Chef Michael Serpa puts the city's greatness into words.
January 15, 2016 ● 9 min read
By Chef Michael Serpa, Select Oyster Bar
The dining scene in the Boston area is one of the most supportive, collaborative, and exciting places to work in restaurants right now.
The cutthroat competitive nature of some cities doesn’t really exist here. In April of 2015, after years of working in restaurants, learning the craft of the kitchen, finding my style, and understanding what hospitality really is, I was about to open the doors to my first restaurant, Select Oyster Bar. We had put together a great team of veteran servers and solid kitchen crew. Last minute hammer drilling, flowers sent over from friends around town, the fire alarm going off 30 minutes before we were supposed to open, and the electric energy of the staff—I remember it all. The line of guests outside pre-opening was encouraging. Service was actually pretty smooth. The thing that I remember most clearly that night was when Garrett Harker walked in.
Garrett is the consummate pro. Graceful, classy. Throughout the years, his managing of restaurants around town (including No. 9 Park, B&G Oysters, Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar, Row 34, The Hawthorne, and more…) has really helped shape what defines good service in Boston. For our opening crew I had hired an oyster shucker from Eastern Standard, a server from Eastern Standard, a server from Row 34, and the bar manager from Island Creek Oyster Bar, which happened to be about a 10 minute walk away from Select, my place. Garrett was there to say congratulations, good luck, you're going to kill it, and genuinely mean it. He is the definition of class, and one reason why Boston is one of the best cities in the country to work in, or run a restaurant in, right now.
Speaking of Garrett, I ran into him one night at Silvertone—a little bar in a basement just off Boston Common. It’s the kind of bar where you drink a High Life, eat chicken wings, and shoot the shit. An Industry Bar. Anyway, there we are, a large, jovial crew of restaurant folk at Silvertone, and Garrett and I get to talking. “This is where it all started,” he said, telling me how chefs and managers and servers and bartenders from all around town would find themselves at Silvertone after a long shift or on a day off. It was the go-to industry spot back in the day, before the restaurant scene had exploded like it has today. Silvertone became the place where restaurant people ran into each other and got the pulse on the rest of the city, where that spirit of camaraderie and collaboration took form.
Josh Childs was there most nights back then. Josh is everything you want from a bartender, funny, charming, hospitable, quick with a beverage, and nothing you don’t (suspenders, mustachio wax jobs, and 30 minute cocktails). Last winter, a small crew of friends rolled in for a quick bite. Silverstone was packed and we were just going to hang out by a little ledge and have a standing dinner. Josh saw us and took us to a little private dining room, and personally served our whole dinner. We would have been totally content to hang out eating steak tips, but he took the extra steps and time and made our experience that much more memorable. Josh Childs: another one of the reasons Boston’s restaurant culture exists.
That culture is why a close friend of mine, Michael Cooney, finally decided to take the plunge and open Brewer’s Fork in Charlestown with his business partner, John Payne. After years of tweaking and perfecting their concept and looking for the right spot, they found a mess of a space that was going to take a shit-ton of work and hustling to get off the ground. It was perfect.
When the Select project got rolling, dealing with the ups and downs suddenly became a lot easier. Meetings all day, permit issues, architect issues, would be discussed over a frothy Guinness with Michael and John. Their construction site became the place where I could not think about my construction site for a few hours. Did I want to help put up walk-in coolers? On it. Scrub down some coolers? Yep. Be a pizza taste-test guinea pig? Yes, please.
In Boston, you see your friends put their ideas out there and take the plunge, and it makes you proud of what they are doing and proud of what they contribute to the city. A rising tide lifts all boats…
What are some of your favorite aspects about operating a restaurant in Boston?
Garrett Harker [Inventor of Harkertown, Owner/Co-Owner Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar, Row 34, Branch Line]: Loyal clientele. Everyone wants to try the new spots of course but if you deliver on your product and your team treats people well you can not only be around for a long time you will grow deep and layered relationships with the community. Look at what Gordon did at Hamersley's. He was in his kitchen, hired great people, cooked with passion and the end result is a 27 year long love affair with the city. I love Boston for that. I love the young people that join our teams. There is such a great mix of college kids, both national and international, with homegrown kids that maybe haven't explored the world as much, but in the restaurant setting, learning where food comes from, what makes wine regions special, etc. There's such a great dynamic amongst the staff at all of our places.
Michael Cooney [Mayor Cooney. Co-Owner Brewer’s Fork in Charlestown, MA]: Industry vibe. We can head out to any neighborhood to go support each other and there is always someone with a smile and a hug when you get there. For us the neighborhood of Charlestown has been so receptive to what we do with food & beverage it is very inspiring. We can bring in small cult wines & beers and they are willing to trust us. The food scene has come so far in Boston that our chefs can attempt dishes that never would have sold 10 years ago — even in a small pizza spot like ours. The amount of small independent spots popping up in every neighborhood with actual soul. There is room for Del Frisco’s of course, but we need more Select Oyster, Tiger Mama, Trina’s Starlite, Lone Star type spots — people that put their heart into every days work with a smile on.
Josh Childs [Bartending Legend. Co Owner Trina’s Starlite Lounge, Parlor Sports, Audubon]: While once focused only in Boston, I really consider our community to extend to Cambridge, Somerville and further. It's amazing how much things have changed and I've been lucky to be part of it over the last twenty years. The size, diversity and cooperative encouraging nature of this community is my favorite part of living and working here.
How does Boston stand out as a restaurant community? What do we do exceptionally well in terms of supporting one another?
GH: One big defining characteristic of Boston is the tension between the big, corporate chains and the independent chef and owner with roots in the community. We have to strive to deliver the same consistent and professional experience as the big bloated brands, while retaining our individual personality and not slipping into blandness. We need to do a better job, so the public can afford to be more discerning and opt in for a homegrown and singular experience and opt out of the homogenized routine experience. This generation of restaurant leaders has a natural collaborative approach that is inspiring to my generation. They're generous, supportive, and not territorial. When I was coming up through the ranks, I can't say our generation was nearly as enlightened. But I'm happy the Andrew Holdens, Rachel Munzer-Millers and Jillian Roccos are running things now and taking over, doing it their way.
MC: You unfortunately see it every few months when one of our community has been dealt a bad blow. Car accident, bike accident, health issues – You can’t type up an e-mail fast enough before people are reaching out with offers to help in a fund raiser. It truly is amazing. You don’t see that in any other business group. That is not a dig on other business communities it is a testament to our crazy, dysfunctional family with huge hearts.
JC: The ideas of guest chefs, guest bartenders constantly supporting one another's establishments is one example. The family idea extends from mentorship not jealousy—and supportive, knowing a rising tide floats all boats.
Why do you think Boston has such a strong and collaborative restaurant community?
GH: Scrappy, we have to fight for everything. We all know how difficult it is to achieve opening your own place. Funds are scarce, real estate is expensive, the process is grueling. And there's so much cross-pollination now. Jackson Cannon has brought up so many talented and dedicated mixologists, but he's only had two bar managers at Eastern Standard in 10 years. So the kids leave the nest and go run programs elsewhere. He may have eight or 10 current bar managers that came up under him in the greater Boston area. There's a web there, and those kids look after each other.
MC: We are a small city and many of us worked for the same chefs, like Todd English or Barbara Lynch. That really tightens up the circle and gets many of us shooting ideas back and forth. I would also say that being in the shadow of NYC always puts us in the underdog position and that makes for bonding. I think many of us are sick of being in that role and want to put Boston’s food and beverage scene on the top tier.
JC: Honestly a lot of us have worked together at one time or another. At the very least, there might be merely one degree of separation between staff in different establishments. Also, collaboration came out of necessity; as the community grew at once from the late 90's it was in everyone's best interest to work together.
Any stand out memories that helped establish the collaborative vibe?
GH: I always think of the Silvertone days in the late 90's, early aughts. It was just such a great vibe down there, and Josh [Childs] treated Oringer and Barbara the same way he treated line cooks. He celebrated the sweat and the passion of the industry, without any of the pedestal celebrity stuff. It was a real game changer.
MC: One event was Vinny’s charity party at ES. This was years ago, but everyone was there. Chefs, wine companies, brewers. It was amazing to see the support and I don’t remember anything but smiles on everyone’s face all night long. As far as setting the vibe, I really think a lot of Boston’s restaurant bond is rooted in its people. We are lucky to have the hard working and supportive group of kids that we have at this moment. I could name 100 people right now off the top of my head that have supported us from day one. You don’t forget that and we take any chance we get to repay the love.
JC: Years ago, late-night drinking—great wine, Fernet and High Life—probably 1999, stands out for me. Garrett Harker, Tom Mastricola, John Gertsen, Ming Tsai, Ken Oringer, and Barbara Lynch would all come see me behind the bar several times a week. They were all at the beginning of this great era.
What could the restaurant community do to keep growth sustainable in Boston?
GH: We have to make it easier to get licensed and get open. It's such a huge hurdle that too often only the big structured companies land the better-profiled real estate. And that means generic and bland and cookie cutter, when we need point of view and vision. Some developers like Steve Samuels in Fenway and Young Park in Fort Point have stepped up and paved the way for a spirit of innovation and belief in owner-operated businesses. But what's happened in Seaport has for the most part been embarrassing. But wait, you asked me what what do we need to do not what do developers and the city need to do....we need to compete, get better, create allegiances, educate people, steal talent from bloated and lazy, and lower Boston's tolerance of the big lazy box restaurant.
MC: Staff – helping out when possible – lending a cook here, a bartender there. The first few weeks/months can really set the tone for a new spot. I always thought sharing some key staff among our friends would really help raise the level of service and education across the board.
JC: This is a tough question for a business that is inherently not necessarily the best economic model. We need to work on ways to fairly bridge the disparity that often exists between front and back of house staff. Create a dialogue with the city that changes tax assessment structure so landlords can offer fair rents and triple nets to our businesses, particularly start-ups.
What spots besides your own would you send someone to get a grasp of the culture and vibe of Boston restaurants?
GH: Go eat Island Creek Oysters at Select or Neptune or B&G. After your tour of Fenway, go to Tiffani Faison's awesome Tiger Mama. After the ICA, get out of Seaport quick and head to Fort Point for a cocktail at Drink and dinner at Tavern Road. Pay homage to the old Lockober space at the new Yvonne's, stocked with some young talent that I know is going to do good things for this city.
MC: In a day I would hit: Eastern Standard—every industry has an ES. Just the perfect spot. Neptune Oyster – has become iconic in the Boston/North End scene. No. 9 – The old classic standard. Sit at the bar. Parker House – ‘cause you have to have a drink where JFK used to hang. Mr. Dooley’s – an Irish pub meets Boston, best Guinness in the city.
JC: Eastern Standard. Lone Star. Row 34. Myers & Chang. Shojo. Spoke. Alden & Harlow.