To The Power Of Tea

A Californian chef cooking in the South considers the place of tea.

October 26, 2016 ‚óŹ 2 min read

This story was sponsored by our brand partners at Pure Leaf.

About forty people live on Georgia’s Cumberland Island, one of a hundred some-odd islands floating off the Southeastern coast of the United States.

About half of those residents make up the staff of Greyfield Inn, where Whitney Otawka and her husband Ben Wheatley command the kitchen of a house built in 1901, which belongs to descendants of a guy you may have heard of named Carnegie.  

In 1901, the teabag had yet to be invented — give it seven more years, and ol’ Tommy Sullivan would have a light bulb moment about that— so American tea culture was still defined by loose leaves and the trappings of the Victorian-era genteel luxury. OG tea parties were serious affairs requiring serious spreads; croquettes and cutlets, meat and fish and cheese all had a place at the table. So did squinting at tea leaves and imagining the future.    

Western tea has always found its place as a companion to a well-crafted menu, and while we may have lost the narrative for a second there, the resurgence of our collective attention may help get it back. However devilish you may find the moniker of “foodie,” it signals devoted interest —which continues to move the boundaries of menus.     

“If you look at the way the food industry is shifting and moving right now, it's for the better in so many ways,” Otawka says. “It makes our food scene so much more interesting.”  

She’s fresh off a trip to neighboring Florida, where she sat in on a Chinese tea ceremony for the first time.    

“I've seen it and I've heard about it but I've never gone through that experience. The way they brew different leaves to release difference flavors is this elegant, meditative process. Taking the breaths, taking the time,” she explains. “There's a realization that a lot of Americans ‘don't have the time’ to approach tea that way, but how do we take this traditional style of brewing tea and bring it into modern culture? That’s the question we’re trying to explore.”  

In the part of the country she now calls home, sweet tea is a well-established and unshakable cultural icon. But for Otawka, it was the presentation and range of flavors in a pot of genmaicha — Japanese green tea steeped with roasted grains of brown rice — she tasted ten years ago that sparked a gravitational pull to tea and all its potential.  

Upholding the virtues of well-sourced ingredients extends far past the menu, thanks in large part to the craft movements in both beer and coffee, and tea in the modern dining room is increasingly an exercise in not just mood, but intent. The desire to transcend and connect to another place or time is an impulse familiar both to chefs and tea-drinkers; where one creates, the other curates. As a result, the most thrilling moves in the kitchens of today are the ones that drill down into the specifics of a technique or an ingredient — making tea’s depth and versatility certainly the most appealing to a chef’s creative agenda.  

“There's room for tea to improve in our society in so many ways, just by taking the different cultural contexts and weaving it into the cuisine,” Otawka says, from somewhere on the edge of the sea. “As chefs, we have a responsibility to continue that education for people. The more we expose our clientele to quality teas, the more people will demand it.”