Restaurateur Garrett Harker, 49, was bornand raised in Baltimore. He began in the restaurant industry at age 15, washing dishes and busing tables, and after graduating from Pomona College, he moved to San Francisco to work for the Kimpton Group. He became the youngest general manager in the company’s history while working at Scala’s Bistro, and after moving to Boston in 1998, he became general manager of No. 9 Park. Together, he and Barbara Lynch opened B&G Oysters and the Butcher Shop, but in 2005, Harker went out on his own by opening Eastern Standard in Kenmore Square. Island Creek Oyster Bar, the Hawthorne, Row 34, Row 34 Portsmouth and Branch Line followed, and Harker is now working on a new concept in the former Conductor’s Building in Harvard Square. Named 2016’s Restaurateur of the Year by the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, he lives in Boston.
Jonathan Soroff: How often do you eat at home?
Garrett Harker: Maybe once a week. Sundays, I’m cooking somewhere, either at my girlfriend’s house or at my house. I like to cook.
Are you a good cook? As I like to tell Jeremy [Sewall, his business partner and chef] often, “I think I’m the best chef in the building.” He doesn’t appreciate hearing that, though. I love to cook. When I’m alone and have some downtime, I like to explore my culinary side. But most nights, I take something to go and eat on my couch.
Biggest advantage of being a front-of-the-house restaurateur as opposed to the chef? Maybe being able to see the excitement on the guests’ faces directly. Being able to be part of special occasions and cool moments in the restaurant, like somebody discovering something new about wine that they didn’t know. Then we have to make that moment come alive for the folks in the kitchen. They need to be inspired by that as well.
Biggest disadvantage? When there’s a problem, we have to handle it. There’s nowhere to hide.
Most ridiculous thing that happens with regularity? The funniest thing that happens is when people come up to me at the podium and say, “I’m a friend of Gary Parker’s, and he said I could have a table.” My response is always “That Gary Parker is a good guy. Sometimes he over-promises, but he’s a really good guy. Let me find you a spot.” Stuff like that could drive you crazy if you let it, but you can’t let it.
Top three things that all great restaurants have? An exciting room—whether it’s sexy, whether it’s rustic, there’s something going on with the space itself. The staff needs to feel like they’re having fun. And you can’t skimp on the product that comes in the back door. You have to buy the very finest.
What’s the kiss of death in your business? I’d say when you start believing your press and patting yourself on the back. You have to get better every day. You can suck as a restaurant. That’s fine. Plenty of my restaurants have sucked, or maybe even suck right now, but you have to be committed to getting better every day.
When you go out to eat, what’s your philosophy in terms of tipping? I like to recognize somebody who wants to create a kind of moment for me and my guests. I want someone who’s putting their heart into it, maybe taking a risk, recommending something that might not be the status quo. And then I like to tip accordingly, so that they know that table appreciated them putting a bit of themselves into the experience. I like that in a chef, too. That’s one of the reasons why I adore Lydia Shire, because whenever you go to Scampo, you’re going to experience something extraordinary that you weren’t expecting.
Are you a fan of cooking shows? I grew up on Jacques Pépin. Everybody else was maybe watching cartoons on Sunday morning, and I was watching Jacques Pépin and Martin Yan. I didn’t travel as a kid, and it was eye-opening to see them preparing foods that seemed so exotic to me.
Is there a cuisine you just don’t eat? Maybe my mom’s Irish cooking. That might be the only one I don’t feel the need to return to. I grew up in a house where food was a requirement and just getting it out to the family was enough. No one tried to do much more. That said, though, my dad would buy oysters on the spur of the moment, and when I was like 6, we’d go down to the basement and shuck them and eat them.
How often do you introduce oysters to someone who’s intimidated by them? Every night. When they’re willing to trust you and sort of let go of their hang-up, that’s something the staff will let the managers know. But my advice would be to go to a place that serves them with the highest level of integrity, and I would say we fall into that category, along with many others. Skip Bennett at Island Creek approaches growing oysters the same way a fine winemaker approaches growing grapes. And if you can align people’s understanding with the romance of growing grapes, I think you have a bigger conversion rate.
Ever found a pearl in an oyster? Well, I was there when C.J. Husk [of Island Creek] found a pearl. He was shucking at Head of the Charles, and I was there with my daughter, who was probably 12 at the time. He shucked an oyster for her, and there was a pearl. He said it was only the second time he’d ever seen that.
Are oysters an aphrodisiac? No, but sharing them with somebody over a bottle of sauvignon blanc would probably get the job done.
Cocktail of choice? Probably a Negroni. I think it’s absolutely perfect in that it’s three ingredients in equal parts, and each on its own isn’t all that appealing, but when you put them together, you get something transcendent.
Favorite restaurant in the world? Fore Street in Portland, Maine. I drive up once a year just to be in that room. If my restaurants are even a little bit like what it feels like to be in that room, we’re accomplishing something.
Fantasy guest at one of your restaurants? I’d love to see a table with Thom Yorke from Radiohead, Julia Child (because she never got to see me out on my own) and maybe Bill Belichick.
Anyone who’s barred from your restaurants? [Laughs.] That’s a great question. I remember when we opened No. 9 Park, Barbara [Lynch] had an old boss who came in, and she said, “I’m going out there to throw him out.” I stood in front of the kitchen door, saying, “You can’t do that!” And she said, “Have you ever worked with someone who completely disrespected you and treated you like garbage? That’s who he is to me.” So I stepped aside and she threw him out. I guess maybe there’s that guy, an old boss I had once, who I wouldn’t appreciate seeing in my restaurants.
One thing you’d fire an employee for immediately? Being abusive to their colleagues.
Pet peeve with customers? I don’t know that I have one. Everyone’s so interesting, even if they’re difficult. Some of our best customers are what we call “discerning,” and that’s what we like to measure ourselves against.
Thoughts on food critics? They can be useful. Some are much better than others. The worst quality in a food critic is somebody who doesn’t love food or the experience of being out. The Globe is in between critics, so they’re assigning to random people on the news desk who are into food, and I find it refreshing. They have this exuberance. They’re excited to be out, and they’re writing with an enthusiasm I think The Globe should just stick to.
Thoughts on Yelp and other online review sites? I don’t pay attention to them, but I have people on my team who do.
Do you think you transformed Kenmore Square? Yes. I think we did. I think some big institutional forces laid the groundwork, like Boston University and the owners of the Red Sox, but I think my team actually helped it come to fruition.
Why’d you choose there? Honestly, it’s probably because I’m not a born-and-raised Bostonian, so I wasn’t walking around with this built-in disdain for Kenmore Square. When the opportunity presented itself, I looked on a map and said, “Wait. It’s the gateway to the western suburbs. It’s a quick shot over the river. It’s in Fenway Park’s backyard, and it’s historic.” So I signed up while all of my peers said, “No one’s going to come to Kenmore Square to eat and drink.” It was naivete on my part, but it worked to my advantage.
Now you’re moving into Harvard Square. Why? It’s a little bit of a play on my ego, because Jenny Johnson reached out and said, “There is a totally unique space, and there might not be any place like it in the country.” I believe my team can figure out how to make it work.
So where will your empire end? Well, I think Boston has one of the most dynamic and vital restaurant scenes in the country, and when there’s opportunity for the young people coming up through the ranks to land in an ownership position, when that’s accomplished, I think I’ll be done.