They put in long hours in their busy kitchens, but these celebrated local chefs also make time for pet projects that reflect personal and professional passions. For this group of top toques, such symbiotic sidelines encompass new hobbies and lifelong pursuits, tactile and cerebral enterprises, and efforts to help the business, the community and the industry. And did we mention fun?
Dave Becker, chef/owner of the 14-year-old Sweet Basil in Needham, cookbook author and soon-to-be proprietor of a new restaurant in Wellesley, had been in the business all his life, starting as a dishwasher at age 11. Then three years ago, at age 35, he found himself “looking for more ways to unwind.”
“I felt my brain shrink,” Becker says. “I needed a physical hobby. I needed to forget about ideas for a while.”
He took up pottery making at a neighborhood arts studio, which, he says, “was like a private gym membership. I could come and go at all hours.” Plus, the colorful finished products were an asset at the restaurant. “You can drop it on the floor—so what if it chips? It’s clearly handmade.”
Becker made custom plates for himself and, until recently, for his friend Juan Pedrosa, executive chef of the new Glenville Stops in Allston. These days, Becker spends about five hours a week on the pottery. “It was a lot more, but it went from being something to decompress to being stressful.”
Working with clay to create plates, Becker says, has much in common with making the rustic Mediterranean dishes for which he’s known. “They both have to have character, flair, substance. And you have to cook them!”
What’s not important are “tiny details,” Becker says, adding that he feels much the same about food. “It’s not an excuse for me to exercise complete control. I could never understand why chefs obsess with cutting round vegetables into little squares.”
World-class chef Barbara Lynch has never shrunk from speaking about how she grew up in the South Boston projects, one of six children of a single mother, the brat who stole an MBTA bus when she was 13 “for laughs.” She uses her trajectory as a model for how others might get “up and out,” which, with the relentless pushing of her high school home-ec teacher, she clearly did.
Now the proprietor of seven of the city’s finest establishments (Menton, No. 9 Park, B&G Oysters, The Butcher Shop, Stir, Drink and Sportello, plus catering arm 9 at Home), Lynch, who turns 50 next month, has a foundation to help tug city kids in her footsteps.
The two-year-old Barbara Lynch Foundation has raised some $250,000, says executive director Kim Morin, with a big boost expected from this month’s two major fundraisers, the Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef Gala and Toques & Tonic, featuring major culinary figures like Daniel Boulud and David Chang. The money goes to the two main efforts of the foundation: educating underprivileged elementary school kids about food culture and health, and tutoring high school students in entrepreneurship. To date, Lynch and her foundation’s partners—The Cookbook Project, City Year and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship—have worked with youths from the Blackstone School in the South End, East Boston High and Boston Green Academy in South Boston. They expect to add several more schools this year.
“The goal is to give kids an opportunity, to give hope,” she says. “For example, we took 80 third-graders to a farm. They had never seen a live cow. They held onto a potato like it was gold. I had to pry it out of their hands to make them wash up for lunch.”
Some restaurants are fined for having critters around. But at Jason Bond’s hotspot Bondir, crickets are a culinary attraction.
The little buggers are the brainchild of executive sous-chef Rachel Miller, 25, who worked at Bondir in Cambridge and is now at the recently opened sibling eatery in Concord. She raises them in her suburban Carlisle home. “A couple of years ago, I was studying entomophagy, the science of eating insects, and how other countries use crickets as a key protein,” Miller says. “I decided to do it.&rdquordquo; She ordered the insects online and placed them in aquariums, moving them inside or out depending on the weather. Now she’s raised about 5,000 of them.
The chirping doesn’t bother her, she says, because they don’t chirp until they’re about two months old, and that’s “a telltale sign” they’re ready to serve. She kills them by putting them in the freezer. They’ve been used in pastry and pancake flour, and she’s served them whole as a garnish and, upon request, as a side dish. “I couldn’t eat too many myself,” Miller admits. “I get attached to them. They’re my cricket babies.”
Miller says the bugs were well received in Cambridge. At least, nobody freaked out. “I was expecting trouble, but the diners were well notified. Some asked for more.” Bondir hasn’t served them in Concord yet. “I hope to put them on the menu soon,” Miller says, “but I think Concord would not be as gung-ho about things like that as the city. They need a little more convincing.”
Josh Ziskin, executive chef/owner of Brookline Village’s La Morra, couldn’t forget the joy of shopping, cooking and eating in Italy. He and his wife, co-owner and wine director Jen, spent six months in Piedmont in 1997, truffle hunting, sausage making and wine pressing. Ziskin had been in the business one way or another since he was 15. But he had not strayed far from his home in Brookline until the Italy trip.
Five years after that sojourn, he opened La Morra, featuring northern Italian cuisine. But he still wanted to combine his “passion for Italian food and travel.”
Two years ago, he teamed up with Somerville’s DuVine Cycling + Adventure Co. (the owner was a college buddy) to offer “very personal itineraries.” The first trip, in 2012, was to Piedmont. A Tuscan tour is planned for this July: “Meet the Butcher, the Baker, the Winemaker!” The cost is about $4,800, with groups limited to 16 people.
On the culinary tour, complete with “breakfast, lunch and dinner and all the wine you can drink,” Ziskin, 43, will guide participants on visits to some of La Morra’s superlative suppliers and vintners, whose methods or provisions can be sampled back in Brookline in dishes like the ribollita.
“With globalization, we’re losing touch with the old style,” Ziskin says. “And we want to keep those ways that worked before machinery, like making the braises, the pasta, the grappa. We bring home that style, and so do our tour guests.”
Today Tim Wiechmann is one of Camberville’s most lauded chefs. But before he studied and cooked in Paris, headed the kitchen at Jamaica Plain’s Ten Tables, took farm-to-table French cuisine to Huron Village as chef/owner of T.W. Food, and brought Union Square sausages and schnitzels as chef/owner of Bronwyn (dubbed one of the best new restaurants of 2013 by Esquire), Wiechmann was a professional jazz and blues man, backing up the likes of Ron Levy.
He played guitar and drums, studied a bit at Berklee and aimed to emulate the inimitable guitarist Wes Montgomery (“I attempted—poorly—to copy him,” Wiechmann says). Even after he switched to a culinary career, music remained close to his heart. Wiechmann, now 40, says he moved to a big house in Carlisle so he could play as loud as he wanted. But kitchen duties called.
Then, in 2009, synchronicity struck. Wiechmann decided to host a Sunday jazz brunch at T.W. Food, playing with a trio or quartet, whoever he could land. Even since last year’s opening of Bronwyn, his wife’s namesake Mittel-European restaurant, the jazz brunch has remained a Cambridge Sunday staple, with a rotating crew that’s included notable local musicians like Dean Johnston.
“Cooking and jazz go hand in hand,” Wiechmann says. “Jazz is spontaneous. The restaurant business is less spontaneous, but every chef gets to conduct his own symphony.”
Chef Jamie Mammano doesn’t serve his pet product at any of his five-star eateries. Mistral, Teatro, Sorellina, Mooo, L’Andana and new hotspot Ostra just don’t lend themselves to tortillas, he admits. But, boy, is he a proud papa.
“I can’t eat those lousy tortillas they sell in the store,” says Mammano, chef/owner of the Columbus Hospitality Group, who now manufactures his own. “We use authentic dry white corn from Illinois. We cook it and put it through a volcanic stone grindstone, adding a little limestone to allow the skin to pull.”
At his Tortilleria La Niña in Everett, a dozen workers produce some 6,000 pounds of tortillas a week. Previously, most of the output was boxes of tortillas, sold wholesale to restaurants like Myers + Chang and The Painted Burro. But La Niña recently shifted its focus to the retail market, offering 12-ounce packages of chips for about $5.50 at stores like Whole Foods.
Mammano, 54, started the business in 2011, inspired by the tortillas his Mexican mother-in-law shipped to the family, as well as by a trip to a Mexican factory with his father-in-law. The “La Niña” refers to Mammano’s daughter, Paola, now 12, pictured on the package with her grandmother, Irene Barba.
The tortillas—made with non-genetically modified corn, preservative- and gluten-free, and kosher—“make the best grilled cheese,” Mammano gushes. “And the chip doesn’t break! Who else can say that?”
Brooke Vosika thought the Four Seasons Hotel Boston, where he’s served as executive chef for seven years, should “think outside the grid” on amenities. “People here don’t go wild over a bowl of fruit,” he says. Hence, pampered hotel guests receive, among other gifts, bars of soap handmade with local sea salt, blended with herbs and spices. In the dining rooms, the olive oil is customized; the peppers might come from the roof garden, the honey from the hotel hive.
All the special touches are “culinary inspired,” says Vosika, 51, who raises personal food and wine crops at his farm in Woodstock, NY, which has been in the family for 100 years. “When you raise crops by yourself, it means so much more.” He worked on his grandfather’s New Jersey farm as a boy, as well as in upstate New York. “There’s a lot of culinary history built in American food,” he says, “but I’m not sure the young chefs are preserving it.”
Vosika’s great pleasure is “learning and preserving” those processes. For four years, he’s created red and white private-label wine batches. He barrel-ages whiskey and makes his own maple syrup and apple cider. And he experiments with farming techniques “to see what happens” with crops like tomatoes and, now, at his home in Canton, with citrus trees.
“Learning in gardening is seeing what is in season, learning that onions pop up first, then asparagus; cherries blossom before peaches. What does a seasonal dish really mean?” Vosika asks. “It’s what’s coming out of the ground.”