At dawn on the Fourth of July, while most Bostonians are still asleep, Daniel Bruce, the 40-year-old executive chef at the Boston Harbor Hotel, is already out of bed and on his way deep into the Massachusetts woods. Why would this independent-minded chef be up so early on Independence Day? To forage for mushrooms to serve at his annual barbecue. Where does he go? Bruce won't disclose the exact spot.
"You can only tell where you go mushrooming on your deathbed," Bruce insists. "And then only your eldest child. And only if he or she has led an exemplary life. And then only if you're absolutely certain that you're going to die."
Bruce, who is said by many to be one of the city's most talented chefs--just ask Julia Child, who often dines at the hotel's Rowes Wharf Restaurant--has been foraging his entire life. The pioneering spirit comes naturally; Bruce grew up in the backwoods of Maine, the son of a registered hunting-and-fishing guide.
"We lived 15 miles from a town of only 60 people," he recalls. "We didn't have a lot of money, so we relied on the seasons to dictate what we ate. In the spring, we'd gather fiddlehead ferns. We'd catch fish from runoffs and as they were spawning. We had a garden, where we grew our own vegetables--tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers and rhubarb. And we'd pick wild berries as they ripened from month to month--strawberries, raspberries, then blackberries, blueberries and elderberries. I used to go out in the woods and find things like pussy-willow shoots and cook them."
That Yankee tenacity and adaptability have served Bruce well. At the age of 15, he landed a job washing pots at a small restaurant in Skowhegan, Maine. The owner helped him secure a scholarship to the Johnson & Wales cooking school in Providence, and after graduation he worked in Italy and France for two years. "I'd never been on a plane before then," Bruce laughs. "Talk about being a backwoods guy. I thought ciao meant it was time to eat!"
In 1985, when he decided to return to America, his Italian employer recommended that he look up Sirio Maccioni, the owner of Le Cirque in New York City. "I was so naive, I walked through the front door of Le Cirque without an appointment," Bruce says. "But chef Alain Sailhac took my number. He called that night and told me to report to work at seven the next morning."
After two years at Le Cirque, Bruce followed Sailhac to the '21' club, becoming executive chef in 1988, at the age of 27. He was lured to the Boston Harbor Hotel a year later, where he quickly gained a reputation for his innovative approach to New England cuisine.
As often as possible, Bruce still tries to use ingredients he has personally picked, plucked, hooked or netted. Guests at the hotel's Intrigue café, for instance, would be surprised to discover that the chef had gathered the sumac in the iced tea on a hike in nearby Milton, Massachusetts. And the roasted chanterelles served alongside the salmon at the July 4th barbecue were picked that very morning from Bruce's secret foraging site--any extra he finds he'll share with friends and colleagues.
Bruce raised the chives baked in the corn bread for the Independence Day feast as well as the asparagus, yellow wax beans, pear tomatoes and tarragon in the salad. The sage he used to season the marvelous pork burgers also came from his backyard plot.
"My grandmother used to make everything from scratch," Bruce remembers. "There was something about going to her house. All the food was on the table, and everyone was so happy. I've always liked to use what grows around me. It seems like that's the way it should be."