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 .

The Coppa “Yes, Chef” dinner with Marcus Samuelsson

“Swedeiopian”. Obviously a fusion of two words, two nationalities, Swedish and Ethiopian. It’s a word I had never heard before, but it perfectly described the evening I had at Coppa in Boston’s South End last Monday. The “Yes, Chef” dinner with Chef Marcus Samuelsson, born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, was an event that highlighted just how good combining things can be! A little Ethiopian. Some Swedish. And, why not toss in some Italian as well!

That’s exactly what Coppa’s Chef Jamie Bissonnette did for this event. It was an interpretation of Ethiopian and Swedish dishes and flavors, with an occasional flash of Italian (Ethiopian & Swedish Pizza, anyone?). Addressing the assembled guests, Coppa co-owner and Chef Ken Oringer pointed out the fact that Jamie and his team had put considerable time in to planning the menu for the event. Apparently the first time Jamie even had the opportunity to experience traditional Ethiopian fare was the day prior, at Addis Red Sea on Tremont Street! (On a side note, I had the pleasure of sitting at a communal table with one of the chefs from Red Sea. If you haven’t, I highly recommend checking them out.)

Chefs Jamie Bissonnette, Ken Oringer, and Marcus Samuelsson

The food

The menu for the event was most definitely unusual, but was also quite brilliant. It was an eclectic mix of flavors and ingredients that I personally had never experienced, and doubt many in attendance had either. Of all things on the menu, I was excited to try the berbere roasted rabbit. I first learned of berbere while reading Chef Samuelsson’s memoir “Yes, Chef”. Berbere is a mix of spices: chilies, paprika, ground ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon. I’m not certain of the exact quantities Jamie used for his berbere, but I was impressed that it didn’t overpower the delicate flavor of the rabbit (Which for the record… tastes like rabbit. Not chicken.).

There were plenty of other highlights on the menu. My wife was just short of chasing down hors d’ouevres trays carrying chicken fried zucchini flowers with a Buna coffe aioli, the aioli in particular adding a nice kick to the zucchini flower. A not so typical smörgåsbord was also off-the-wall great. I made multiple visits to the pickled vegetables, in particular the carrots, as well as the sweet & savory candied peanuts.

An amazing end to the night came in the form of a blåbärssoppa. A blueberry “soup” panna cotta. It was extremely light, with a perfect texture, which has to be expect of an Italian enoteca, regardless of what the inspiration for the overall meal was! It was a great finish to a great meal.

At the end of this article you’ll find a full transcription of the entire menu from the evening. It’s drool-worthy… and I didn’t even include the wines!

Man of the hour (or four)

Chef Marcus Samuelsson

While the Ethiopian and Swedish cultures are inspirational all their own, this event was ultimately inspired by an individual who embodies both: Chef Marcus Samuelsson. From the moment we walked in to Coppa, Chef Samuelsson was making the rounds. He spoke with everyone. He shook hands. He even served the berbere roasted rabbit to the Red Sea chef sitting at our table (she’d never tried rabbit before and was unsure that she wanted to). Chef Marcus made it happen.

That’s the charm of Chef Marcus. He has a quality that is very disarming. An easy, genuine smile that is contagious. An event of this kind obviously requires that attention be paid to those in attendance, but at not point did it feel like Chef Marcus was “on the clock”. He enjoyed wine and food with the rest of us, answered some questions, cracked a bunch of jokes. And of course chalked us up as one of the better book dinners thus far (“Nobody rocks like … Boston!” [“He said Boston!!!”]).

Prior to the dinner, I had already managed to read about half of “Yes, Chef” on my Nook. Now, with a freshly signed hard copy, I look forward to finishing off the fascinating memoir of this amazing individual.

In the end…

The entire experience from start to finish was, in a word, inspiring. Amazing food. A boat load of culinary firepower. The opportunity to be around that much food knowledge is downright humbling for a foodie, and it is most definitely a night I won’t soon forget. I look forward to a “family reunion” with our table-mates one day at Red Rooster. To the entire team at Coppa, a heartfelt well done. To Chef Marcus Samuelsson, thank you  for sharing your story and your passion. And, do I look forward to crossing paths again?

Yes, Chef.


Hors D’ouevres

Kitfo – Ethiopian beef tartare on injera
Raggmunk – Swedish potato pancake with crab and corn
Chicken fried zucchini flowers – Buna coffee aioli
Inlagd Oysters – Pickled oysters with korarima and coconut

Smörgåsbord

Shiro – Yellow eye pea puree with baharat
Inlagd Anjovis – White anchovies with lovage & black olive
Inlagd Grönsaker – Pickled vegetables
Swede Rotmos – Green rutabaga and carrot salad
Sweet & Savory Candied Peanuts

Ethiopian & Swedish Pizza

Gomen Wot – Braised greens with favas and tomatoes
Falukorv – Smoked pork offal and beef sausage with ricotta

Sunday Supper

Berbere Roasted Rabbit
Mac n’ Greens – House made cavatelli with Swiss chard & cloth bound cheddar
Kolo and Kale Salad – Puffed barley and kale salad

Dessert

Blåbärssoppa – Blueberry “soup” panna cotta

Blueberry “soup” panna cotta