martha Hubbard: The simplicity of food
Martha Hubbard wasn’t a child cook and says she didn’t join what she calls the “restaurant circus” until 1987, when she first picked up a cooking knife. But memories of food began in Brussels in 1972, where she lived for two-and-a-half years when her dad’s job moved the family to Belgium.
“The circus for me,” she continues, describing her early restaurant work, “was instant community and permission to finally obsess over chefs and their styles of food, techniques, pairings of flavors and the pretty plating.
“Reality was a bit more harsh than my unicorn idea of my chosen profession,” she adds ruefully.
“I fought for my positions in restaurants, name-dropped and took pay cuts to work in some of the top kitchens in the country. Cooking has been a handy profession to see the world. I’ve cooked all over this planet and haven’t even scratched the surface.”
Decades working in restaurant kitchens drained her and it was, she says, time to “get out.” That meant trading Portland, Oregon, for Key West in 2001. A month after she arrived on the island, Martha was back in the circus. It was, she said, a “hard habit to break.”
Martha made significant decisions about the directions of her life and career during the almost two decades between 2001 and 2015, when she took a leap of faith and joined Eden and Bill Brown as they opened Isle Cook on Whitehead Street.
“I wasn’t sure what my next act would be,” she says. “As the universe has its own sense of humor, I jumped off the cliff and landed at Isle Cook. What were the chances of this working out?”
But it did. She began to sort her personal style and perspective of foods.
“The most surprising aspect,” she says, “is how much I love conveying the simplicity of food. I enjoy helping people understand cooking and cooking in their realm of flavors and styles. It all comes down to techniques and methods. If you have those firmly under your belt, you can begin to see the endless possibilities.”
When in 2018, Maria and Robert Sharpe bought Isle Cook and rolled it into Williams Hall, Martha followed to develop Unity Table’s outreach of food and wine tastings, private group meals and cooking classes — all designed to create that sense of community that comes of breaking bread with friends and family.
My signed copy of “Old Island Eats” already has cooking stains and scribbles. Every time I pull out the recipe for Queen of All Puddings I hear Chef Martha in my ear: “Go ahead. Put both cans in there. Mush it up good. No, with your hands. Trust me. It’ll work.” I did. It does.