Every summer, the Island Shakespeare Festival brings a taste of culture to Whidbey residents and visitors.
At this year’s plays, that taste is both literary and literal, courtesy of South Whidbey Commons Cafe cooking staff.
Led by David Phillips, known as just plain “chef” by his young crew, the dishes prepared and offered for sale are themed to the rotating plays, “Othello” and “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare and “Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen.
“It’s so wonderful to design menus for these great stories,” Phillips said. “We match the food to the style and place of the play.”
Phillips knows of what he speaks.
He studied Shakespearean literature in college and he’s a veteran globetrotter with a wide culinary repertoire.
“It’s really fun to get into the dishes for Shakespeare and Jane Austen,” said Phillips, hired to manage The Commons kitchen about 18 months ago. “We try to offer a light, medium and heavy dinner. But it changed throughout the summer.”
Among the dishes created: the Plain Jane, the Austentatious, Othello Snack Pack and Moorish Paella. (Ingredients revealed only at curtain time so as not to spoil the plot.)
Sandwiches, salads and entrees, priced $5 to $15, have proved popular perhaps because entrance to the festival continues to be “pay what you will” to make Shakespeare accessible to all.
The “play and full” menu is a welcome addition, said Peggy Juve, co-founder of the Langley festival that serves food and drinks in a large circus tent and stages its plays in a simple outdoor amphitheater.
“We’ve been wanting to do this since the beginning, selling food themed to the plays,” Juve said. “We’re delighted how it’s worked out.”
South Whidbey Commons Coffeehouse Bookstore is a nonprofit organization dedicated to being a friendly gathering spot in the center of Langley and to teaching youth the restaurant trade, including cooking, baking, barista skills and customer service.
In partnership with the South Whidbey School District, the Commons workplace training program gives middle and high school students school credit, and for some, the summer experience of toiling in a hot kitchen.
The kitchen crew on a recent Wednesday afternoon when “Twelfth Night” was on deck that evening, consisted of Caelan Boyd, 13, and twin brothers Zakris and Ezekiel Pierson. While Boyd is part of the volunteer culinary training program, the Piersons work as paid staff before heading off to college.
“I’m glad I did this,” Ezekiel Pierson said. “I’m much more comfortable in the kitchen now.”
Boyd may be too young to be paid to work, but he’s become a steady sidekick to Phillips, clearly eager to learn the tools and tricks of the trade. Asked if he wants to be a cook as a career, Boyd answers, “No, not really.”
“He could. He ran the line for two hours by himself yesterday,” Phillips said. “But I wouldn’t advise it. It’s a good fallback skill to have just in case.”
A Seattle native, Phillips got the cooking bug after being hired to wash dishes at a restaurant on Bainbridge Island at the age of 15. He quickly took to slicing, dicing, spicing and learned the cooking trade.
Phillips then traveled throughout Europe and Asia and taught English in Shanghai, China and Catalonia.
“Then I taught math and science through cooking,” he said. “That’s how I traveled the world, teaching English. Now I get to combine my two passions, cooking and teaching.”
Phillips speaks Japanese, Korean and Mandarin Chinese.
Cooking at The Commons is no easy feat. There are no commercial stoves or ovens in the converted old house because there’s no gas lines. Staff quickly learn the art of prepping in tight quarters and cooking on large hot plates.
Serving up Shakespeare also means the crew starts up a whole new round of cooking right after the lunch rush. Phillips then transports the food in warming trays to the Shakespeare festival where it’s served in to-go boxes.
Phillips’ grandmother is from Croatia where he’s also visited and tasted local dishes.
“I took old favorite recipes and learned how to make them,” he said. “One is sarmas, it’s meat, rice and vegetables wrapped in pickled cabbage.”
At Wednesday’s performance, Croatian sarmas topped the menu with a side of Dalmatian smashed potatoes and brown butter sauteed haricot verts.
The Shakespearean comedy “Twelfth Night” involves a pair of shipwrecked siblings washed up on the coast of Illyria, an ancient country turned Balkan territory.
“Illyria is now Croatia,” Phillips said. “It’s a perfect play for my grandmother’s sarmas.”
Having no stock of pickled cabbage on hand, Phillips did what all good cooks — and actors— do, improvise.
Cooking lessons at The Commons Wednesday involved the steaming of cabbage and how to properly meld and saute the perfect blend of meat, rice and spices. And figure out how to gauge enough ingredients for 35 plates.
“Alright gentlemen, everyone grab a spoon and taste,” Phillips says as his staff huddles around two steaming, overfilled saucepans. “What do you think? More vinegar, more salt?”
Moorish coffee is on the menu for every show.
“It’s with North African flavors,” Phillips said. “Cinnamon and coffee, cardamon and just a touch of cayenne.”
Theater patrons Wednesday night looked over yellow menus labeled “William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.”
In addition to Croatian sarmas ($10) were Black Forest ham and pepper jack sandwiches ($7) and Ragusan salads, sprinkled with nasturtium flowers ($5.)
At one table in the tent, Annie Schroeder and Tim Leahy of Seattle each dug into a plate of the sarmas.
“They are so tasty,” Schroeder remarked. She then admitted to knowing the cook from “way back when.”
“I was David Phillips’ nanny,” she said, laughing. “He loved to cook even when he was really, really young. I think he started with Italian sodas at age 4 and then moved onto making breakfast.”