“I worked seven days a week, and that should have been a warning about my lifestyle to come; but instead, it opened up the world of food to me and gave me a foundation and passion for food,” Otawka says. That, combined with the beautifully grown, seasonal food served by Alice Waters at the nearby Chez Panisse, simply secured the deal.
After brief stints working in restaurants in San Francisco and San Diego, she moved to the South after finishing school and was immediately drawn to the history and specific culinary cuisine of the region, perhaps in part due to her background studying historic preservation. In 2005, Otawka moved to Athens, Georgia, where she walked into 5&10, Hugh Acheson’s acclaimed restaurant, and asked to be a prep cook. Impressing Chef Acheson with her tenacity, Whitney got the job and quickly worked her way up to sous chef. “I was lucky to be around such talent so early in my career,” Otawka says. “It was a great introduction to Southern cooking, which was all new to me, and it was the beginning of my career working with farmers.”
During her tenure, she worked simultaneously as chef de partie of Linton Hopkins’ Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta and attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta. She also staged in some of New York’s finest restaurants, including Per Se, Le Bernardin, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
In 2010, the opportunity to serve as executive chef at the prestigious Greyfield Inn came about—after she had proactively introduced herself in a letter to the owners.
“I was ready for my own kitchen and wanted to do something in a place that hadn’t yet established a strong culinary identity,” she says.
That experience was short-lived, however, as she went back to Athens in 2012 to serve as the executive chef at Farm 255, and also was executive chef at Acheson’s newly opened restaurant Cinco y Diez, in the former 5&10 space. During that time, she had the opportunity to compete in season nine of Bravo TV!’s “Top Chef,” where she felt she was able to prove herself as a seasoned cook. “Top Chef opened a lot of doors for me and was like a badge of honor,” she says. “I also developed a strong network of relationships with other chefs and like-minded individuals.”
Still, after the hustle and bustle of the show and the swift closing of Cinco y Diez—which felt so out of her control—she yearned for a return to Greyfield where she could re-establish her independence. When she returned in 2015, the move was almost romantic, as she came with her husband, Ben Wheatley, a former chef at Blackberry Farm and the chef de cuisine at Cinco y Diez. The two have worked together for almost 10 years.
“I was always guarded in the past not to create a co-chef situation, because it’s so easy to slip into the idea that the main chef is a man and I didn’t want to be overlooked in the kitchen,” she says. “But we have always worked together well: I’m a little more talkative, but he’s very business-oriented. If I have a vision, he can fine-tune it.”
While Chef Otawka helms the day-to-day operations of the kitchen, they work together on the menu. Otawka also looks over the dining area and other parts of the business.
Every day she connects with the farm manager to see what’s ready for harvest, saving the best of the loot for her elaborate dinners. At breakfast, she might serve steel-cut oats with poached pears and salted pecans. A simple roast turkey sandwich with delicate lettuces is a favorite for the picnic lunches. Dinner entrées are always inventive, like Georgia shrimp lightly marinated, grilled over oak and hickory, and served with a salad mix of heirloom tomato, pepper relish, and various greens like Appalachian cress, which is similar to watercress. In the cooler months, she’s made a simple chicken and rice soup with heirloom red rice, hakori turnips, and filet beans from the garden, or she’s used dandelion greens as the base for stewed, buttermilk-tenderized chicken and a topping of chicken leg confit.
“I don’t like to make things too finicky or too avant-garde,” Otawka says. “I like to approach food from more of a rustic simplicity, taking classic dishes and creating a more refined version of them.”
The highlight of her career came when she prepared lunch for special guest Jacques Pépin and he loved it. She made roasted chicken thighs with braised hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, green garlic, and chervil, along with crispy potatoes tossed in salsa verde and preserved lemon, and a little salad of petit greens, sorrel, ice lettuce, roasted baby beets, Mokum carrots, and green goddess dressing. For dessert, she served Meyer lemon pudding cakes with chamomile cream. “He compared my cooking to that of his mother and aunt in France,” she says. “For me, there is no greater compliment.”