By Bill Sterling
Kayleigh Johnson has had a love affair with the Eastern Shore since she was a little girl visiting Chincoteague annually with her family.
“I’ve always wanted to live here because I have so many good memories of visiting the Eastern Shore as a child,” said Johnson recently, sitting in the new clubhouse at the Eastern Shore Yacht and Country Club, where she is now head chef.
In addition to serving members and their guests, the Eastern Shore Yacht and Country Club is available to groups for banquets, receptions, birthday parties, and other events, although current COVID-19 restrictions limit the number of attendees.
Also, for a limited time, non-members are invited to enjoy dining out at the club on Saturday evenings and Sunday brunch.
Johnson, now 28 and no relation to Blake Johnson, the Island House owner who also handles food services at the club, finally got to the Eastern Shore in a roundabout way.
Born and raised in upstate New York, Johnson grew up in a family that owned a pizzeria and was always around food. She then took a job as a hostess at a restaurant owned by her best friend’s family and worked herself up on the staff.
She lived near one of the top culinary schools in the world — the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. — and applied. “I felt I could always find a job in the restaurant industry no matter where I lived,” said Johnson, who worked in the Hudson Valley area after graduation.
She put that theory to practice when her husband, a high-school English teacher, was recruited for a job in Iowa. “I worked as an executive pastry chef for two years and then was offered a position teaching culinary, pastry and baking arts,” said Johnson.
“When COVID-19 hit, my husband and I decided to make the move to the Eastern Shore. He is now teaching English in Northampton County, and we live in Painter, so it’s an easy drive for both of us.”
With the new clubhouse opening at the Eastern Shore Yacht and Country Club, Johnson applied for the position of head chef and started in August.
She said her style includes using seasonal and local food as much as possible. “The fresher, the better,” said Johnson, noting that the flounder, crabs, and shellfish served at the restaurant are all provided locally. “I want to locate more purveyors of produce as well,” said Johnson. “I am looking forward to winter when I can highlight citrus. I already know the seasonal cheesecake I want to introduce.”
Her menu now includes pan-seared scallops, Frenched chicken breast, and capellini a la mushroom with pesto cream sauce and a choice of chicken, scallops or shrimp added. Johnson said she favors Benedicts and has four on the brunch menu, with her favorite the house-made fennel sausage Benedict.
The lunch menu includes a variety of soups and salads, as well as several sandwiches that range from a beef or veggie burger to crab cake, chicken salad, or fried flounder.
Johnson said she believes in presenting cuts of meats in their simplest form and has received rave reviews for her burgers and steaks.
She admits COVID-19 has presented its share of challenges to the restaurant industry but she maintains a positive attitude. “We can’t dwell on the negative and can only do the best we can,” she said. “One thing people overlook is that restaurants have always had the highest standards possible for cleanliness and sanitary practices. Nothing much has changed in that regard.”
As the person who handles the staffing, ordering, and inventory, Johnson begins most days at 9 a.m. and doesn’t leave until after the restaurant closes at 9 p.m. “You know about the long hours when you get into the restaurant business. But the days don’t seem that long to me because I have a passion for preparing food, and it helps there’s often instant gratification from your customers,” she noted, adding that her boss, Blake Johnson, is the hardest working person she has ever met.
Although the Island House Restaurant handles food services at the club, Johnson said there’s very little similarity in the menus. “The people at the club have their expectations for food, and since it is a little more high-end here, I need to understand what those expectations are and meet them. So far, there has been a lot of positive feedback.”
Johnson believes food is so much more than just nourishment for the body. “Food has the power to take you somewhere and make connections, whether it’s a smell that reminds you of your grandma’s house or an ingredient that brings back a favorite memory. It’s not just the food; it’s an experience. I really enjoy being able to elevate the dining experience with the food I put out.”
For more details about planning events at ESY&CC, call Monika Bridgforth at 787-1525.