Award-winning chef Michael Scelfo is the owner of Alden & Harlow, located in the space that was once the legendary Harvard Square restaurant Casablanca, as well as the nearby Waypoint, and the soon-to-open Longfellow Bar, upstairs from Alden & Harlow, in the space that once housed Cafe Algiers. A Long Island native, Scelfo studied at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon, and worked at Wildwood Kitchen there before returning to the East Coast. He was the executive chef of the Good Life and then the Russell House Tavern, before opening his award-winning Alden & Harlow in 2014. He lives in Arlington with his wife and three children.
Jonathan Soroff: What three things are always in your refrigerator?
Michael Scelfo: Yogurt, hot dogs and mayonnaise. How’s that for a weird combo?
Least favorite thing to cook? Probably squash. Our growing season is so short here in New England that if you’re trying to do a seasonal menu and keep it fresh, it can kind of get monotonous with all those root vegetables by the end of the winter.
Favorite regional cuisine? I love the kind of Southern Italian cooking that I grew up on, so I’d say that has the closest ties to my roots and makes me feel the most nostalgic about food. But I also have really fond memories of the Midwest, and those all-American comfort classics and barbecue are a very close second—if not tied for first. I think that’s why there’s so many smoky influences in my food. That flavor profile resonates with me.
Who does most of the cooking at home? I do, but my wife, Ellen, is a pretty awesome cook and a great baker. And my daughter Mae is getting some pretty good chops in the kitchen, too, so we do a lot of prepping together.
Secret to a great burger? For me, the blend of meat and the seasoning, as well as the ability to be restrained while cooking it. In other words, don’t touch it. Let it do its thing instead of messing with it every 20 seconds. I just use salt and pepper. At Alden & Harlow, our burger has kind of taken on a life of its own. We do some kind of geeky chef stuff to the grind. It’s 100-percent beef, but the fat content is key, as is the seasoning, and we coax a little bit more flavor out of it.
Favorite spice or spice blend? I make my own barbecue rub. I spent years as a kid perfecting it. That was kinda my first foray into cooking. I was in junior high, and I was obsessed with Gates BBQ in Kansas City, and I tried to recreate it out of my mom’s spice cabinet. I spent an entire summer experimenting with paprika and chili powder and garlic powder and sugar and different kinds of sugar, and how much salt, and what kind of salt. Now, I make a huge batch of it at the beginning of every summer and I use it on pretty much everything.
Favorite holiday to cook for? Easily Christmas Eve. We do our own kind of version of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. We throw a cocktail party for friends and family, and we make drinks. Usually, everyone’s hanging out in the kitchen, and I’m cooking, and as it comes off the stove, we just pass and eat it. We’ve taken a lot of those classic Italian tropes and reimagined them down into bite-sized cocktail party food. It’s really fun for people to enjoy finger food and mingle. It’s a blast.
Person, living or dead, you’d most like to cook for? I would really like to cook for my grandmother, Josephine. She didn’t get to see me graduate from culinary school, and she was the true Italian matriarch, the rock of our family. I would love to be able to cook for her and have a chat.
Did you ever hang out at Casablanca? That’s what’s so bizarre about Alden & Harlow. I went to Casablanca all the time, and I’d work on my business plan there. I was cooking at the Russell House Tavern and I’d get off work and go over to Casablanca. It was quiet, and it was kinda like going to a library and getting a cocktail. And I’d sit there, working, never imagining that that space would become my restaurant. It’s kind of a cool, surreal, fated thing when I look back on it now.
Do you have any souvenirs? Oh, yeah. A lot. I was a big fan and I saved mirrors, all the murals, which was a big job because they were painted onto the drywall. It was a pretty tedious process. Y’know, usually you just demolish the place and start over, but there were so many of these legendary, iconic paintings, I had to save them.
Ingredient you can’t get enough of right now? Well, Formaggio has this condiment. It’s a fermented garlic blossom. It’s packed in oil, super pungent and umami-laden. It’s got this funky, garlicky, floral flavor, and I’ve been using it a lot and working it into simple preparations. That’s the geeky chef thing I’ve been messing around with. I’m also a freak for olive oils and I’m constantly looking for the best and next olive oil. In my kitchen, you’ll probably see as many as 20 varieties at any given time.
Thoughts on Yelp? I have quite a history with Yelp. [Laughs.] In 2015, I posted an Instagram picture of two horrible customers who were threatening us with a bad Yelp review, and it kind of went viral. I caught a lot of flack for it, but 99 percent of the response was positive. I still read every Yelp review. There’s often a little kernel of truth, and I like the feedback. I’m always looking at what we can do better. That’s what makes us good at what we do. So there are the shitty reviews, which are just somebody with an axe to grind or someone looking for a free meal, but they can be useful.
Favorite thing to do on a day off? Believe it or not, I love to cook. It’s still my number one passion, and I look forward to that. I listen to music. I have a motorcycle, so sometimes I go out for a ride. And I’m a big nerd. I like to watch movies and read comic books.
Favorite Boston restaurant that isn’t yours? Hands down, Oleana.
Something you think you do better than any other chef? Well, I don’t know that I’m better. There’s a lot of good food in Boston, despite what you might hear lately. But I think what I’m really good at is seasoning food and coaxing flavor out of things. I think I surprise people with the amount of flavor I put in front of them.
Biggest kitchen disaster? Hmm. Probably the Thanksgiving I screwed up. I was fresh out of culinary school and I wanted to impress everybody with what a great chef I am. I brined the turkey and I must have put 12 to 15 cinnamon sticks in the brine. I was like, “I’m gonna get really fuckin’ chef-y right now.” It tasted like one of those spicy red-hot candies. Really disgusting. The only thing my dad wanted to carve up that day was me, I’m sure.
Is uncooked chicken the grossest thing in the world? Yes. It is.
Most important kitchen tool? It’s kind of cliche, but I’d say my knife. Not only is it indispensable for cutting things, but I can make it do virtually anything I need it to. I can usually get anything done with it.
Favorite kitchen gadget? My wife got me this incredible Japanese rice cooker last year, and it’s a total game-changer. I’m obsessed with it. I use it all the time. That’s my favorite little geeky toy right now.
Grossest thing you ever ate? Probably the meal I just had on the airline coming home from Feast Portland. It was pretty disgusting. The flight attendant said, “Your choice is either a risotto cake with squash,” blah, “or a brown butter salmon.” And she said it with such passion, I was like, “Yes!” Then it came, and I can’t really describe the shade of gray it was. It was awful. And it had these beans, with kale, and it was sweet, and you couldn’t even cut it with a fork. I wouldn’t have fed it to my dog. I’ll refrain from naming the airline, but God it was disgusting.
If you were on Death Row, what would be your final meal? A slice of pizza from my local pizza joint on Long Island that I kinda grew up on in Port Jefferson. It’s called Colosseo. That might be kind of boring, but that’s my deserted island dish. Pizza is my favorite, and I’d kill for a slice of that.
Would you ever do a cooking competition reality show? No. I’ve been offered probably seven or eight times and I’ve said no. I have no interest in being that type of chef. It doesn’t speak to me on any level. And I certainly have nothing against chefs who do it and create something out of it for themselves, but for me, being competitive with food on any level just kinda grosses me out. Food is something not everyone has access to, and not everyone can get it, and I feel like those shows trivialize it. A lot of people can’t get their hands on food. Seeing people play with it on TV kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
A dish you’ve tried to master but haven’t? Well, every year at Christmastime I try to do a beef Wellington, which is a tough one to nail in terms of the perfect temperature on the inside, the crust on the outside, and the layers. It’s a tough dish to get right all the time. But generally speaking, I’m pretty confident in the kitchen, and I tend to stay in my comfort zone and not get too crazy.
If I were to show up at your house unannounced, what would you make me? Clam sauce. I always have it on hand. It’s probably the best thing that I make. And we’d open a bottle of red wine and put cheese on it. We’d do everything wrong. And it would be perfect.
Thing that home chefs always fuck up? Seasoning. Put some salt and pepper on your food!
Gas grill or charcoal? I’m a charcoal guy, all the way. I have like four charcoal grills at my house. I have a Cowboy Cauldron, a Weber Smoker, a Big Green Egg and a custom one. It kinda looks like Barbecue University. ◆