Rebecca Arnold at Pain D’Avignon; Photo Credit: Brian Samuels
Rebecca Arnold of Whole Heart Provisions wasn’t always destined for the kitchen. The veggie virtuoso’s first taste of the restaurant industry was in 2008 as a hostess for the Boston Renaissance Hotel’s former eatery 606 Congress, even though she initially applied for a line cook position. Armed with a culinary degree but no previous kitchen experience, the 21-year-old Arnold learned as much about food as possible during her four-month stint at the front of house, forming a relationship with executive chef Toby Hill, who she would later follow to Hyannis’ Pain D’Avignon. “I begged him to let me work in the kitchen for about a month, and they finally transferred me over to the garde manger station,” Arnold says.
Once entrenched in the culinary quarters, Arnold was on her way to learning the trade. On slow nights, the kitchen staff would compete to create dishes featuring a secret ingredient in a game modeled after the Food Network series Iron Chef. In a round highlighting raspberries, Arnold whipped up a pork chop with a raspberry mostarda. “I was very new to the kitchen in those days…so I had no idea really how to pan sear a pork chop and get a nice golden crust on it, but I got to head over to the hot station and give it my best,” Arnold says.
During her year-and-a-half at 606 Congress, Arnold learned many kitchen tips and tricks, such as balancing flavors and textures with acid, crunch and spice as well as treating your staff like family. “Everyone is so important to the running of a smooth kitchen—from prep cooks, line cooks and dishwashers to sous-chefs and managers,” Arnold says. “Those people are the ones who make the restaurant shine. If you treat them with respect, it will be returned tenfold.”
Asia Mei and her co-workers at Hamersley’s
By the time she was graduating from Boston College in 2003, Asia Mei had an inkling she was unlikely to use her honors degree in economics to find a desk job. Mei had spent a couple of months working at a friend’s family restaurant, Naha Cafe in the Fenway area, where she rolled sushi, washed dishes and worked the grill. But she took a chance on the day of her BC graduation that charted her course to her current job as chef/owner of Moonshine 152: Mei skipped out on the ceremony, instead popping into Hamersley’s to see if there were any job openings.
“I had my normal resume, which was pretty decent, but my ‘cooking resume’ was essentially my name and phone number. I had called the restaurant the week before and been told that they weren’t hiring or looking for anyone, but I was determined to get a job in a four-star restaurant,” Mei says. “When I got to the desk, the hostess mentioned that someone had just put in their notice the day before, and 10 minutes later I was talking to one of Boston’s best chefs ever.”
Gordon Hamersley had her toss on a chef’s jacket and hop on the hot line for a tryout in his famed open kitchen that very night. The job was hers, and eventually she worked her way up to sous-chef, where she further honed her work ethic. She recalls running the hot line one weekend when all of her more senior co-workers were at a wedding in New York. Mei severed two tendons right before that Saturday dinner service, but she worked the grill station and finished her shift before heading to the emergency room.
“Hamersley’s was just the sort of place and kitchen that inspired a die-hard sense of dedication like that,” Mei says. “[People have] always respected and honored his being on the hot line, night after night, always there and leading the team. I’m the same way. When you love what you do, believe in the food you make and dedicate yourself to every step in the process to get it to the people in your neighborhood, then people see and taste that.”
Tony Maws at Craigie Street Bistro
Tony Maws, chef/owner of Cambridge’s Craigie on Main and Somerville’s Kirkland Tap & Trotter, has a slew of accolades under his belt—including a James Beard Award—but like many of us, he landed his first job with a little resume fudging. In 1985, his parents pushed him to get a summer gig. “There were a few restaurants and inns around our family’s house so I sent my heavily embellished resume off and quickly got a call from the Beach Plum Inn,” Maws says. His first job was as a dishwasher at the Martha’s Vineyard inn and restaurant, where the then-15-year-old Maws discovered his love of working in the kitchen, with all the madness and camaraderie (and leftover lobster tails) that came with it. “I played hockey, and this reminded me of the adrenaline I felt out on the ice with the team,” he says. “A very immediate rush, challenge and gratification.”
After college, he couldn’t shake his passion for the kitchen, and in 1994 he decided to apply to East Coast Grill, where Chris Schlesinger hired him both as a part-time prep cook and a part-time garde manger at the Blue Room. His early days at East Coast Grill, alongside chef Andy Husbands, were packed with epic prep lists. “I was beyond lost, but I tucked my tail between my legs, kept my head down and went to work,” Maws says.
When a spot on the line opened up at the Blue Room, he moved there full-time and learned more than a few lessons that still stick with him. “I remember the time I burnt the shit out of a duck and still served it,” he says. “The woman who ordered it promptly sent it right back, and when chef Mark Hall saw, he lit me up in front of the entire dining room. He just destroyed me. And I never served food that wasn’t perfect ever again.”
Tony Messina at Alta Strada
Tony Messina—executive chef/partner of UNI in Back Bay—has worked in some of the most prestigious kitchens in Boston, but his culinary career had a much humbler beginning: working at Spinelli’s catering company in Eastie. His uncle got him the job when he was just 14 years old after Messina showed an early fascination with food, often spending the majority of his time cooking for family and helping prepare traditional Italian dishes in his grandparents’ kitchen. Messina worked for the catering company throughout high school until 1999—despite a somewhat rocky start. “I would constantly get yelled at,” Messina says. “Eventually, I learned all of the food pickups and I was able to work every station.”
Messina was drawn to the fast-paced nature of being in the kitchen and, despite leaving the industry for a few years, ultimately decided to pursue his passion for the culinary world, shucking oysters at Legal Sea Foods before joining the team at Alta Strada as a line cook and head server. “I missed the speed and pressure of it,” Messina says. “Had I not been acquainted with it through my first job, I may not have gone into cooking at all.”
He continued his gastronomic journey at the Cambridge Culinary School in 2009, and in 2010 Messina joined the opening staff at Menton as chef de partie. All of that led him to Ken Oringer’s original UNI in 2012. “The most important thing I learned was to be persistent,” Messina says. “This lesson rings true today for my staff. The cooks that want to learn will push their way into learning new things.”
David Bazirgan and his mother at Galleria Italiana
Even today, Bambara chef David Bazirgan remains shocked that he didn’t get fired from his first cooking gig in Boston. As a 21-year-old at Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, he landed a job in 1995 as garde manger at Barbara Lynch’s Galleria Italiana, thanks to a recommendation from his instructor, Susan Logozzo. After he’d worked there for a little while, Bazirgan was roasting portabella mushrooms on the top rack of a convection oven. He had loaded up the dish with oil, when Lynch went to check on it.
“The scalding oil burned the shit out of her arm. How I kept my job, I have no idea,” he says. “But it definitely taught me a thing or two about proportions and safety.”
Those weren’t the only things Bazirgan learned from Lynch, whom he kept in touch with even while working on the West Coast. He points to the unwieldy 20-item antipasta della casa that he had to learn how to manage. And he also says Lynch helped him gain an appreciation for seasonal ingredients and fresh pasta—something he still makes at Bambara. For a kid who started working as a dishwasher in Newburyport at age 13, and who was “terrible” in high school, a career in the kitchen became his best path.
“I credit Barbara for most of the lessons I’ve learned as a chef,” he says. “Read as much as possible. Eat out whenever possible and push yourself to learn, learn, learn.”◆