Nantucket waterman Neil Cocker passed away on Saturday, August 12th, 2023, at Faulkner Hospital in Boston. He was 72. His many friends and acquaintances were dumb-struck by the news of his passing. To many, Neil had always seemed so … indestructible. He had been on-island for over 50 years and was well and widely known, and much loved.
Neil started working on Nantucket during the summer of 1972, and by 1976 had settled in as a year-round resident. In the late 1970s, he started bay scalloping on-island during the wintertime commercial season, and spent almost 46 years at it, operating his shell-fishing business from a variety of small boats in the 18 to 22-foot range, fishing the inshore waters of the island. He remained a gregarious and tireless fixture in the bay scallop industry until nearly the end of the 2022-23 season.
The island's commercial bay scalloping season is a regulated winter fishery, each season opening on November 1st, and closing on the last day of March. In the early part of the scallop season, Neil usually had a second worker, or culler, on board. Most of his summertime commercial shell-fishing was conducted alone, or with friends who were looking for a little time on the water.
During the summer, he fished for quahogs, or hard clams, and blue mussels. Hard clams are used for the island's locally made quahog chowder, and, in their smallest sizes, are served on the half-shell at raw bars, like oysters. Medium-sized quahogs, served stuffed, baked, and topped with a little bacon, become the famous old New England shoreside dish … Clams Casino.
Neil was one of the first to develop a market for blue mussels on-island in the late 1970s, and they have since become a ubiquitous and familiar offering for many of New England's coastal eateries.
There are three major categories of people who produce food for people to eat; farmers, ranchers … and fishermen. Fewer and fewer working individuals or families in this country fall into those categories. Neil Cocker was the sole proprietor of his small enterprise to produce food … as a fisherman. In this present era of gigantic agri-businesses and factory-ship-fish processing vessels, the lone commercial fisherman is a nearly invisible class of food supplier.
Neil Cocker was anything but invisible to the kitchens of Nantucket's restaurants and the island's fish markets. He had a long early career on-island as a summertime cook and chef in several island restaurants. His first cooking gig was at The Relaxed Lobster in 1972. In 1975, Neil worked as a line cook and later chef at the newly re-opened Skipper Restaurant on Steamboat Wharf, a classic old lobster house serving 350 to 400 dinners a night. In the mid-1980s, he was hired as chef of The Tavern Restaurant and managed their hectic kitchen at the heart of Nantucket's waterfront for several summers. Neil developed the Tavern's famous clam chowder, winning two summer's worth of awards for best clam chowder on Nantucket. His seafood chowder recipe was legendary as well, and much sought after.
He also helped as an advisor to the opening of several, at the time, brand new restaurants: the Lobster Trap and the Rose & Crown. For well over 30 years, Neil often assisted Susan Warner's Nantucket Clambake Company with their food handling, cooking, and grilling during her clambakes and countless catered events.
Neil developed several off-island selling accounts for his bay scallops. Most notably, the Clyde's Restaurant Group in Washington, DC, photographed Neil out scalloping for their public space advertising. The DC Metro had large lighted signs showing Neil scalloping, on a cold winter day, in the subways all over the nation's capital. A large copy of that photo overlaid with Clyde's advertising is still hanging on the wall down at Stubby's on Broad Street in Nantucket.
Neil was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, where his father had moved the family from their native home in Massachusetts to take a job with Bell Laboratories. The family later moved to the Jersey shore in 1962, to a house a stone's throw from the saltwater Shrewsbury River, and only 300 yards from the Atlantic surf, where Neil learned early to swim, surf, sail, and fish.
He graduated from Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School, followed by several years at Old Dominion University, Monmouth College, and Franklin Pierce College.
One spring day after college had let out for the summer, Neil was persuaded to come to Nantucket by a neighborhood friend who was on his way to the island for the summer. Always one to spot the opportunity lurking in each day for a good nap, he spent most of the trip from New Jersey to The Cape sleeping in the back of his buddy's pickup truck. His Napper Valley time, as he liked to call it. They boarded the car ferry to Nantucket in Woods Hole and arrived on-island in the summer of 1972. It was the beginning of his love affair with the island.
Nantucket's yearly ebb and flow of activity, with businesses opening and closing seasonally, tends to produce working people who have developed a rather varied collection of skills during their working careers. Residents often have a chance to switch jobs several times a year, to try out new and different vocations. Neil Cocker became a vigorous example of the type.
He became one of Nantucket's most competent watermen, already being an expert sailor who had been racing sailboats since he was in grade school. As an adult, he competed in the Master's Laser tournaments and traveled to Greece and New Zealand to compete in the "Laser Worlds". During his early twenties, Neil spent an entire winter crewing on the racing yacht Jemel, competing in the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit. He also crewed on cruising sailboats, doing boat deliveries offshore to Bermuda and the Caribbean. He crewed on the commercial scallop dragger Sankaty out of Nantucket for a couple trips as the ship's cook and was paid a full share as a reward for his good crew meals and hard work on deck. After 2010, Neil worked at the Nantucket Yacht Club during the summer, wrangling their small racing fleet and equipment, and helped run the long week of events and sailboat races during the island's Race Week in mid-August.
Neil was widely known for his generosity and helpfulness, professional cooking chops, competence on the water, boundless energy, and his endearing habit of bestowing nicknames … that seemed to stick. He mentored many young people in the restaurant business and on the water fishing, clamming, scalloping, musseling, sailing, and surfing. When visiting friends for dinner, he often arrived with fresh Nantucket seafood in hand as his contribution to the meal. He could open scallops, littlenecks, or oysters and keep up with the best of the island's expert raw bar shuckers.
Neil considered his wealth to be his many friends and acquaintances. But, with all that he was capable of, and all that he had experienced and achieved, he believed his greatest accomplishments, the greatest loves of his life … were his daughter and son, Maisie and Gillis. Neil's last words on this planet were, "Tell my kids I love them."
Neil is survived by his daughter, Maisie Cocker, son Gillis Cocker, and brother David Cocker, all of Nantucket. He was predeceased by his father, John T. Cocker, and his mother, Barbara J. Cocker.
A celebration of his life will be held at the Nantucket Yacht Club on September 6th, from 11:00 to 4:00.
Donations in Neil's memory can be made to the GoFundMe website for Maisie and Gillis Cocker's college tuition funding. Click here to donate or search the GoFundMe site for "Neil Cocker's children."