“IN THE BEGINNING there was the Harvest. Its kitchen begat Jimmy Burke, of the Tuscan Grill; Frank McClelland, of L’Espalier; and Chris Schlesinger, of The Blue Room. Or maybe it was the brief fling at the Orson Welles, whence came Odette Bery’s Turtle Cafe and then Another Season, whence came Michela Larson, who begat Todd English. Or the Copley Plaza, which issued forth Jasper White and Lydia Shire, who then went on to Seasons, at the Bostonian Hotel, whence came Gordon Hamersley and Jody Adams and Anthony Ambrose. Or the very first Bocage, where, under Sally Scoville…
The explosion of Boston’s food world began modestly, sometime in the late ’60s, in a town where food meant tradition but not necessarily taste. Through the next couple of decades, hesitantly at first, young chefs began challenging the cod and the bean. And in a few kitchens, those honed by training at Cafe L’ Ananas in Cambridge or Maison Robert in Boston or Madeleine Kamman’s Modern Gourmet school, chefs coalesced for a few years and then spread out to become a celebrity tribe.
Odette Bery remembers 1968 at the Orson Welles, in Cambridge, where she and Joyce della Chiesa shook things up by offering a more casual and experimental style. Bruce Frankel remembers the early ’70s at Leo Romero’s Cafe L’ Ananas, in Cambridge, and Karen and Bob Pritzker’s Doudin-Bouffant, in Back Bay, where French cuisine took a radical turn and shaped his minimalist nouvelle cuisine at Panache.
And Chris Schlesinger remembers the Harvest a decade later, when he was hired for $4.25 an hour by Frank McClelland, then sous-chef. Jimmy Burke was the chef, and nouvelle cuisine was just hitting the United States. ‘We had carte blanche to order anything we wanted,’ Schlesinger says.
The chefs at the Harvest, who eventually included Rick Katz (Bentonwood Cafe), Bob Kinkead (Kinkead’s, in Washington), and Billy Poirier (chef at soon-to-open Sonsie), were like kids in a candy store, Schlesinger says, sometimes experimenting wildly. But that’s ‘where I date my enthusiasm for new ingredients,’ he says.
Seasons, at the Bostonian Hotel, was another kitchen that had a mushrooming effect. When it opened, in 1981, Jasper White became its chef and brought Lydia Shire with him. Their imaginative take on American food swept Boston and pushed both of them into national prominence. White, who now owns the prestigious Jasper’s, points to a confluence of talent and the freedom the hotel gave them, and he compares it to other epiphanies in the culinary world, such as Pyramide in the early ’70s in France, when nouvelle cuisine was born. ‘There’s a reason when something is hot,’ White says. ‘The Bostonian was so experimental; we were different. It was like being let out of jail,’ compared to, ‘the slavish presentations of French food,’ that had been the paradigm of gourmet dining.
And more chefs followed at Seasons —Gordon Hamersley (Hamersley’s Bistro), Susan Regis (chef at Biba), Jody Adams (chef at Michela’s), Anthony Ambrose (at soon-to-open Ambrosia, on Huntington Avenue).
Although they may be competitors in their own restaurants today, many of these chefs have a history of working together, breeding closeness but also insularity. Boston is a hard place to break into, says Jimmy Burke, at least at first. There’s not a lot of cross-fertilization among cultures: There are few Asian or black star chefs, and even California upstarts, like Jackson Kenworth, at Marais, aren’t always counted among the elite.
And yet in a city that tends to disdain stardom, Boston chefs are granted a special sort of fond and familiar celebrity status. Diners are loyal to Jasper White, who, like Julia Child, is often referred to by his first name, or to Lydia Shire or Chris Schlesinger; the whims of fashion don’t swerve the dining-out crowd to a new restaurant every other week.
But just as the first crop of chefs moved on past L’Espalier and the Harvest and Seasons, so, too, a new set of sous-chefs is moving out. When stars of the next wave have enough training under their toques and want to set up places of their own, chances are the new restaurants won’t be far away. Which may be why you can almost see chefs — all those open kitchens, you know — looking over their shoulders.”