Chef and restaurateur Joshua Lewin combines his two passions at Juliet in Somerville: cooking and storytelling. This year, the Somerville restaurant won Boston’s Best Toast and offers a range of experiences from casual breakfast to a prix fixe dinner. On Oct. 15, Juliet hosts Kaizen by Oisa Ramen, which will combine Japanese cuisine from chef Moe Kuroki with Juliet’s dining experience. Lewin talked earlier this fall about how he became a chef, the influence of his business partner Katrina Jazayeri and his favorite kind of toast.
When was the moment you decided to become a chef? That’s a tough one. I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 15 years old, mostly in the kitchen. I was a dishwasher and a line cook. I worked in kitchens throughout high school, and bounced around with a couple of other jobs and failed attempts at college in between, but always came back to restaurants as a place of opportunity and necessity. It was always kind of a fall-back plan. But somewhere along the way I ended up meeting some people who were important in helping me realize that this could become a really interesting and meaningful career. The biggest of those mentors was Jason Bond at Bondir in Cambridge. That’s the moment I went from understanding restaurants as a place where I could find work to a place where I could build a career.
How did you develop the concept for Juliet? Juliet was developed collaboratively. I have a partner at the restaurant, Katrina, and she’s mostly responsible for front-of-house or service-related aspects of what we do, especially in wine and beverage and training the staff. And I’m primarily responsible for what happens in the kitchen and crafting our menus and our cuisine. However, if you’ve been to Juliet you probably realized that the kitchen and the dining room are really just one room, so we really collaborate back and forth together on all aspects of what we do. We’re also residents of Union Square in Somerville where the restaurant is located and we’re very local to the neighborhood. Before we owned it as a full-service restaurant, it was kind of a neighborhood cafe and coffee shop open early in the day but not really serving dinner service. One of the first conversations that we had was about wanting to retain a lot of what the neighborhood had come to expect from that space. We developed this idea where Juliet became two places in one and also two places at the same time. You can come for this more intricate, prix fixe or tasting style dining experience at night, but at the same time you can walk in and have this comfortable and unexpected neighborhood-oriented experience. Both groups are sitting right next to each other. So it’s everyone doing their own thing in the same space and we can be a little bit of something for whatever you need on that particular day.
How have you and your partner Katrina Jazayeri influenced each other’s careers? I come from a restaurant background, and Katrina is a little bit newer in restaurant work, although she has some crucial experience that she brings to the table. Where we influence each other most is in how the business foundations are built in the first place, how we interact with the community and how we train and treat our staff.
Before I even met Katrina, I was the chef of a restaurant downtown in Boston and had thought about opening a restaurant and had some potential partners. One thing that I was really stuck on was not opening a restaurant without strong career-oriented training in place and an ability to compensate staff that was meaningful and could grow with the business. I didn’t have any examples of this being done or willing partners with the same vision. Katrina actually comes to the restaurant industry from an education in community organizing, social justice and public health. She made her way to restaurants realizing that the access points were so many and so early in so many peoples’ lives or careers, that we could really have an impact in that industry. So it was a synchronistic reality as some of the things that I knew were missing from my understanding of how a business could be run, and she wanted to partner with somebody who had the experience in the foundations of running a restaurant. In the end, we could come together to work on the same goal.
Servers at Juliet are paid a living wage—gratuity isn’t expected. Why did you decide to do this? Restaurants employ a lot of people. Up to a third—that’s a conservative estimate—of American workers will have worked in a restaurant at some point in their careers. But not all restaurants are a great place to work. I was concerned about young people and some of their early examples of the professional environment being places where harassment might be accepted…and where there weren’t strong systems and support foundations for people to speak up or expect change to happen. In addition to that, a lot of substance abuse issues… And a lot of that is tied up in compensation. When people are paid in tips, they’re not paid a full wage by their employer. That works out well for some people. No denying that. But for a lot of people, it creates a situation where they have no power at work. They’re relying on the good graces of their employer to make sure they get good shifts, good sections and that there’s no wage theft for other reasons. But if someone’s been harassed at work and maybe speaks up to their manager, and if you start to show up to work and your hours are cut or you’re given a section that isn’t as lucrative as another one, you don’t have this wage to fall back on. That’s one reason. And then there’s career-oriented thinking that we feel is difficult when you’re paid on a tipped wage.
Personally, as someone who never graduated college, I found in restaurants a place where I could do good work, be recognized for that good work, express interest in becoming a career-oriented person and already have the training as part of my work. But that really required meeting the right people, showing that initiative, and, to be perfectly frank, getting kind of lucky. We wanted to build a restaurant where we could take luck out of the equation and build in a lot of that dignity and professionalism from the first day at work… [This is] a place where you could take your time in restaurant work and be really proud of it from a resume standpoint and be able to back up that resume in future interviews in any industry and talk about what you had learned. As a result, we have a great tenure among our staff and there’s not a lot of turnover like there is in other restaurants.
Of course, we’re not quite three years old, so we’re still in the early stages of proving this reality. We opened Juliet on a fair wages model, which is above minimum wage and on a profit-sharing model. So the staff are heavily incentivized to work together with us to create a strong business where the revenue is coming in, the guests are respected, the service is great, the costs are controlled appropriately and, in turn, they are rewarded based on that profit. They’re learning something about how entrepreneurship happens and how businesses are built and sustained.
What is your favorite preparation of toast that’s made an appearance on Juliet’s menu? We have one that has a chickpea puree and this really fun Basque region-style condiment called piperade, which is bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, a little bit of garlic and lots of red wine. It’s kind of this intricate preparation that you don’t see every day for breakfast in your neighborhood restaurant. But because we’re committing these resources already to serve dinner menus, we’re able to share fun things on the breakfast menu and on the toast. Because we’re committing all this time and energy to sharing these tasting menu stories, you’re able to see these toppings constantly change and be a part of that story yourself, even if you can’t come to dinner. My favorite toast is all the toasts, as they change so frequently and we really share that dinner menu in a more casual format.
Juliet 257 Washington St., Somerville. julietsomerville.com