Restaurants: Summer Shack (Multiple locations)
Education: Culinary Institute of America
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
There are so many—I started working in the early ’70s, then I cooked for ten years before I became an executive chef. I’m old enough to have worked in kitchens that made Tournedos Rossini. Back then, you had to know Escoffier to be considered a top-notch chef, and that took years. At the CIA, Bruno Elmer and Wayne Onquist were hugely influential, and I maintained lifelong friendships with both. There were two in San Francisco: Luigi Lorenzo owned a restaurant in North Beach called Lorenze’s, where I learned about working hard in a small kitchen. Yves Lansac was the chef at the Carnelian Room when it was a busy restaurant with a classical menu. He was a taskmaster. I did entremetier, the soufflé station—I did everything for him. He apprenticed in France with a chef named Jacky Robert, whom Lydia Shire worked for in Boston. Lydia and I first met cooking at the Biltmore. We kept eyeing each other’s food, because we knew there was something similar about how we both worked. It turned out our two chefs apprenticed together in France. It was kind of magical. Lydia’s been my best friend for 30-some years.
Another chef I worked for in Seattle named Alphonse Thomas had been the chef at the French embassy in the Soviet Union, later Canada, then emigrated to the U.S. He was brilliant. He did dishes that blew my mind. He told me about this dish he made for JFK and Jackie O. at the Ottawa embassy: roast pheasants with sauerkraut, Alsatian-style with smoked ham, caraway and apple cooked in Champagne. He presented the pheasants on a bed of sauerkraut, on a huge platter with a bottle of Champagne in the middle, with the cork cage removed but the cork still in the bottle. You had to time it just right, so that by the time the platter came to the table, the heat from the sauerkraut popped the cork, so the wine would bubble up all over the kraut and the pheasant. Chefs don’t do that sort of thing anymore.
So you were born in New Jersey, trained in San Francisco and Seattle—how did you come to celebrate the foods of New England?
In San Francisco, I came to realize fine dining, and classic French, was a lot about technique and presentation. I started to get uncomfortable because the ingredients weren’t as honest as they could be. I was all about ingredients: My father’s mother grew up on a farm outside Rome and encouraged me to be a chef. It was hard as a young American chef, at the tail end of the Jackie O. era and its Francophilia, to do fine dining other than this slightly phony French. There was no Asian, and at the CIA, American food was taught in the same class as the cafeteria. I realized I was never going to be French, no matter how hard I tried. In 1976, I happened to go to the garlic festival at Chez Panisse. I decided I wanted to be more ingredient-driven. I decided to focus on New England seafood simply because I ended up in Boston. I’ve pretty much focused my career on that, to this day. I’m proud of my restaurants, but I also have a wholesale seafood company called Georges Bank, buying directly from day boats all up and down our coast, that sells to some of the best restaurants around the country and supplies all the Summer Shack locations. We couldn’t do Summer Shack without supplying our own seafood, without knowing our fishermen.
With Summer Shack, you made a pretty dramatic switch to casual from fine dining. How did that come about?
I’ve reinvented myself a couple of times throughout my career. I did fine dining for 25 years. Now most people in Boston don’t know me as a fine-dining chef. They think I'm slinging clams, which is fine with me. In 1995, I had to decide whether to renew the lease on Jasper’s Kitchen. The Big Dig was coming through, and I was tired. I thought, I gotta do something else. I’m done with fine dining. The genre really requires my mind, and it requires the chef to be present. I wanted to have ten restaurants, but not fine dining, because it’s just not the same without the chef there. I also had children, and children are not a part of the fine-dining scene. I wanted to cook for kids and families, too. The underlying concept behind Summer Shack: Good food in a noisy, boisterous setting, where kids can be themselves without the parents feeling uptight, and everyone has a good time. Now we go through about 300,000 pounds of responsibly harvested lobster a year.
Can you name a few dishes that have defined your reinventions?
1. The pheasant with Champagne—that’s a pretty amazing classic dish. That’s from my early days in the mid-1970s.
2. Lobster Thermidor is another Escoffier classic. That’s from the early ’80s, when I was working in Boston hotels like the Parker House, and the Copley Plaza.
3. From the Jasper’s repertoire, from the later ’80s, lobster corn chowder and roasted garlic mashed potatoes. Now you can get garlic mashed potatoes at Applebee’s. I think I was the first to make both dishes, though I can’t prove that.
4. Rhode Island Johnnycakes with caviar, also from the Jasper’s days, spoke to what we were trying to do with our American approach to fine dining. The johnnycakes were thin and lacy, made with a special kind of cornmeal. We topped them with poached egg and osetra caviar. It was one of those bridge dishes that connected both worlds.
5. There’s this awesome Portuguese dish that ended up on the cover of my book called pork alentejana. When I first moved to Boston, there wasn’t much else in terms of ethnic food besides Chinese and Portuguese, so I ended up eating a lot of Portuguese food on my nights out and loved it. Like in San Francisco, I felt this disconnect between what I was cooking at these fine-dining places and what I ate on my nights off. At Jasper’s, I gussied up this dish of pork and clams and garlic sauce with port wine and these beautiful Little Neck clams. Jean-Louis [Palladin] had it and wrote me this letter afterwards, saying it was the most brilliant thing he’d tasted in years. That meant the world to me. Jean-Louis was the chef of chefs. It’s hard to describe how brilliant he was. I would have sold my restaurant to have apprenticed with Jean-Louis.
6. Pan-roasted lobster. It’s been my bread and butter for 30 years, one of the only dishes I carried over from Jasper’s to Summer Shack. It was inspired by the restaurant next to Jasper’s, one of Boston’s first fine-dining Chinese places called Calais CK. I loved their lobster ginger scallions. The chef, CK Sau, cooked his lobster in less than six minutes with a hot sear then a quick roasting. There was a crawfish dish that Fernand Point did with chervil and chives and cognac. I used bourbon. But it’s all about searing the lobster. Every drop ends up in that sauce, including the roe and tomalley. It’s a beautiful dish and keeps them coming back.
7. The clambake at Summer Shack. It’s one of our signatures. I didn’t invent the dish, but I invented and patented the system for cooking large amounts of lobster. I have a government patent on our lobster line: 80-gallon kettles with overhead joists and 1,000-gallon lobster tanks. Our clambake has lobster, mussels, steamers, chorizo, new potatoes, corn on the cob and a boiled egg. The egg comes from an old trick for real clam bakes on the beach: Hide an egg in with the lobster. Once the egg is cooked, the lobster is cooked. I don’t need it, but I put it in for fun.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Great ingredients. I always take Wednesdays off, especially in the summer because there’s a farmers’ market right next to my house. That’s the one night of the week I cook. I go to the market, see what’s good, buy what I can and go home. People still do it backwards, no matter how much we talk. They look at the cookbook and then they go shopping. They should do the reverse.
Any pointers for neophyte home cooks?
Remember that home cooking is about home. Don’t kill yourself. Make it simple. It’s about the experience, having conversations with friends and family. If you come to my house, the food is not going to impress you. You’re going to love it, but it's not going to wow you.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I used to be good at charcuterie and pâtés. There’s no call for it in a seafood restaurant, so I’d like to brush up. I wish I could flip a pizza like the real pizza guys, way high in the air. I do try it sometimes.
What are your talents besides cooking?
I’m a pretty good finger-pick guitar player. I can do folk, country, classical. I play every day for an hour or more. It takes me down out of the restaurant clouds. The woman who lives next door to me is a professional singer, so I also help her practice. She has such a great voice; I’m just happy to listen to her sing.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Oranges can enhance so many dishes, whether the rind or the flesh or the juice. People don’t even know sometimes what’s going on when I sneak it in. Years ago, I worked in the Caribbean, on St. Vincent in the Grenadines, where the only native citrus was the sour orange. Lemons and limes weren’t even available. Once I got used to that, I always liked adding it. Even if I’m doing a simple vinaigrette for fish, I’ll usually sneak in a little squeeze of orange.
What's the best house cocktail, wine or beer, and why?
It’s so personal. It depends on your palate; that’s why we have wine and beer lists. For my palate, hop-rich beers do not go with seafood, nor do wines with too much oak; you need something that cuts right through, which is why the famous seafood wines are Sancerre and Chablis. I also like cleaner pilsners, and Guinness. Guinness and oysters go great together.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
I’d fill the whole thing with caviar and bread and butter. It might get a little expensive. But I wouldn’t take seafood because it gets smelly in a day. I’d fill it with ice and caviar. When the caviar’s gone, I’ll kill myself.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Cold cuts, salami, pickles. Weird stuff like canned sardines or jarred herring. I like fish, I’m sorry, but they’re good for you! I also always have to have Irish sausage and bacon in my freezer, so I can always make a BLT.
Who's your chef idol and where would you take him or her to dinner?
I would have loved to have dinner with Escoffier at the Savoy Hotel in London when he was the chef there. I felt like I was his slave for years! And I worked with people that claimed to have cooked under him. To eat his food and have him explain it and talk about it? That would have been amazing.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
The first time I went to France, 30 years ago, I went shopping at E. Dehillerin and bought some objects that I still giggle at, fancy skewers called hatelets, some with fleur de lys on the top, one with lobsters on the top. They were used to decorate roasts, since classical food was always presented to the diner before it was plated. A large roast might be garnished with cherry tomatoes or fruits threaded onto these hatelets. I actually thought I might use them at the time. But they are so old-fashioned; they’re useless now. But I still smile whenever I see them, because they remind me of something that’s long gone.