The Portland-Boston Chefs’ Roundtable

Ten of New England’s top chefs give their take on the state of dining out in New England.

By Amy Traverso

Feb 19 2019


Will Gilson

Photo Credit : Huge Galdones
In my recent feature story “Food Town Showdown,”I took a deep dive into the Boston and Portland restaurant scenes to determine which city offers the best overall experience for the food-savvy traveler, and, more specifically, where each city shines.
Will Gilson
Photo Credit : Huge Galdones
In the process, I interviewed 10 top chefs from Boston and Portland about the challenges of doing business (staffing, liquor licenses, rent), what makes their city great (local seafood and produce, supportive peers, creative freedom), and what they predict for the future. The insights they offered were so interesting that I was inspired to put together the following edited excerpts. As you’ll see, most chefs are facing very similar challenges, surviving in a demanding industry through the power of their own creativity.

The Chefs

On the Strengths of Their Respective Cities

Krista Kern Desjarlais: I’ve been here [in Maine] since the 1980s, and while Portland is getting a lot of press now, I see it in a bit of a different light. I think it’s always been great. Yes, we’re in a cycle of new chefs, but I came here because it felt a lot like where I grew up in Northern California. I saw a lot of the same freedom of expression. You could open as a chef-owner and do your own thing. You could be independent, less constrained by formats where you had to, say, serve a burger and a steak.
Krista Kern Desjarlais
Photo Credit : Courtesy of Krista Kern Desjarlais
There’s also an openness and willingness among diners to support places that are different, and that allows them to survive in a tight market and a seasonal market, which is tough. We don’t have millions of people to come support what we do, unlike Boston. Lydia Shire: I can’t imagine anyone not thinking that Boston is a pivotal food and restaurant city for the whole country. We’ve given this country a lot of really great chefs: Jasper White, Todd English, Jody Adams, Moncef Meddeb, Frank McClelland, Barbara Lynch. I think I should be in there somewhere, too. The list goes on and on. We continue to strive to shake the scene up. And no matter what crazy special Simone Restrepo and I do at Scampo, we sell out of it. Bostonians grasp what we’re trying to do, even if it’s a little offbeat. They get it and they love it. Chad Conley: It’s hard to put your finger on exactly the factors that make Portland so special — at least in a way that would allow another place to duplicate it. There are some really significant X-factors at play that have taken years to come to fruition. Portland’s restaurants also have this homegrown feeling while still being done in a quality way. And the city has a lot working in its favor: geography and physical beauty, which makes it an appealing tourist destination, and livability. And the types of people moving here have often lived in larger cities and have established careers and expendable income, which is important in being able to go out to eat.
Chad Conley
Photo Credit : Greta Rybus
Will Gilson: Boston’s seafood is still a strength. And I’d argue that you’ll find a better global wine selection in the average Boston restaurant than anywhere else in the country. Incredible importers are working with restaurateurs to bring that stuff in. We’ve never been a good place for pricey California cabs and over-the-top champagne. Instead, the average Boston restaurant has an incredibly well-curated and thought-out wine program. Sam Hayward: Every time I think maybe this is the winter that the bubble will burst on Portland’s restaurant scene, it doesn’t happen. It’s very strong. Karen Akunowicz: The thing that has kept me here in Boston is the people. Without a doubt, they have supported me and cheered me on, and I couldn’t imagine doing this anywhere else. This is really our home. We opened a restaurant in a neighborhood where we already knew our neighbors and we felt supported by the community.
Karen Akunowicz
Photo Credit : Matt Kurkowski
Masa Miyake: Portland is still small enough that connections with the local fisheries and farmers are personal and intentional, yet growing in ways that make it attractive for farmers to experiment with new ingredients, and fisheries to cultivate and nurture new species. We are fortunate to work with American Unagi here in Maine, who raise freshwater eel and ship them to us live. This has replaced our need to import eel from Japan, providing a tastier, unprocessed, and local alternative. Farmers are willing and excited to grow ingredients just for restaurants — such as the herb shiso, daikon radishes, and Japanese ginger, called myoga, for example. The connections between the restaurants and local purveyors increasingly connect the town as well as support one another. Cara Stadler: The reason so many chefs have moved to Portland is a lot of the restaurants here are wholly owned by the chefs, not by some investor who’s telling them what to do. All these people who’ve gotten all this recognition, they’re all owners. There are very few chef-owners in Boston. Lots of chefs, very few owners. It just changes the game.
Cara Stadler
Photo Credit : Courtesy of Cara Stadler

On the Challenges of the Restaurant Business

Chad Conley: One thing we don’t have in Portland is a critical mass of customers. Boston has that. But the nature of the tourists of the core of the population there is different here. A larger proportion of residents and tourists are very interested in food — exactly the kind of people who keep the restaurant industry so successful. Karen Akunowicz: To some degree, we’re all singing the same song: rent, liquor licensing, and lack of staff. It’s wildly prohibitive for independent chefs or restaurateurs to open a small restaurant in Boston. A liquor license for beer and wine only costs anywhere between $80,000 and $120,000. A full liquor license is $250,000 to $400,000. Plus the renewal fee is a few thousand every year. Meanwhile, a beer and wine license is almost free in San Francisco. You pay about $750 for one, and you can open your doors. It’s a paradox. Being able to sell alcohol and cocktails is how you’ll make your money back and pay your rent, but when you have to pay that much money up front, it’s a hurdle.
Josh Lewin
Photo Credit : Courtesy of Josh Lewin
Josh Lewin: It’s expensive here — welcome to Massachusetts! It’s really hard to get started as an independent restaurateur, and that makes it uncomfortable to take big risks in certain ZIP codes. What we’ve done is put our restaurant in a place, Union Square, that was once off the beaten path. It’s also where [partner Katrina Jazayeri] and I live, and we were trying to build a restaurant in our own neighborhood. But the neighborhood has been coming up around us in rapid and sometimes scary ways, and that’s happening more and more as more development is happening outside of downtown Boston. Sam Hayward: We hit the $40 price point this year for some entrées. That felt like a threshold I never expected us to go over. I’m trying to staff up Fore Street after being down three employees out of a team of 20 people in the kitchen. I was interviewing a pastry chef and when I mentioned what the pay scale is and what all the benefits are — which five years ago would’ve been “What a deal!” — is suddenly almost an insult for someone coming from away. And the squeeze comes down here because there’s no place on the peninsula that’s affordable for a cooking professional. That’s all happened in the last 20 years. When we opened 23 years ago, almost all of my staff lived on the peninsula and could walk to work. For a young line cook making $30,000 to $35,000, they have to go two, three suburban tiers away and have a car. It’s a very difficult nut to crack. We provide health insurance to our employees, but when you’re 22, you don’t necessarily care about insurance — because at that age, you’re going to live forever and you’re invulnerable. I’ve polled other business owners for years, and they’ve said, “If you want to free me up to do innovation, experimentation, and expansion, take health care out of my hands.” I understand we’d be paying more in taxes or some other form of payment. Listen, I’m not a businessman. I’m a cook. But I know that if I didn’t have to think about constantly negotiating the next year’s health insurance premiums, I would be free to innovate in significant ways. Lydia Shire: Finding good help is hard. My experience has been that cooks from Central America or South America are very good, because they grew up in a home without a lot and their mothers had to coax a lot of flavor out of a few vegetables and some bones to feed a family, but immigration is a challenge. And now that there are so many restaurants and good restaurant in the ’burbs, that’s even more of a drain on talent. But it’s all within the realm of doing business. I just thank my lucky stars every day that I’m in a great location.
Lydia Shire
Photo Credit : Courtesy of Lydia Shire
Charles Draghi: Erbaluce was located near a lot of hotels, and a lot of our business was foreign tourists, particularly people who wanted the European experience, with the owner in the kitchen and the traditional service. When I’d go to a table with Americans, they’d look at me like, Why are you bugging us? Europeans loved that. When Trump was elected, it was almost like flipping a switch: no more foreign tourists. It cut our business right in half. Cost of living is a perpetual challenge. A lot of my cooks, food runners, and dishwashers lived in East Boston and South Boston. But those have been gentrified, and now they have to live out of the city with no public transportation. They’d be spending almost as much as they made on taxis. Will Gilson: Boston’s local government could do more to support restaurant start-ups. I remember talking to someone about going to the farmers’ market and cooking — just an informal pop-up — and they told me that the city would require this license and that permit, and if I don’t have a hand-washing station, I have to get that … and by the time you’ve jumped through all those hoops, you’ve made a full-scale restaurant. You might as well do a brick-and-mortar. Josh Lewin: We don’t have as much of a problem with hiring or retaining staff. We’re a completely open restaurant and quite small. To my knowledge, we’re also the only restaurant in the country to electively pay a living wage without tips in a state that hasn’t eliminated the alternative minimum wage. That’s a pretty big business risk and requires a lot of buy-in from staff and the dining public.

On How to Navigate Boston’s Restaurant Scene

Will Gilson: I’d say walk the Greenway from the Boston Garden, through the Public Market and the North End, to Chinatown. In that one walk, you’d get a pretty good sample of what Boston was and is — from the bars near North Station to North End Italian to the trendiest new restaurants around the Financial District to Chinatown. The city used to be so segregated; now they’re all connected. Josh Lewin: I celebrated my birthday on Thanksgiving, and Katrina put together an itinerary for a couple days where we explored our own town and visited new restaurants: Whaling in Oklahoma, Bisq, the Wine Bar at Tasting Counter. Then we went to the Table at Season to Taste. From apps and wine through this really nice meal, there were four very different and innovative and unique restaurants in two days. And we didn’t have to search under a rock to find them. Karen Akunowicz: A great thing to do in Boston is to choose a neighborhood and go deep. Any neighborhood would have enough good restaurants for three days of eating. I’d start in South Boston, of course, where Fox & the Knife is located. Asia Mei’s Moonshine 152 has the most incredible chicken wings ever, and Fat Baby is a really cool spot for sushi. Or I’d head to Union Square in Somerville for Rebel Rebel, a natural wine bar; Buenas for empanadas; and Celeste for Peruvian. Meanwhile, in the Fenway, Tiffani Faison and Kelly Walsh have had a huge hand in making the neighborhood a food destination with Sweet Cheeks, Tiger Mama, and Fool’s Errand. I also love Hojoko for a night out, and Nathalie wine bar is great new addition to the neighborhood.

On the Future of Restaurants

Will Gilson: Vegetables are a growing trend. Vegetarian cuisine is being consumed by people who aren’t necessarily vegetarian. If you can make it taste good enough, they want it. And my most loyal group of customers are people with food allergies, because we removed all flour from our frying process. The look that you have on someone’s face when they get to eat fried seafood … their eyes light up. Boston is changing quickly. Our hospitals, colleges, museums, biotech and life sciences industries … we’ve lost some of our historical roots. We went through this awful period around the last recession, where some of our most financially successful restaurants dealt in mediocrity. You had to have fried calamari and steak tips and some sort of a dip and a deviled egg on the bar. Then there was a period from, say, 2012 to 2017, where a $120 shared steak for the table was the fun, trendy thing. Going forward, I think chefs will have to be more creative with a smaller price point and a little more ingenuity, and I’m excited for that. There will always be people in a certain income bracket who will support the high end, but on the local side, I see people going back to their neighborhoods, where they know they can get a great meal over and over again.