Over the past several weeks I’ve had the chance to get to know more about Josh Lewin, Executive Chef of Beacon Hill Bistro located in the Beacon Hill Hotel. It started off like most of my interactions, with me exploring the opportunity to speak with a chef about their career. It spilled on to Twitter (back and forth about za’atar and foraging). Then, unexpectedly, it found its way to the table, eating together at a lunch pop-up held by Future Chefs Boston. The easy take away: Josh is a cool cat!
He’s also passionate about food, and about making sure that every experience, for every customer, is as good as it can be. During a formal interview, Josh and I discussed his early days with food, his view on getting started in the industry, and his own personal food memory.
Behind the Pass: Can you talk a little bit about growing up and your exposure to food when you were younger?
Josh Lewin: Sure. I could talk to you for an hour about that! My family broke up when I was young. My parents were divorced. Myself, and two younger siblings, my brother and my sister, we didn’t stay with our mother or our father. Luckily, we did stay with my aunt so that the family kind of stayed together. We used to visit my grandmother and my father every other weekend and my grandmother almost every weekend.
My grandmother happened to be a great cook. In addition to enjoying the nice feeling of people having fun around the table, she also cooked all kinds of great food. She’s Jewish from Eastern Europe, but very Americanized by this point, so just kind of a melting pot cuisine that she had. A lot of stuff made by hand. Ground meat by hand, all baking she did by hand and she just did a phenomenal job. You could smell it and the smells of food; you have these good memories behind them of the weekends with the family and getting everybody together. Never mind what was on the table, just the fact that someone had cooked for us and that we were going to have this great weekend experience made a big impression on me.
BtP: So, at what point did you realize that you had a love for food and an interest in cooking?
JL: I remember one day in particular, my first day ever working the line. I was still a kid, and had been mostly just washing dishes. One of the cooks, a middle-age guy, had a heart attack while on the line or something that morning, so they had me take over. That was my first time cooking eggs and omelets and I remember that it was fun! It’s not like it’s life or death by any means, but just for those three people that you’re working with and for those 50 people out in the dining room, you’re trying to not make any mistakes because if you do, people don’t get their breakfast and on Sunday morning after church, that’s a big deal to them. I remember the feeling of accomplishment and thinking, “Holy crap, that was really hard and we did it.” I’ve been kind of addicted to that ever since.
Like I said, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not as important as what other people might do for a living, but for those people who are sitting in your dining room, it
really is. They’ve planned sometimes a month in advance or more and you get one shot at it. They’re going to be really disappointed if it doesn’t go well and it’s beyond just tasting good. The whole choreography has to be spot-on and it’s really difficult. We always do it. We do it right every time and it still feels just as good as that first time. It kind of makes all the long hours worth it when somebody thanks you on their way out when they’re with their elderly mother or whatever the case is. This is a really special occasion for them and they want to thank you and say they appreciate it. It goes back to that first day cooking eggs.
BtP: So you touched on the idea of “choreography” in a restaurant and how you need to try and maybe strike a balance. Is a full experience really
important, from a standpoint of both service as well as the execution of the dishes?
JL: Yeah, I think so. Ultimately, there is an experience for everybody out there. I think that, from both a food and service standpoint, there’s a path for everybody, but mine was that I really wanted to have a restaurant where my 91-year-old grandmother, who doesn’t give a damn what flavored butter something is cooked with, is happy. She really just wants to have a good, comfortable experience, which doesn’t mean that the food should suffer or anything like that. So I always want to make sure that the whole
experience is great, start to finish.
BtP: Changing gears a little, did you have any culinary training or were you mostly on the job in restaurants, learning?
JL: Almost exclusively on the job. I have some really niche type culinary training where I’ve done some stuff in my personal life, like really intensive butcher and slaughtering trainings and farming stuff. In terms of a culinary education, textbook-style, this sauce, that sauce, I never really did that.
BtP: It seems to be multiple camps as far as what people think is the best way to go. How do you feel having learned more on the job has impacted your career path? Do you think that you missed out in any way from not doing culinary school or are you happy with the way things have gone?
JL: That’s a good question and I get asked that question a lot, people looking for advice or applying for jobs or apologetically telling me that they don’t have a culinary degree. There’s just so many different ways to go and so much of it can be about being in the right place at the right time. I encourage everybody to go to work first before you
even think about enrolling in school because half of those people who graduate with a culinary degree end up with careers in other fields. You can easily find out if the culinary industry is for you before you enroll in school, so why not give working a try first before spending all that money? That’s important. Everybody needs to do that, in my opinion.
If you have the means and you can afford it, what culinary school provides is an encyclopedic breadth of information that you can’t learn on the job because what you learn on the job is what you do for that restaurant, on that day and it’s not going to be everything. If you are a really smart self-starter who has some financial means or at least are good at budgeting, sure, go ahead. Go to culinary school, but try to work part time while you’re there after you’ve at least gotten your feet wet in the industry first because you may decide that it’s just not for you and all you’re learning at culinary school is only applicable to culinary or restaurant management tasks. You get a little bit of a business
education at the best schools, but it’s very minimal. You really need to be sure that that’s what you want to do.
BtP: Do you have a particular food memory, an experience or a memory that you have of food that really hammers home why food matters to you?
JL: Yeah. I don’t think you can take one specific one out, but there’s all sorts of little anecdotes that could come from when I was a young. An important one for me, though involves my grandmother’s aunt, we called her Auntie. Her name was Margaret. She lived in Montreal after they left Romania. My grandmother came here by way of Cuba and Margaret went to Montreal. We visited her one time. I’m not sure how old I was, probably 10 or really younger than 10. She had things that we didn’t have in the United States at the time. We didn’t have craft charcuterie makers and butchers yet back in the early 90s. We had salami and we had these smoked and cured fish products and these heavily peppered mackerel and herring. I remember the herring on a stick and this cured salmon. She put out this big what I know now as a charcuterie spread in a very Quebec Canadian way and that was cool. We just picked at it with our fingers.
We couldn’t get the stuff. The closest thing that I was able to get to anything like that back home was when I asked for smoked salmon, which I used to ask for for Christmas and I always got it. We just didn’t have those strong salty, peppery flavors that it was definitely a very French-Canadian thing at the time. I won’t forget that anytime soon. I do a lot of curing and smoking now, a lot of sausage making and a lot of dried, cured meats and that definitely comes from that, that initial experience. She also taught us a lot of Spanish on that trip, even though she spoke French. That was just kind of a funny memory.
Josh Lewin is Executive Chef of Beacon Hill Bistro located at 25 Charles Street in Boston