ArchitectureBoston

Harvest

Posted in Vol 14 No 1 by bsaab on February 3, 2011

Other Voices

Ben and Jane Thompson’s entrepreneurial spirit spawned several restaurants around Boston. The most influential of these, Harvest, opened in Harvard Square in 1975. Some of the city’s most famous chefs have passed through its kitchen — and many credit its early days with almost singlehandedly sparking the culinary revolution that led to Boston’s vibrant food culture.

Lydia Shire
Chef and owner of Boston’s Locke-Ober and Scampo, as well as Blue Sky in York Beach, Maine; culinary director, with Jasper White, of the new Towne Stove and Spirits in Boston.

Julia Child used to dine at Maison Robert in the Old City Hall regularly, where I was the chef of the dining room. When Ben and Jane Thompson asked Julia to recommend a chef for their restaurant, she told them they should talk to me. I was hired by Harvest’s general manager, Henry Ball; he was a genius and I learned so much from him.

I spent nine months at Harvest in 1975. I did it all: ran the kitchen, cooked on the line, wrote the menus, did the daily specials, hired, fired, you name it.

What I loved the most about Harvest was Ben and Jane Thompson. They were such forward thinkers, and they brought out the best in me. They challenged me to be creative and cook from the heart. They simply wanted the best for the customers who walked through the door every night. Jane would bring in vegetables from her garden; I remember the recipe for blueberry syllabub she gave to me.

A James Beard award-winning chef, Lydia Shire attended London’s Cordon Bleu Cooking School before going on to become the head chef of Maison Robert’s prestigious dining room in 1974. Shire was asked to open the new Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California in 1986—making Shire the first female executive chef in the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts Company to open a luxury property. A few years later, she returned to Boston, where she was named “One of America’s Top Ten Chefs” by Food & Wine for her restaurant Biba. Shire sent a shock through Boston’s culinary scene in 2001, when she took over the venerable Locke-Ober—making history as the chef and owner of an institution that had prohibited women from its dining room for 97 years. Shire’s kitchens have been a training ground for some of the city’s finest culinary talent, including Jody Adams, Dante de Magistris, Gordon Hamersley, Amanda Lydon, and Susan Regis.

Frank McClelland
Chef and owner of L’Espalier in Boston, Apple Street Farm in Essex, Au Soleil Catering, and, with Chef Goeff Gardner, co-owner of Sel de la Terre in Boston and Natick.

Harvest was where I first learned to be a manager and to lead a team. Everyone was so young and everything was so new there. It was amazing for my career and helped me develop such a passion for that type of atmosphere.
I worked at Harvest between 1978 and 1981, beginning when I was a young lad of 22. I was the youngest person in that kitchen when I started, but by the time I left Harvest, I was its executive chef. I led the brigade during very busy lunches and dinners. I started the rotisserie and spit grilling out in the terrace and, boy, did we cook everything: wild boar, lamb, shanks of veal. We cooked steaks out there at lunch.

The restaurant was way ahead of its time. We were so experimental. We made our own pasta and bread. We bought from small farmers. We grew herbs in the windows and did our own pickling. We wrote menus that ran for two weeks, including recipes for each dish; we called this the playbook and put it out in the kitchen to maintain continuity. Of course, there were also multiple specials every day for each lunch and dinner. So we all learned how to create.

I must have read every book in the world on cooking. We were all over the guys in Europe and what they were doing. I worked a million hours, then went home, slept for five hours and came straight back to work—every day. Some days, I had a few too many at Casablanca [restaurant and bar], which is right across the alley.

Ben and Jane were in and out all the time. I really enjoyed my talks with Ben; he was a nice gentleman. Harvest had a reputation for developing really great cooks, because of the creativity Jane and Ben allowed there. I’m sure there were some hits and some misses, but a lot of Boston chefs cut their teeth there.

I loved the design of the restaurant, particularly the horseshoe bar. And the Marimekko fabric was cool—that was all the rage in the ’70s.

It was a really cool period in the city. Julia Child would come in and give us advice on making and hanging sausages. John Irving, the author, was in all the time. Harvard Square was smaller and kind of wild. It was really abuzz with life—we felt it and really lived it.

McClelland’s L’Espalier has been a perennial “best” of America’s restaurants for three decades—earning top accolades from Zagat, Forbes, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Frommer’s, Wine Spectator, and Condé Nast Traveler. It also is New England’s most decorated independent restaurant with 12 consecutive AAA Five Diamond Awards (the only one in Boston) and 12 consecutive Forbes (Mobil) Four Star awards. A James Beard chef and cookbook author, McClelland draws inspiration and ingredients for his menus from Apple Street Farm, his organic farm in Essex that is the primary source of heirloom produce and proteins for L’Espalier and his trio of Sel de la Terre bistros. Many of Boston’s best-known restaurants are populated with chefs mentored under McClelland’s tutelage.

Barbara Lynch
Chef and owner of Menton, No. 9 Park, Sportello, Drink, B&G Oysters, The Butcher Shop, Stir, and 9 at Home.

I worked at Harvest 24 years ago for about four months when I was 21 years old and came back a couple of years later when Chef Patrick Bowe took over. It was a great experience! I loved making the Irish soda bread and learned how to make pates and terrines. I was garde-manger, and it was essentially a great start to my cooking career before I went to Michaela’s and worked under Todd English.

Barbara Lynch is regarded as one of the country’s leading chefs and restaurateurs. As the CEO of Barbara Lynch Gruppo in Boston, Lynch oversees the operations of eight restaurants and employs more than 200 people. Her talents have garnered numerous accolades over the years, both locally and nationally. In 2003, The James Beard Foundation named Lynch “Best Chef Northeast” and Travel & Leisure proclaimed No. 9 Park one of the “Top 50 Restaurants in America.” In 2009, she received the Crittenton Women’s Union’s Amelia Earhart Award; past recipients include Doris Kearns Goodwin and Julia Child. Lynch’s first cookbook, Stir: Mixing It Up in The Italian Tradition, was published by Houghton Mifflin in fall 2009 and received a prestigious Gourmand award for “Best Chef Cookbook” for the US. Her newest restaurant, Menton, was named one of Bon Appetit and Esquire magazines’ best new restaurants in 2010 and received a four-star review from The Boston Globe.

Sara Moulton
Cookbook author, TV personality, and former executive chef of
Gourmet.

I have fond feelings for Harvest. There were other well-known restaurants in Boston that were old-school French or steakhouse places, but only Harvest was really cutting-edge. It is interesting how many great chefs have come out of there. They weren’t all there at the same time either, so you can’t assume that one chef influenced the next. Harvest just happened to be a very good place to work that also apparently knew how to hire very good cooks. For me, it is also notable in that it’s the only restaurant where I worked that’s still standing.

I went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, for a two-year program that started in 1975 and finished in 1977. My now-husband and then-boyfriend moved to Boston from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to be nearer to me while I was living in New York. I had to do an externship—a three-month restaurant gig in-between my two years at the Culinary Institute—so I applied for jobs in Boston. Basically, I just opened the Yellow Pages and then pounded the pavement with my résumé. I did not have all that much experience, other than a year of cooking school and some experience cooking at bars before that. I applied to many places—Maison Robert, a couple of restaurants in the North End and so many other places that it became very discouraging—and the one that hired me was Harvest.

For my externship, I was hired to work on the cold station at night. The job involved opening up an awful lot of oysters and clams. To this day, I have a dread of opening up oysters and clams. You would think I would have gotten very good at it, but au contraire!

The chef who originally hired me had been fired by the time I started my externship. The person who succeeded that chef—Lydia Shire—took me on anyway. This turned out to be a very good moment: one of the most important things that happened to me in my career. While I was working the cold station at night, Lydia, being a very hands-on executive chef, was working the line. She could see I was hungry to learn more. When my shift ended before hers, Lydia would ask, “Do you want to come over and hang out with me and watch what I do?”

She was wonderful to watch, because back then Lydia was a rarity. At cooking school, all of the [male] teachers and many of the [male] students kept constantly saying to us women students: “You don’t belong in the kitchen. You can’t stand the heat. You can’t lift the pots. You can’t handle the pressure.”

It was great not just to have a woman mentor, but also to get a one-on-one tutorial from one the very best chefs in the country. Lydia would say, “This is how hot the pan needs to be before you add the protein. This is the sound it should make when you add the protein to the pan. These are the four elements you are going to add to make the pan sauce.”

I graduated from cooking school in the spring of ’77 and came back to work at Harvest. Lydia had left by that time, and the woman who had been second-in-command, Laura Boehmer, hired me back as her sous chef—which was crazy. I was in way over my head, but I worked very hard. A friend who was a year behind me at the Culinary Institute joined the Harvest that summer and that was a lot of fun. We’d work lunches together, which was intense because the Harvest did a huge lunch business. We’d just bang it out: I remember having four omelet pans going at once. That was my best experience in terms of line cooking and coordinating everything.

What was great about working for Laura was that, unbeknownst to me, she had been reading Gourmet magazine for years—which was ironic, because I would later go on to work for Gourmet for 25 years. As a result, Laura was very forward-thinking in terms of ingredients. For example, she used sumac, which is only just now starting to enter the mainstream. Her recipes were just extraordinary in their sophistication—way ahead of her time. Years later, when I started working at Gourmet and was reading back issues, I realized she must have been inspired by many of the travel pieces in the magazine.

When an eye injury sidelined Laura from work, I had to step in as executive chef—only three weeks before Thanksgiving, which was nuts. I managed to muddle through somehow. I remember being very proud of my food costs and for keeping the place together.

One time, the management, including Jane and Ben, cooked for us staff. They threw us a huge dinner party, complete with a menu and toasts, in the dining room.

Another night, Boston was snowed over by a blizzard, but there were still tables and chairs out on the patio. So a few of the staff shared a candlelight meal in the snow.

I remember liking everybody at Harvest. We all got along, and it really felt like a family. When you’re working in a restaurant, it feels like you are fighting a war; some nights you win all the battles, some nights you lose a few and other nights you lose them all. But it was great fun: We were young and had the energy.

As the host of “Cooking Live,” “Cooking Live Primetime,” and “Sara’s Secrets,” Sara Moulton was one of the Food Network’s defining personalities during the outlet’s first decade. In addition to her work on the Food Network, Moulton was the executive chef of Gourmet magazine for 23 years — right up until its closing in October 2009. She is the author of Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners, Sara Moulton Cooks at Home, and Sara’s Secrets for Weeknight Meals, which served as the basis for a series on public television that launched in 2008. Moulton is also the food editor of ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America.” She co-founded the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance, an “old girl’s network” designed to help women working in the culinary field. The Alliance is approaching its 30th anniversary.

Photo courtesy of Boston.com.

Chris Schlesinger
Chef and owner of East Coast Grill in Cambridge.

If you took Harvest out of my career, I’d lose not just a bunch of friends whom I still hang out with today, but also a tremendous cooking experience. Harvest was a watershed—one of the restaurants that started everything in Boston.

I worked there in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I had just graduated from culinary school and worked a variety of jobs there. Ben Thompson’s missive to everyone was that he wanted the food to be avant-garde and influenced by the nouvelle movement in France. Still, the Thompsons gave the kitchen free rein. For better or worse, the chef at Harvest got to do his or her own thing; nobody was going to tell them what to do.

There were a lot of young people at Harvest taking food very seriously. We were all under 25 and running the restaurant. It produced some of the best food of the times and also some of the worst. There was a pasta of the day, a fish of the day, a sandwich of the day, a buffet of the day. After I had been there for a week, I came in and was expected to just get it all together.

It was the beginning of a re-energized trade. The cooks and bartenders hung out with servers after work. After service, we’d go out to talk about food and wine. We’d go to the library to read and research. That was kind of the first generation of young people in Boston taking food seriously—pioneers.

Ben Thompson had sent the chef then—Jim Burke—to France for a couple of months. We were excited about baby vegetables. We’d call France and order a bunch of stuff, drive out to the airport to pick it up and then, back at the restaurant, lay it all out on the table and try to figure out what to do with it.

Until then, a food scene wasn’t really happening anywhere in Boston. Harvest helped people discover there was cuisine other than traditional “snotty” French food. And that food found an audience of young people who enjoyed and could afford it—and the local food scene just grew from there.

The customers were a classic Cambridge mix. You had Harvard professors and young people. Some were from Boston. But Harvest had it all going on. In the early 1980s, it was named one of the best pickup bars by Playboy magazine.

Harvest has gone through its ups and downs and is not at its peak now, but I still go there all the time. I’ve lived here for 30 years, and it is still one of my favorite restaurants—for the scene and the way it interacts with the neighborhood.

Chef and owner of East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Chris Schlesinger is the co-author (with John Willoughby) of five cookbooks: The Thrill of the Grill; Salsas, Sambals, Chutneys, and Chowchows; Big Flavors of the Hot Sun; Lettuce in Your Kitchen; and License to Grill. Schlesinger was the winner of the 1996 James Beard Award “Best Chef of the Northeast.” He is a founding member of the national organization Chefs 2000, and works with local farmers to preserve agriculture in New England.

Top: photo © 1976 Steve Rosenthal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: