Why it matters to me: An interview with Marc Orfaly of The Beehive in Boston

For so many these days its all about the limelight. Its about getting paid, getting respect, and being superstars. Easily forgotten is the idea that the culinary industry is first and foremost a service industry; an outpouring of familial hospitality extended to strangers, with food as the focal point.

Many who make the choice to do this, day in and day out, do so out of the respect they have for the food, and a desire to carry on what others who influenced them had done before. Having the opportunity to speak with Chef Marc Orfaly of The Beehive in Boston was a reminder that there are people who cook for the right reasons.

During our conversation we talked about some of Marc’s early experiences in the food industry, his suggestion to those interested in getting in to the culinary industry, and his personal food memory.

Continue reading “Why it matters to me: An interview with Marc Orfaly of The Beehive in Boston”

Chef Recipes: Diver Scallops with Thai Chili Broth and Spring Vegetables

Recipe courtesy of Marc Orfaly of The Beehive in Boston, MA.

Continue reading “Chef Recipes: Diver Scallops with Thai Chili Broth and Spring Vegetables”

Do it right every time: An interview with Josh Lewin of Beacon Hill Bistro

Over the past several weeks I’ve had the chance to get to know more about Josh Lewin of Beacon Hill Bistro. 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 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!

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!

Continue reading “Do it right every time: An interview with Josh Lewin of Beacon Hill Bistro”

Chipotle Mexican Grill adds sofritas to its menus in NYC and Boston

On Monday, March 3rd, Chipotle Mexican Grill will be launching its first entirely new menu item in the company’s 20-year history. An item called sofritas, organic shredded tofu (Vegans: “And there was much rejoicing!”) braised with chipotle chilies, roasted poblano peppers and a blend of aromatic spices, will be added to the menus of Chipotle locations in New York City and Boston.

On Monday, March 3rd, Chipotle Mexican Grill will be launching its first entirely new menu item in the company’s 20-year history. An item called sofritas, organic shredded tofu (Vegans: “And there was much rejoicing!”) braised with chipotle chilies, roasted poblano peppers and a blend of aromatic spices, will be added to the menus of Chipotle locations in New York City and Boston. Media in the Boston area had the chance to give the new item a try on Thursday evening at the Chipotle Mexican Grill located at 101 Summer Street in Boston’s Financial District.

Continue reading “Chipotle Mexican Grill adds sofritas to its menus in NYC and Boston”

M.C. Spiedo opens in Boston’s Seaport District

Almost 2 years ago I had one of the greatest meals of my lifetime at Arrows in Ogunquit, Maine. That meal clearly defined in my mind the capabilities of chef/owners Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier. So when I heard that they were opening a new restaurant in Boston (sure Ogunquit isn’t FAR, but Boston is a hell of a lot closer), I was thrilled!

Almost 2 years ago I had one of the greatest meals of my lifetime at Arrows in Ogunquit, Maine. That meal clearly defined in my mind the capabilities of chef/owners Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier. So when I heard that they were opening a new restaurant in Boston (sure Ogunquit isn’t FAR, but Boston is a hell of a lot closer), I was thrilled! I’m excited to see what Mark and Clark have to offer at M.C. Spiedo, which officially opens today at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel, located at 606 Congress Street in Boston.

Continue reading “M.C. Spiedo opens in Boston’s Seaport District”

Lovin’ Spoonfuls Food Rescue: An interview with founder Ashley Stanley

It is something that many of us living in the United States likely take for granted; Knowing, without doubt or fear, where our next meal is coming from. This is, after all, the land of opportunity! Food security shouldn’t be an issue here. And, you’re right. Food security shouldn’t be an issue in the United States. But, just because it shouldn’t be an issue doesn’t mean that it isn’t.

Food security: The availability of food and one’s access to it. A household is considered food-secure when its occupants do not live in hunger or fear of starvation.

It is something that many of us living in the United States likely take for granted; Knowing, without doubt or fear, where our next meal is coming from. This is, after all, the land of opportunity! Food security shouldn’t be an issue here. And, you’re right. Food security shouldn’t be an issue in the United States. But, just because it shouldn’t be an issue doesn’t mean that it isn’t.

According to a report issued by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, “14.5 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2012, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” That’s approximately 17.6 million households, comprised of 49 million Americans, 15.9 million of those being children.

Staggering.  

So what’s to be done in support of those who are struggling with food insecurity? In many major cities in the United States you’ll find organizations that are dedicated to help those in need, and in Boston, it’s no different. We have the privilege of a fantastic organization called Lovin’ Spoonfuls. I had the opportunity to speak with founder Ashley Stanley about the organization, the support that Lovin’ Spoonfuls gets from the restaurant community in Boston, and a personal food memory that represents just how important the work organizations like these do every day.

 Foodie Journal: So how did you come up
with the idea for Loving Spoonfuls?

Ashley Stanley: I kind of hate the
term “a-ha moment”, but something did click and while my background is athletics
and fashion and these things that my life has really focused on for such a long
time, food has been such a fundamental part of my life. It’s been a fundamental
part of my family, and my friends.  Really everything good has revolved
around food. A few years ago, I was looking for a career change.  I was looking for something else to do.  I wasn’t really sure what that was and it was
during the holidays.  I found myself
sitting in a restaurant with plates of uneaten food and tons of leftovers and I
started thinking about portion size and serving size.  During the holidays you always hear about
people in need, charity, and how there isn’t enough for everybody. That was
sort of in the back of my mind because on my table I had enough.  Not
just for me, but for probably five or six other people too.  

FJ: Right.

AS: All I thought about is I can’t be
the only person in the only restaurant at the only table with this much food
available. 

I woke up for a few days really
thinking, “Is that message really accurate that there’s not enough?”  Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions.  Maybe we’re responding to the wrong
statement.  So I googled the phrase “what
happens with the wasted food” and found the sites for City Harvest and Philabundance,
Food Runners, all of these established food rescues in different parts of the
country.  I called and that’s where
I learned about food rescue clinics.  Here we are a few years later!

FJ: That’s awesome! It’s true,
though. I think portion size is something many of us forget about.  Too many people are just looking for the most
food at the cheapest price and never really stop to think about what they’re
leaving on the plate. Plus, how many times do you really end up finishing a
full plate when you go out to eat at a restaurant?

AS: Yes, and it was just one of those
things and it probably wasn’t the first time I’d been in a restaurant with all
the leftovers and it wasn’t the first time there was an opportunity to maybe
see that that was happening, but it was the first time where it really made
sense to me.  

FJ: So what were the first steps for
you?  How did you actually get to the point of establishing this
organization?

AS: Well, they weren’t any linear
steps. First understanding the statistics about food production helped out. One
thing I did was I thought about our market, because I was
reading about waste and I wanted to know if it was food that was coming off of
people’s plates at the end of the night, which you can’t do too much with, or
if it was whole raw product that essentially should be getting used in some
manner.  I found it to be the latter, and
so much of it.  I was stunned. I saw
pallets of eggplants and potatoes and carrots, and sure some of it maybe had
lost some if its marketable or salable value, but not much. When I go
to buy food, if I’m grilling it or putting it in a stew or if I’m cooking it
down, the appearance is less important I think. 
The point is that I was shocked as to what was classified as
eligible for waste.

FJ: Yeah, it’s funny the view we have
of food quality. If we have a garden in our yard, we aren’t going to toss
things we grow ourselves just because they don’t look picture perfect, but in a
grocery store we avoid those items for some reason.

AS: It is a little strange, isn’t it?

FJ: For sure. So what kind of support
have you seen from the restaurant and culinary industry in Boston?

AS: We exist in large part because of
our friends in the restaurant industry. 
I think regardless of what a non-profit mission might be, whether it’s
trying to cure cancer, or something directly related to food, regardless of
what it is the culinary community and the restaurant community always are the
first to say yes.  There’s this seemingly
built in willingness to help your community and that is something we are
forever grateful for.  In terms of food rescue and in terms of Lovin’ Spoonfuls
in particular, I think this is something that chefs, restaurateurs, folks
who’ve been working in this space for a long time feel a particular connection
to because they see first hand the waste that can happen.

We have a culinary panel, which includes
folks like Christopher Meyers who has been in the food space for 30-plus years
in Boston, LA and New York. I remember when I was listing the pros and cons about
potentially starting a food rescue I asked him and Joanne [Chang], “Do you
think this is a good idea?” They said, “Oh my God, yes and you’ve got our
support!”  They’ve been just incredible
supporters and advocates and mentors to us in that space.  You’ve got folks like Jeremy Sewall who has really
helped us to see how to make a difference in our community.  Jaime Bissonnette from Toro is a great friend
of ours and is really committed to whole ingredient cooking which results in
little to no waste in his restaurants. 
Then nationally we have Andrew Zimmern, a great friend of mine, who does
Bizarre Foods and writes columns for Food and Wine and all that.  He’s a fierce advocate for food justice, and
stands behind what Lovin’ Spoonfuls is doing and he’s given me some the best
advice I’ve gotten along the way.  It really has just been an
unbelievable amount of support from people in the industry.

FJ: What type of impact do you think
Lovin’ Spoonfuls had so far?

AS: Well, we rescued, in just about
three and a half years, we’ve rescued just under three-quarters of a million pounds
of food.

FJ: Wow!

AS: Yeah!

FJ: So I usually end interviews
asking for a personal food memory.  For
you I’d like to know if you have a memory specific to the work that you’ve been
doing so far with Lovin’ Spoonfuls?

AS: I do.  It’s actually a
memory from when I was a kid, but then it clicked just after Spoonfuls
started.  My family loves food, we’ve always loved food, and we have
family in New York and we traveled to New York often when I was a kid.  We’d go into the city and when you’re staying
in a hotel, you usually don’t take your leftovers with you since you typically
don’t have a fridge. My family, we always packed up our leftovers no matter
what, something I thought that everybody did when they traveled. [LAUGHS] So we’d
pack up our leftovers and my parents taught us that we leave it by the side of
a trash can or by the side of something where you know it’s a high traffic area
and somebody’s going to see it. I never
thought too much of it.  I just did it because I thought that’s what everyone
did. 

When
I was maybe eight or nine, I remember eating at the Carnegie Deli, which for
most people is guaranteed leftovers. Corned beef hash in particular because
it’s a mountain of stuff in front of you and as much I tried, I could never
finish it.  My dad and I, it was just him
and me at this particular meal, and we took our leftovers and dropped it at the
side of trashcan on Fifth Avenue like usual. 
For whatever reason, I happened to just turn around and I saw somebody
pick it up and start to eat it.  It made
sense in that moment, not to the point where I grew up thinking about food
rescue or wanting to get into hunger relief or anything like that, but it was
just something that made sense to me and I said, “Oh! That’s why we do it  

I
don’t think I thought about it again until 2010 when Lovin’ Spoonfuls started,
but that was a real visceral memory for me because it was one of those rare
times where one experience helped make sense of so many other moments in my
life.

 Lovin’ Spoonfuls has rescued more that 841,345 pounds of food to date. That’s food that would otherwise have been disposed of, but was instead used to help those in need.

If you’d like to learn more about the organization, or are interested in supporting Lovin’ Spoonfuls by volunteering or donating, visit their website at www.lovinspoonfulsinc.org.

An evening with Chef Kristen Kish: The autumn preview dinner at Menton

It’s funny how plans can change some times. Originally, I was set to attend the 1st Annual Blizzard Bash presented by the Barbara Lynch Foundation. In a monumental display of irony, the Blizzard Bash was cancelled thanks to, of all things, a blizzard.

It’s funny how plans can change some times. Originally, I was set to attend the 1st Annual Blizzard Bash presented by the Barbara Lynch Foundation. In a monumental display of irony, the Blizzard Bash was cancelled thanks to, of all things, a blizzard.

One of three compensatory options for Blizzard Bash ticket holders was to attend a special dinner at Menton, Barbara Lynch’s youngest brain child and Boston’s only Relais & Châteaux, AAA Five-Diamond, and Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star property.

Kind of a no-brainer. 

So, I would attend the Autumn Preview Dinner with Chef Kristen Kish. No write up. After all, I’m not a reviewer or critic by any stretch (and have no interest in being such). Just going to sit back and enjoy! No notes. No photos… just enjoy.

Like I said. It’s funny how plans can change sometimes. 

The singular expectation I had walking through the door of Menton was that I was going to have an exceptional meal. But, as anyone who enjoys an evening out will tell you, it’s about more than “just food”. It’s about the whole experience, and on this night I enjoyed an experience that forced my hand. How could I not write something about it?

I know that, for many, hearing the term “fine dining” evokes thoughts of the stuffy and uptight, making them feel intimidated or out of place. Menton is not that. From the moment you walk through the door, you are made to feel at home and comfortable. The dining rooms are impeccable and inviting – the staff friendly and accommodating.

A big part of any dining experience is who we end up dining with, and events like this are no different. I had the pleasure of sharing a table with John and Christine Williams (John is president and CEO of an early stage medical device company called NanElute, and Christine works as Regional Sales & Marketing Coordinator for All-Clad), Vivien Li (President of The Boston Harbor Association), and Chef Susan Regis. Comfortable conversation goes a long way to making a night fly. Before even realizing it, four hours had come and gone!

In those four hours, we were treated to course after course of delicious, seasonal fare expertly paired with wines by Executive Wine Director, Cat Silirie. The winners on the night, for me at least:

  • The lobster served with caviar, lychee and candied hibiscus (the wine pairing for this one was out of this freakin’ world, a 2012 Alois Lageder Moscato Giallo “Vogelmaier”);
  • A perfectly cooked beef sirloin alongside a 3-day beef tongue, beef cheek and a crispy rösti (paired with a 2009 Castello di Ama Chianti Classico Riserva, of which I couldn’t help getting a 2nd glass);
  • Dessert. … Now, I’m a fan of chocolate. Like, obsessed. Seriously. I should call someone about it. This dessert had no chocolate. And yet… this may have been the best dessert I’ve ever had. Period. Pecan sandies with crème fraîche, coffee and muscovado. I want this at the end of every meal. Every day. Forever.

The only thing that shined brighter than the 5-course menu was Chef Kristin (this being her debut menu since becoming Chef de Cuisine at Menton). You could feel the pride emanating from her as she introduced each course. These were her  dishes. This was her  show. Her moment. And she absolutely slayed it.

Menton is located at 354 Congress Street in Boston Fort Point neighborhood.

Gallery

 

A life’s worth of cooking: An interview with Michael Serpa of Neptune Oyster in Boston

Coming from a long line of chefs and cooks, it’s little surprise to discover that
the life of Chef Michael Serpa, of Neptune Oyster in Boston, revolves
around food.

Coming from a long line of chefs and cooks, it’s little surprise to discover that the life of Chef Michael Serpa, of Neptune Oyster in Boston, revolves around food. Since the age of seven, he’s been exposed to the world of cooking which has instilled in him a sincere pride and passion for the work he does every day. It’s that pride and passion that has helped to make Neptune Oyster one of the hottest spots in the city of Boston.

Michael was kind enough to offer up some time for an interview a few weeks back. During our conversation we talked about his early start with cooking, the pro’s and con’s of culinary school, and one of his favorite food memories.

Foodie Journal: When
was it that you realized that you loved food enough that you wanted it to be
your profession?

Michael Serpa: Well, I started off
working with my family. I don’t know, I guess it’s what we do, sort of. My
grandfather was a chef. My dad still works now as a part-time. He worked
full-time as a chef when he was of age. Two of my uncles also worked as chefs. It’s
the family trade and it was always something that was around. I was always
around food growing up, but it was never something that I figured I’d want to
do. After a while I actually figured out though that, yeah, it’s a pretty good
job. I kind of entered through that.

FJ: I know a lot of
chefs, especially ones that have family members that are involved in food, end
up getting involvement in restaurants early on. Did that happen with you or did
you only start doing more restaurant work once you got a little bit older?

MS: Yeah, it was from a
young age. I remember that my dad had a catering company when I was probably seven
years old. It was down in Florida. He had his regular job, but he did catering
on the side. He would take me and my brother there to hang out while they were
doing all the work so we’re sitting around you know, playing with all the
kitchen stuff that was all around. They didn’t want us just taking up space, so
there we were, six or seven years old, and they’re like, “All right, just peel
carrots or something.” We didn’t really help much, but it at least kept us
entertained for a little bit.

My dad also
had a place down in Florida when I was, let’s see, I was 12. So I’d go down for
the summers with my brother and he had a place, it was like a cafeteria. It was
a pretty big cafeteria for one of the skyscrapers in Miami. I remember being 12
years old, which you can’t really work when you’re 12, legally, doing
deliveries through his office building. I would run those deliveries around and
do all this and help out wherever. Everyone would ask, “Oh how old are you? You’re
so young.” “Oh I’m 14,” and then the next time I’d go back down and I was 13, I’d
say I was 14 and then when I was actually 14, “Okay, now I’m actually 14 so now
I’m legal to work.” [Laughs]

FJ: So it seems like
you’re a fan of the work, even though it can be hard with the long hours. What
is it that really drives you to want to do that every day?

MS: In terms of the long
hours and all that stuff, that’s something you just get used to doing and it
doesn’t bother most people. Like for myself, I feel that I don’t really work
that crazy of hours. I look at my dish guys, my prep guys and my line cooks who
are working 2 jobs, and they’re doing 75-80 hours a week, or whatever. I’m like,
“Well, they’re working harder than me. They’re working more hours than me. I
don’t really have anything to complain about even if I am doing a 12-hour day,
a 14-hour day.”

I do have
a good system where I am now, so it’s not that 16-hour shift,  and all that craziness which I have done
before. It’s just there’s always somebody that’s going to be working harder
than you and probably getting paid way less than you and it kind of puts everything
in perspective. Just be like, “Hey, shut up and be grateful that you get to get
paid to do what you love to do.”

In turn, and no offense to anybody that does
office jobs and stuff like that, but I could not sit down for 8 or 9 hours a
day in front of a computer. I don’t know. It would just drive me nuts.

FJ: Yeah, that seems
to be the same reaction from pretty much everybody I’ve spoken to so far.

MS: Yeah, I mean once you
start … I do very little office work for my job, which is great. When I have to
do some of that office stuff, and I’m sitting around for like an hour looking
at the computer and papers and stuff, I’m just like, “Ugh.” It just drags! 14
hours seems to go a lot faster when you’re walking around and doing [SALT].

FJ: So you did have
the exposure to the food world from a young age, but I’m wondering how did you
make your progression from helping out with your dad? Did you end up going to
culinary school or did you just keep working in restaurants?

MS: Yeah, well my dad and
all my family are originally from Cuba, so I got a lot of exposure to Cuban
cooking, but my dad worked in a bunch of places and learned Italian and French
cooking as well, so I learned a lot with him. I ended up working in restaurants
a lot during my teens. As I got older I got more kitchen work, worked the line.
I eventually got a job at a nice place, probably the nicest place in Redding,
Pennsylvania, which isn’t the dining mecca of the world, but it was a nice restaurant.
The chef there was really into food, and she taught me a lot of stuff that
other places in the area weren’t even talking about. It was more like a legit
restaurant. I learned a lot there.

I did eventually enroll at the CIA. Once I
finished my externship, I figured I’d drop out. I was in New York, which is
what I wanted at the time and thought, “Well, I’ll go back to school, graduate
and then come back and get the same job that I have now.” It’s not like a law degree
or whatever. A culinary degree is not required to be a great chef. Thomas
Keller never went to CIA. He never went to culinary school, period. He’s doing pretty
good.

FJ: Yeah, a little
bit.

MS: I feel the culinary school thing can be both good and bad. It’s good because you learn  stuff and get exposed to tons of stuff and you can see what you like doing and what you don’t. The
obvious downside is that it costs you $35,000 a year to end up making $12 an
hour right after graduating.

FJ: With that in mind,
say I’m a 17 year old kid. I’m interested in food. I walk up to you and say, “Hey,
I want to become a chef.” What would be your advice? Jump into a restaurant or
take a look at culinary school?

MS: I think at that age
it would be good to start off working. If you can work for free for a little
while at a top restaurant, which would be best just because of the exposure to
that environment. If you want a paying job, maybe offer a week or two so they
can see if they want to hire you. Find the nicest place you can that has a good
rep and served good food. Definitely pick a place where they’re not serving
frozen, microwaved food. Ultimately just try to get a job to see if you
actually like cooking andyou’re actually into it before you waste your money
going to culinary school.

When
I was in school, there were probably 75 people that were on the same track I
was. Probably 10 to 15 of them are still
cooking, maybe. Everybody else all spent the same amount of money as me, and to
not even be cooking…  That’s pretty
crazy.

FJ: So my last
question… It sounds like you’ve been around food for just about forever, so I’m
sure you have tons, but do you have a particular food memory that really stands
out to you?

MS: There are tons! What
most of my food memories would be, besides in restaurants, are what my grandma would
cook. My grandmothers cooking at home was what I usually would eat so I just
remember, she would make arroz con pollo, she would make fried pork chops and sofrito
and make the whole house smell like onions, but one of my favorite things we
would get was empanadas. I would make the dough and help roll it out. She would
throw the ground meat together or whatever we were doing and she would fry them
up. The whole house ended up smelling like frying beef. The empanadas would be
all good and gnarly, and she would put them on paper towels to soak up the
grease. They were so good. She wouldn’t make them that often. Maybe every 2 or
3 months we would do empanadas, but they were just amazing.

Michael Serpa is the chef at Neptune Oyster in Boston’s North End, located at 63 Salem Street.  

From front of house to chef: A conversation with Karen Akunowicz of Myers + Chang

Many chefs take a direct path to the kitchen, knowing early on that theirs would be a world of fire and knives. Others, take a slightly more round-about path. Chef Karen Akunowicz, the executive chef at Myers + Chang is a perfect example of that.

Many chefs take a direct path to the kitchen, knowing early on that theirs would be a world of fire and knives. Others, take a slightly more round-about path. Chef Karen Akunowicz, the executive chef at Myers + Chang is a perfect example of that. Cooking wasn’t something she had an affinity for at a young age. According to her mom, Karen couldn’t even boil water! But, with a passion for hospitality, she found her way in to the restaurant scene any way working various jobs in the front of the house. As her love for food grew, though, so did her desire to start cooking.

I had the chance to speak with Karen a few weeks back. We talked about how her love of food developed, how she got her start in the business (including a very crazy 2nd night!), and one of her favorite food memories. 

 

 

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Foodie Journal: How did you figure out that food was something that
you were excited about and that you would eventually take it on as a career?

Karen
Akunowicz:
You
know what? I always wish I had one of those stories that start with, “I stood
by my mother, my grandmother’s knee while she stirred sauce on the stove.” I
always feel like that’s the awesome kind of story, but I didn’t.

I came to cooking in a kind of a roundabout way. I’ve worked in
restaurants since I was about 15 years old, and I’ve always been drawn to the
hospitality industry. I worked in the front of the house until I was 25,
actually. I always feel like I kind of came to it from the back door, and I
didn’t grow up cooking. For a great deal of that time I mean, my mother used to
say I couldn’t boil water, literally. It was after working in restaurants and
becoming really enamored with food and with the kitchen that I decided to go to
culinary school.

FJ: You started off front of house. What did you do?

KA: Yeah. I was a server, I was a bartender, I was a front of the
house manager, at a lot of great places, and one of them being at Via Matta,
where I bartended for two years, while I was in culinary school. When I
graduated, I went to the chef and said, “You know, I’ve just finished culinary school
and I’d really love it if you could consider me for a job in the kitchen,”
because I loved the food there so much.

FJ: Was that your first real experience once you came out of culinary
school?

KA: They didn’t have anything at the time for me in the kitchen at Via
Mata, so my first job in a kitchen was at Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain. I live
in JP still so that felt really good for me working at a restaurant in the
community that I felt so strongly about. I worked garde manger there, and that
was my first kitchen job. It was kind of trial by fire.

My second night in the kitchen, the chef became violently, violently
ill, and Crystal literally looked at me and was like, “Can you do this?” I had
staged only one day before. I didn’t even know the menu! I was standing there
with a menu in my hand and saying, “I guess I’ll try and cook the food and we
can try and cover the reservations.” We looked at each other and she said,
“Okay, if it’s really bad, we’ll just refund everybody’s money, change the
reservations, and won’t take any walk-ins.”

While it seems like it’s only 10 tables, it’s a very small place, but
I’d never cooked on the line before, with the exception of school. We did
actually get through that night. People got all their food and they seemed happy.
I think it was just really slow.

FJ: So being in this area for a while now, you’ve seen how the food
scene has changed in the Boston area. Can you talk a little about how things
have change in the Boston area as far as the restaurant scene over the last
five, 10 years?

KA: The restaurant scene is just exploding, with lots of different
kinds of restaurants, and lots of people opening new places and even just in
this past year. I think there’s definitely been a shift to the outskirts, kind
of, restaurants that aren’t just in Boston proper.

I think we’ve also seen this: the style of dining, what people are
gravitating toward is very different. I think that sort of fine dining, that
very white tablecloth formal service is certainly not a thing of the past as we
see from restaurants like Menton, but something that isn’t really the norm
anymore. I think one of the things that’s awesome is being able to go to
restaurants and get sort of that quality of food or have that experience in a
slightly less formal setting, while still getting really warm, wonderful,
hospitable service.

FJ: So you’re the executive chef at Myers + Chang. What’s your aim
with the menu there? 

KA: I’ve been here almost two years now. There are items, there are
dishes on the menu that’ll never come off the menu, and I would never want them
to. But Christopher [Myers], Joanne [Chang], and I are always having
conversations about what our food is. We say, “These are my interpretations of different
dishes, and this is me bringing some spices in to the mix. Like, here’s the way
that I make a traditional Italian-style sauce or ragù, and I’m going to infuse
it with all these Asian flavors.” Or even an interpretation of traditional
Taiwanese dishes that Joanne grew up eating.

Christopher always tries tying it together and says, “You know, we’re
making Asian soul food.” That’s kind of always been what we’re striving for and
the way that that kind of grows and changes is always really interesting. I
think that our flavors, across the board, are strong flavors. Whether it’s
fiery hot flavors or whether it’s powerful umami flavors. We’re always trying
to… I think our food is very powerful, always. It’s not shy or timid, and
that’s how I like to think about our food.

FJ: I think a lot of places tend to bring flavors down a little bit
out of fear that people can’t handle it. It’s nice when you hear people say,
“You know what? Let’s go with a punch of flavor.”

KA: Yeah. We like for people to think of our food as really very
strong, strong in texture, strong in flavor. I talk a lot about spice, and all
the different kinds of spice. You talk about hybrid chili, that fresh chili
heat, that hits you on the tip of your tongue, and kind of ignites your palate,
or if we’re talking about black pepper spice, which is further back on your
tongue. It is like a more lingering spice. Or Chinese mustard or wasabi spice
that kind of hits you in the nose and how there’s so many varying levels of
spice and heat in our dishes.

Fj: So being a chef can be tough. You all deal with some very long
days; the heat, especially with summer coming. What is it that does bring you
back every day and makes you want to keep doing what you do?

KA: Because it’s the best job ever. I mentioned earlier I came to
cooking a little bit later than a lot of people, but when I found it, even that
first day, that trial by fire day in the kitchen, I knew that was where I fit.
You get to make people happy. You can make something for somebody. You get to …
It sounds a little cheesy, but you’re sharing that love, you’re making food for
people, you’re getting that instant gratification from it, but also I just love
actually working in a kitchen.

I still work the line every night. I mean, that environment for me has
always been the place where I’m the most comfortable, where I have always felt
like everything sort of clicked for me. Certainly there are days every now and
then when I think, “Really? This is it. This is what I chose?” [Laughs] But, I
think for every cook and every chef, there’s a high when it’s a great night. When
everybody is really on, and the line is moving like it’s a machine. When the
front of the house is amazing, and everybody’s just “on”? There’s nothing quite
like that. I mean that high is absolutely incredible. That’s what keeps me coming
back.

FJ: So, I think for most people, food and memories kind of go hand in
hand. Do you have a particular food memory that stands out for you as a
favorite?

KA: I mean, I feel like I have so many of my memories in my life are
connected to food. My mom actually doesn’t cook. She probably actually cooks
more now, more than when we were younger. She used to make a stewed meat pie.
She’d make the crust herself and she would make the filling, bake the pie, and
it would come out of the oven. We’d sit down to dinner, and she would make us
all look at the pie that she had made, and we would look at it and say, “Mom,
that looks so beautiful. That is the most beautiful meat pie.” We didn’t even
have a good name for it! We called it ‘meat pie’. We had to admire it and
congratulate her on it before we could dig in.

Then she would
take all the scraps from the pie dough and roll them out and sprinkle them with
cinnamon and butter and sugar and roll them up, and then bake them. Actually we
probably liked that part, the little cinnamon cookie rolls, better than the
actual dinner. It was the standing around and the admiring the pie, though… that
is one of my favorite memories from being a kid.

FJ: Yeah, even if we’re not always great at it, everybody wants to be
a good cook.

KA: Absolutely, absolutely. Plus the love and appreciation that comes
from cooking. It’s special!

 Karen Akunowicz is the executive chef at Myers + Chang, located at 1145 Washington Street in Boston.

Making people happy with food: An interview with Mike Smith of Toro Boston

It has been over a year since I first met Mike Smith, chef de cuisine at Toro in Boston. I had been given the green light to head in and hang out for a day to observe prep and dinner service, and to get to know the team that makes Toro one of the hottest places to eat in the city of Boston. 

It has been over a year since I first met Mike Smith, chef de cuisine at Toro in Boston. I had been given the green light to head in and hang out for a day to observe prep and dinner service, and to get to know the team that makes Toro one of the hottest places to eat in the city of Boston. 

My time speaking with Mike was a lesson in culinary multi-tasking. Not only did the guy answer every question I tossed his way, but he did so kindly while butchering meats, cleaning clams, prepping marinades, and directing others on the team. It’s a day I don’t think I’m ever going to forget.

I had a chance to catch up with Mike. We talked about where his love for cooking came from, why attending the CIA worked so well for him, and a few of his favorite food memories. 

 Foodie Journal: Was there a specific moment for
you when you realized, “You know what? I’m going to be a cook for the rest of
my life. That’s what I want to do.”
 
Mike Smith: I don’t think I really figured it out
until I was maybe a sophomore in high school, but I had always been cooking
with my family. I think I started making guacamole when I was three with my
dad. He always used to give me weird stuff like smoked salmon, or artichokes.
Things you don’t think to give a little kid. I just loved the experience of
eating with family and the different flavors and all that stuff.

I really figured it out when I started working in restaurants as a
dishwasher when I was 14. Just being around that environment. I was like, “Holy
[SALT]. This is awesome.” I didn’t know anything. I barely knew how to mop.
But, just being in that environment and there’s all this commotion, but things
just seemed to come together. I think that’s when I realized its what I wanted
to do.

FJ: Did you have people in your life pushing you
towards cooking once they realized how much you enjoyed it?
MS:
Well, I used to get pretty good grades in
school, and I think my dad always wanted to push me to go to college and do
something else. For me, though I was always, like, “I want to really do this.”
Even people I worked with were like, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. You can just
cook at home. Do something else with your life.” But, I just really wanted to
do this. I’ve always loved being involved with food, and bringing people
together. Honestly I think that’s just what makes you happy as a chef or a
cook. Making people happy with food.
 FJ: Right, because obviously it isn’t the easiest
profession. You don’t have a lot of free time, and it’s pretty hard work.
MS:
 Definitely. You sacrifice your life
quite a bit, you know? You basically build a life in the restaurant. I think a
lot of people don’t get that. Most people have their regular jobs, and then
their family life at home. For us we have our jobs, but we basically have a
family in the restaurant, you know what I mean? You have your real family, and
then somewhere along the line the two get melded together. People I know in the
industry will be like, “Hey, how’s your mom?” It’s kind of different, but it’s
cool. It’s like one big family.

FJ: Now, you mentioned that you used to get good
grades in school. So being a good student, and liking school, did that lend
itself to you looking for that structured environment to learn in as far as
going to culinary school?
MS:
Yeah, I would say definitely. I think a lot
of people need some kind of structured environment to help them along the way,
because I think a lot of chefs don’t necessarily learn the traditional way.
They don’t learn via reading a book or being lectured in class. I think it
helps to get that exposure, though. Visually seeing it, feeling it. So much
about this industry is about feel, touch, and taste. I definitely needed that.
I think a lot of people can benefit from that basic introduction to what a
restaurant is like, or even what the industry is really about or what food is
about. Plus, I met some really awesome people in the process. It was at CIA
(Culinary Institute of America) that I met Sammy (Samuel Monsour). He was one
of the first people I ever met at culinary school. That’s where I met my buddy,
John Kay who used to work with me at Toro. So some of the connections you make
are really cool.
 FJ: I’ve been pretty fascinated to see the
divide, like how some people just think that culinary school is a must, while
others feel you’re just better off hopping on the line at a good restaurant.
MS:
Well… I think it really is different for each
person. When I was signing up, my parents had saved up some money to help me go
to college. So financially it wasn’t too bad for me, and the opportunities you
get from it are great. You get to meet other people. It helps you figure out
who you are in this awesome environment where everybody that is there wants to
learn about food. That said, not everybody has to go to culinary school. It
really is a complex question you know what I mean? I mean, It has to do with
what you want your life to be. How far you want to go in the industry. Plus,
you need to make sure you can afford it. If you work hard, though, you can get
where you want to be. Making those connections in school definitely can help, though.

FJ: Kind of in-line with that, you’re the chef de
cuisine at Toro right now.
MS:
Yeah.
 FJ: So obviously that means working with other
chefs like Ken [Oringer] and Jamie [Bissonnette] who have established
themselves well in Boston. Can you talk a little about what its like to have
people like that to work with and learn from?
MS:
Well, I think, first and foremost, I’m
fortunate to know them as regular dudes. Like, when you first meet them, you
might be like, “Oh [SALT], that’s Ken,” or the same with Jamie.  Like, I think Jamie can be a little
intimidating cause he can get really intense. But, knowing
them now as regular dudes it’s gotten to the point where I can really just
speak candidly to either of them. I’ve always found that if you’re honest and
you show your good at what you do, and you work at it, then they’ll trust you
to do what needs to be done. The best thing is that they’re just normal guys.
Like, they don’t try to be something else. They are who they are, and will be
that way no matter what.

FJ: So, my final question. For people who are in the
industry and are around food all the time, you end up with a lot of experiences
with food. Do you have a favorite food memory?
MS:
[SALT], my favorite? Wow, there are a lot of
them!
 FJ: I can imagine! I’ve started to realize this
is a pretty unfair question to ask, but… there you have it. [Laughing]
MS:
Honestly, the thing … I’ve been around food a
lot. It’s like I said, I remember making guacamole or like having fajita night at my dad’s house.
My parents are divorced so I’d go to my dad’s house or my mom’s house, but the
thing that still made me think that the world was going to be OK was food and
get people together because of food.

Another thing for me that was big was that I grew
up in a beach town. Going to the beach all day and then walking home from the
beach in the sunshine and smelling people starting grills up and stuff like
that. Barbequing with friends, that’s definitely one thing that’s just like
primal caveman, and that I love so much. That would be my ultimate day. Just go
to the beach, hang out, go surfing, then just grill.

Man… and then there’s my grandmother who used to make a mean
meatloaf.  My grandfather and my
grandmother loved food. We would always have certain things on certain nights.
We would roast a whole pork shoulder with the skin on it. I remember my
grandfather would just crack the skin off and eat it. Or, I even think about my
mom. She was a single mom who worked like 50-60 hours a week, but she would
come home and cook me food; awesome food every night. I didn’t really appreciate
that until a couple of years ago. She busted her ass you know what I mean?

Yeah,
I don’t know if I have a single memory… there’s just too many.

Mike Smith is the chef de cuisine at Toro in Boston’s South End, located at 1704 Washington Street .