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”

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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.

Know where you come from: An interview with Samuel Monsour of jm Curley in Boston

Simple advice: Know where you come from.  It’s easy to forget that some of the greatest experiences we ever have end up happening in our own backyard. 

It’s a very simple piece of advice, but one that any of us should be willing to accept: Know where you come from.

Many an individual has stood on their doorstep, bags packed, hopping a plane to Europe, or somewhere else, in search of… well, something. It’s easy to forget, though, that some of the greatest experiences we ever have end up happening in our own backyard. 

That’s just a part of the story you’ll hear from Chef Samuel Monsour, Executive Chef of jm Curley in Boston. And, it’s an awesome one at that! I had the opportunity to touch base with Chef Monsour. We talked a bit about his start in the industry, some of his culinary experiences while trekking through the United States, and one experience in particular that really brought home what it means to be a chef.

Foodie Journal: Did you always have an interest in food?
Samuel Monsour: Yes. Food is, and always has been, the most exciting, engaging and inspiring aspect of my life.

FJ: Can you remember what the first dish you ever prepared for someone else was?
SM: Well, I grew up in a household strong on tradition, so there wasn’t much encouragement for experimentation. My childhood was filled with lessons on my Lebanese heritage through means of cookery. Being taught how to execute my grand mother and father’s recipes wasn’t an option. It was mandatory. So no, I have no exact memory of my first true creation. If I *had* to guess, I’d say it was probably a filthy, over-the-top sandwich.

FJ: What was your first experience in a professional kitchen?
SM: I was thirteen. My parents unexpectedly brought me in to wash dishes at their neighborhood joint in Chapel Hill, NC. It was a Friday night, and their dishwasher had pulled the classic “no call, no show”. That kitchen was [SALT] scary. Several of the cooks were ex-gang members, and they called me lil’ motha[SALT]. I’m talking bloods, the kind that claimed red. They listened to dirty south gangster rap loud. They were fast and precise with knives. They had old-English style script tattoos on their neck. And, their ability to cook was unlike anything I had ever seen. By the end of the night, they had slightly warmed up to me, because I had worked my ass off. Earning a tiny inkling of respect from these badass cats made me feel a sense of pride and accomplishment that I had never experienced. I had always sucked at sports, but working in a kitchen seemed like something I could get good at, so from that point on, I dedicated myself to the trade. 

FJ: Do you feel that having had experience prior to going to the CIA helped you in your culinary education? Did you feel like you were “ahead of the game”, so to speak, since you already had some experience under your belt?
SM: Yes and no. Having worked in a professional kitchen for five years prior to attending the CIA, I had confidence that I was choosing the right career path, and more importantly, I had a sense of urgency and a strong work ethic. On the flip side, coming up in my parents neighborhood joint offered me extremely limited product knowledge, very little understanding of proper technique, and barely any exposure to the French methodology. But, that’s why I went to school.

FJ: A lot of chefs seem to do culinary tour, just for the experience itself. A lot go to Europe, or to Asia, but you decided to stay in the U.S. Can you talk a little about some of the experiences, and how the time you spent traveling the U.S. impacted the direction you would end up taking with your cooking style?
SM: 
I decided to travel America after island jumping in Hawaii with my best friend Devon and his wonderful family, the Espinosas. His parents hailed from the Philippines, and one day while at a pineapple plantation, his father Saldo shared a bit of advice. He informed me that before leaving his homeland, he traveled to as many islands as he could, for years, while still young. Saldo placed high value on actually knowing where he came from before venturing out to the rest of the world. This heart-to-heart literally hit home with me, and after our Hawaii trip, I started what would become an eighteen-month cross-country adventure.

My favorite experiences were blue collared. Dives, greasy spoons, diners, mom & pop spots, communal bbq houses; these places were meccas to me, their food and hospitality stuck to my ribs, and gave me confidence to proudly cook in the style with which I was raised.

My Pop taught me to cook American comfort food, with love, care and emotion. Down south we call that soul food. But, what I learned from my travels throughout the good ol’ US of A is that every region of America has their own version of “soul food”. 

Out of the hundreds of memories I have from my journey, I’d really like to share one that is still extremely vivid: I was smack dab in the middle of bourbon country, on a two week road/camping trip with my old man. It was the summer of 2007. We stopped at a hole-in-the-wall on the wrong side of the tracks in Frankfort, KY: Rick’s White Light Diner. As I recall, it was about twenty seats, and Rick ran the show all by himself. He had “a girl come in to help out when it was busy”. White Light was the genesis of a well-traveled, professionally trained American chef. At that time in my life, I wouldn’t have expected to run into a fellow CIA alumnus operating a diner. But, Rick was a rolling stone, just like me. He didn’t make life decisions based upon pretentious expectations. He knew what was important to him, and focused on that, and, with that being said, this was the first time I had encountered a deep-rooted southern chef with a passion for sourcing responsibly. Sure, I was trained to cook “Nouvelle-Southern” at Second Empire, staged at Nana’s, and dined at Magnolia Grill, all in North Carolina. But these were all extremely refined southern restaurants. I had never dined under the umbrella of a southern chef that stayed true to form with soul cookery, added no unnecessary frills or ingredients, but still stressed a huge importance on sourcing local, natural livestock and agriculture. White Light is where I decided to throw away all of my preconceived notions on what paths were “acceptable” for a CIA trained chef. This man’s authentic, weathered charm truly humbled me. He also made a mean crawdaddy pie that I still crave! Rick’s White Light Diner was the whole package for me, then and now, and it brings me great joy to know that Rick is still cooking with all his heart.

FJ: Why settle down in Boston? Mind you, I was born in Massachusetts, and am a total homer, so I’m glad you did! But, always interested to hear why folks decided to make their name here.
SM: From a series of twenty something one-way tickets, Boston was the last stop for me. Simply put, I fell in love with this city the day I arrived. It was what I was adventuring for, so, I’m glad it was my last stop, because I may have severed my travels far too early had it been one of my first stops.

Boston’s a really big town, and coming from the south, I place a lot of value in knowing my neighbors. I love walking anywhere and everywhere, and consistently running into someone familiar, be it a friend, colleague, or shop owner.

The food scene is constantly moving forward, while still honoring its roots. I think that is important, and I support that. Speaking of which, the support in this city is breathtaking. I believe that if creative individuals, in this case chefs, are going to put themselves and their livelihoods on the line to try something new or different, support from their peers is a necessity; that is how we grow. That doesn’t mean that constructive criticism has no place; that is how we learn. Boston encompasses both.

Right now, Boston is offering myself, and other young chefs a platform to learn and grow, in a challenging yet encouraging setting. I feel extremely lucky to be a part of the cultural growth movement that is occurring right now, and it humbles me to be a contributing member of such an incredible community.

FJ: Most everyone that loves food has a food experience or memory from their past that really sticks out to them. What’s yours?
SM: Hanging out with my Pops, drinking beers and chowing down on burgers. It doesn’t matter when, or where, that experience, that moment, whether past, present or future, will always be the pinnacle of food sensory for me.

jm Curley is located at 21 Temple Place, in Boston. Make sure to check out how to keep law & order if you stop in for a visit. I wish more places did this… :) 

Cooking is what I wanted to do: A conversation with Chef Jason Santos of Blue Inc. in Boston

It’s pretty clear that the first thing you’re likely to notice about Chef Jason Santos is his trademark dyed-blue hair, which served as the inspiration for the naming of his first restaurant in 2011, Blue Inc. The blue tinged coiffe is indeed a good indication of the fun and whimsy that Jason brings to the kitchen, but delving a little deeper you find a sincere guy who genuinely just loves to cook.

It’s pretty clear that the first thing you’re likely to notice about Chef Jason Santos is his trademark dyed-blue hair, which served as the inspiration for the naming of his first restaurant in 2011, Blue Inc. The blue tinged coiffe is indeed a good indication of the fun and whimsy that Jason brings to the kitchen, but delving a little deeper you find a sincere guy who genuinely just loves to cook. I spoke with Chef Santos to find out a little more about how he got his start, why he dedicated himself to such a tough business, and what his favorite food memory is.

Foodie Journal: What is it about cooking that
really captured your attention and made you decide that you wanted to do this
for a living?
Jason Santos: What I love about it now and what I
loved about it when I was 13 is obviously very different.  I got into watching cooking shows when I was
very young and I truly believe that’s what got me really excited.  Honestly, I wouldn’t know what else to
do.  I would be so screwed. 

I make jokes how I came out of the womb making aioli.  I’ve always wanted to do it.  It’s in my blood.  There’s nothing else I ever wanted to
do.  I had Plan A and B, I guess, and C
and possibly even D, but cooking is always what I wanted to do. So, I started
to tinker in the kitchen.  Then when I
was in high school I started taking cooking classes like Home Economics and
stuff like that.  I applied to culinary
school.
FJ: And you went to Newbury College, right?
JS: That’s correct.

FJ: Can you talk a little bit about your experience
going through culinary school? Obviously there are those that feel culinary
school is important.  Others feel that
the best way to learn is just in the kitchen.
JS: I have a few things to say about it.  First of all, I hated high school; like hated
it, hated it, hated it.  Not once did I
ever say, “God, I wish I could go back to high school.”  However, culinary school, I miss it every
day.  I loved it. I guess it’s different
when you’re paying to go to school, rather than just when you have to go.

I
learned more in a kitchen in two weeks than I did in two years of culinary
school.  But, the one thing that is
different is that cooks that don’t go to culinary school tend to know what to
do, but they don’t necessarily know why they do it. If you’re making chicken
stock, they know to start the stock with cold water,  but they don’t know why.  They just know that’s how you do it.  Culinary school I think is the science and
theory behind cooking, so I think you actually get to know why you do things, which is important if you want to start working out your own dishes

FJ: What was your first experience when you made
the jump into actually working in restaurants?
JS: I started cooking when I was 16. I worked at a
bowling alley and I worked at a pizza shop, stuff like that. I worked at the
Newton Marriott Hotel.  I did my
internship there.  Then shortly after my
internship there, they hired me on as a full time employee, but I also was
working part time at the Blue Room for Chris Schlesinger. I lucked out.  Right out of culinary school, I’m cooking for
Chris Schlesinger.  It was pretty cool.

FJ: If somebody walked up to you and they said, “Hey, I’m thinking about
being a cook.”  What’s your advice going
to be?
JS: I would just say make sure you really, really
want to do it because it’s a very unforgiving industry. I think my graduating class
has maybe four or five people that are still cooking.  My best friend, we went to high school
together, he sells real estate now. I have another good friend who went to
culinary school with me; he’s a nurse now. 
It’s a very high failure rate.  I
don’t mean failing, I mean just choosing to not do it anymore.  I mean 15 hour days, six days a week takes a
toll.
FJ: That being the case, why do it?
JS: It’s
like a blessing and a curse. I love to hate it and I hate to love it.  For me, it’s addicting.  I’m a big huge fan of instant gratification
in my life.  And cooking is one of those
things that I can do and see instant gratification.  I can make something, someone needs it, and
right in there I get gratification.  

I’m not a very patient person, so it’s a good industry for me.  It’s fast-paced, with a lot to do.  You multitask. It’s good for ADD.  I can do a lot of things at once. I think nowadays,
a chef is not just about cooking. It’s a little bit of everything.  I enjoy a little bit of everything.

FJ: So, these days, there is a lot of attention on cooking and the culinary
world, especially on television. You had a chance to compete on Hell’s Kitchen. Has there been a boost
for you as far as your career, as far as the restaurant with the Blue Inc.,
since your time on Hell’s Kitchen?
JS: Definitely. 
Best move I’ve ever made in my life. 
Lucky for me I did really well on the show.  There are people that didn’t do too well and
I think it’s probably quite the opposite for them. It’s a lot of exposure, primetime on
Fox.  The exposure on average, seven million
viewers an episode, so if you do something wrong, the whole world sees it.  Lucky for me I came out pretty well and
pretty unscathed and they really didn’t edit me too much.  Everybody always says to me you’re the same
person that you were on TV, which I think is a very good complement. The
exposure that came from it, though, is crazy. It’s been realistically two years
now since I’ve been on the show, and there’s not a day that goes by that I
don’t get stopped or someone wants to take a picture.  It’s … actually, it’s kind of weird.  But, I’ve been lucky to get good exposure.

FJ: A lot of people watch these food competitions shows, and I’m sure some
people might think its similar to what actually goes on in a professional
kitchen.  Can you talk about what the
differences are between those competition shows and what actually goes on in a
kitchen?
JS: There’s nothing. There’s no comparison.  It’s a television show.  Everybody will say, “Oh, is Gordon really
like that?” To a point, yes, but it’s a television show.  You’re on a TV set.  Are there similarities?  Yes. 
You deal with food that’s about it. 
Anything else about it is not realistic.  

In Hell’s Kitchen there are no clocks, no emails, no phones. You’re
sequestered, you’re not allowed to talk to anybody, you don’t have service a
different time every day, and you don’t know what you’re cooking.  That’s not real life, it’s a TV show. If
everything went well and everybody was well rested, it wouldn’t be much of a TV
show.

FJ: So my last question for you; do you have a
particular food memory that stands out to you? Something you like to think back
on?
JS: I do remember the first thing that I used to
always make for everybody that I thought was this amazing dish.  I used to take portabella mushrooms and I
would sauté them and add balsamic vinegar. 
I grew up in a family of non-cooks. I mean cooks, but nobody comes from
a culinary background or anything.  I’m
50% Irish and Irish aren’t necessarily known for phenomenal flavors in
food.  So I kind of grew up with, not
bad, but just bland and under-seasoned food, and I think anybody in my age
group kind of grew up with a lot of processed bull[SALT].

I had fresh mushroom and I sautéed them. 
I remember adding balsamic vinegar, not having a clue, you know the fat
with the fat, the vinegar cuts right through it.  I remember it being amazing.  Now I sort of laugh about it, but I remember
making it for everybody.  Any time I
wanted to sort of show off pre-culinary school, I would be like, “Hey, try my
mushrooms.”  Now I look back and I’m like
damn.  Was I drunk?  What the hell was I doing? [LAUGHS]

Jason Santo is the Executive Chef of Blue Inc., located at 131 Broad Street, and Abby Lane, located at 255 Tremont Street, both in the city of Boston