CUISINE / INTERVIEW - A Top Chef Finalist opens a Restaurant in my Neighborhood
Mis à jour : 19 juil. 2019
Over the last decade, cooking shows of all kinds invaded both French and American television. Between “Top Chef”, “Masterchef,” and "Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsay” – there is something for everyone.
Growing up, I have always had a special taste for cooking. I love the conviviality generated by what I prepare in my kitchen. I love the emotion my guests have as they try something new, or simply something different. I love discovering new techniques from different regions of the worlds and innovative associations of flavors. I love cooking.
Back in December, I attended a friend’s holiday party. There, I met a woman who explained to me her husband was about to open a restaurant near my house, in the hipster Davis Square. The restaurant was going to feature an open kitchen, with strong influences of both French and American cuisine. I always love to discover a new chef and new source of inspiration: I was sold, I had to try this new place. The name? Simple and straight to the point: The Table.
The restaurant was scheduled to open on January 12th, 2016, so I naively thought I could attend the opening night. Or week. When I tried to make a reservation early in January, I quickly realized how popular this place was going to be before it even opened. Hmm, suspicious much? I could either get a table at 10:00 p.m. or wait 3 weeks and get a table for diner time. Done!
And finally, the big day was here. The Table is located on Massachusetts Avenue in the Davis Square area at the border between Cambridge and Somerville. As we pushed the curtain to get in, a warm and wonderfully positive energy welcomed us. Our table was not ready (but we were pretty early), and we were offered to wait at the bar. The bar is actually not quite a bar: inside the bar “walls” is the kitchen, where you can see Chef Carl Dooley, Jon Heilman (sous chef) and Mary Edinger (Pastry Chef) meticulously working on gorgeous dishes.
I am not entirely sure how long we waited to be seated, but I know one thing: I was captivated by the precision and methodology of what I was seeing, like when you attend a ballet and are amazed by the elegance and technique of the dancers on stage.
As we approached our table, I started searching this place on Google using my phone. There: Chef Carl Dooley participated in Top Chef. This season, no doubt, which is currently streaming on Bravo. While we do not know how he did yet as the season is still broadcasted on TV, my intuition tells me he is doing great there. Chef Carl Dooley takes the time to come by and greet you, and not only once – he comes and delivers the fruit of his work and tells you a little more about the dish and flavor associations you will find inside.
Now… The food! The menu is a four-course prix fixe: a starter, two mains, and a dessert. For each course, you will have the choice between two options. My husband took the beer pairing, and I took the wine one. I was delighted when I realized I was greeted with a pear cider from the region I was born, in France, though the menu changes regularly. To start, we both ordered the terrine of vernison and pork as a starter, with tasty, shaved foie gras on it. Then, we tried to each order something different to explore the menu completely: from roasted sweet potato with beef tongue and kale to house-made garganelli with mussels and lemon bread crumbs, or from braised pork neck with boudin blanc and green apple to glazed cod and butternut squash curry, or finally from crumble, magical lemon curd and grapefruit sorbet to a dark chocolate marquise and coffee ice cream.
Overall, we had an absolutely wonderful diner. Every detail was chosen with care and caution, and the food was simply spectacular. If you are looking for a great place in the Boston area, which your lover does not already know, for Valentines Day or any other surprise, I cannot recommend this new restaurant enough.
I had the chance to meet with Chef Carl Dooley a few days after discovering his restaurant. Here is what I gathered!
WHO IS CHEF CARL DOOLEY?
I have been cooking since I was 16 and drew my career around cooking. I was a dishwasher, a prep cook, a line cook, a sous chef and then a chef. So you know, this feels like the right time in my career to take on an executive chef role and I am really excited!
I started when I was 16 up in Maine in a little lobster shack kind of a thing. I was washing dishes, boiling lobster, and frying clams. I became really attracted to the lifestyle and the high-paced energy in the kitchen, and frankly, I thought all the other guys in the kitchen were really cool. They were not chefs, but they were cooks, and super manly, and I thought this was a wonderful multicultural environment, which I had never really associated with cooking before. I loved the high energy, the fact that you work with your hands: it was fun. The rest of my friends were working at coffee shops, and on my side, I was cooking until the end of the night, and I thought that was the coolest thing. And then, once I realized it was something that I liked, I got really into it. So in high school, I worked at Formaggio Kitchen (Cambridge, MA), which was a huge eye-opening experience for me. I really learned what good food is and how to choose good products like great cheeses and meats – you know all these things which I had no idea about, back then. And this led me to start cooking at home a lot. My mother was really supportive. She would give me 20 bucks and say “ok, go find some groceries and make us dinner,” and I was happy to do so. It appealed to a lot of things I was getting into. I was working with my hands, I love being artistic, and the immediate gratification that comes from creating and sharing something was really what I wanted. It was really fun. I started skipping high school, and I would go the Harvard Bookstore, sit in the basement all day and read cookbooks. I remember going through some French books and thinking, “Oh my God, this is crazy, I would love to be able to do this!” And at the time, I had no idea of the level it took to reach and be able to deliver things like that. It just seemed really romantic and cool. I would come home from school and would watch “Great Chefs of the World” on Discovery Channel. I was so drawn by all these men and women plating this beautiful food – this was like my fantasy world, it captured all of my attention.
CHEF CARL DOOLEY AT TOP CHEF
I thought it would be a really fun adventure, something that would be really exciting to do. I mean, I have been a fan of the show for years, and both my wife and I watch it. It seemed like a really great opportunity to cook in really cool locations, for amazing judges and overall to challenge myself, meet and compete with other chefs, and do something kind of crazy, you know? My wife ultimately made me do it: I was a little on the fence, and she just told me, “You have to do it,” so that is how I went! At that time, I had just left my chef position in Maine, and I was not quite sure of what was next. So the timing was really good. And I knew that if I wanted to do something down the line, like opening a restaurant or writing a book, that this would be a really good platform for exposure. So I did not have a specific goal in mind, but I knew it was too good of an opportunity to pass!
CHEF CARL DOOLEY 2.0 (and social media)
The thing I really like about Instagram is that you can see what chefs I admire are doing, it is a great way to be connected to all of them all around the world. Within five minutes, I can see what chefs in Australia, Puerto Rico or Germany are up to. It is a really good way to feel involved in the chef global community, which I think is really important. Nowadays, there is less “secretism” and propriety than there used to be. I remember stories from some of the guys I used to work for. They would trade recipes and would go like, “Oh, I have this Robuchon recipe and I will trade you for this one.” And now, it seems that with Instagram, and everyone having books, people are a lot more open to sharing. Like I have friends I used to cook with, who now live in Hawaii, and I see his feed and think to myself, “Oh cool, Josh is cooking this!” and that is really awesome. I have not seen him for years but can still see what he is up to. To me, that is the best part of the whole Instagram thing, it is about staying connected with the global community of chefs.
CHEF CARL DOOLEY AT THE TABLE
In October of 2015 the idea of this restaurant was born. I had met Robert, the owner, through some mutual friend. I started talking to him, and he expressed the desire of wanting to create a restaurant out of this space, and the size of the project really attracted me. It was something really approachable – we could execute it with a really small team. Once I saw the space, I also thought it was a really unique for Boston/Cambridge. It reminds me of a restaurant I could find in Brooklyn or in Paris, in a really small neighborhood. I loved the kind of a “bistro moderne” idea. When I saw the space, I was intrigued, but after talking with Robert, I realized we were really on the same page, and I think both our personalities work really well together. As we started talking about the project, we figured we had the same vision, which got us really excited. Part of it comes from the fact that we did not completely know what we were doing (laughs) but also mostly from our enthusiasm. After that, it really just comes to bringing really talented people to the team and creating a theme that we all feel really good about.
The concept of the restaurant?
To make delicious food and make people happy. I know it sounds so simple but we really strive to make delicious food and provide our guests with a really unique experience. That comes from the kitchen side of things, but also from the space itself – you are sitting here and you can always see the kitchen, smell everything, and have a really good time.
As we get more comfortable with the space, the menu will change more. It is great for us as cooks to be stimulated but also for the guest to be able to come once a month and get something new. About the food itself, yes we work with a bunch of farms around here, our meat is sourced through our local butcher and that is all very important to us. But you know the way we cook is also a global pantry, so the spices or the foie gras we used just cannot be local. Anyway, we have the best intention and try to support our local farmers, and overall, the most important thing is to put something delicious on the plate that we feel really good about.
CHEF CARL DOOLEY & FRENCH CUISINE
I am a huge fan of charcuterie and terrines, so for me a simple and well-executed pâté is something that I love. It is both very simple and very complex, technique-wise, at the same time. I think that is what my background in French cuisine taught me – using great products with the correct technique through the entire process, whether it is a simple marinated sardine or something as complex as a veal blanquette, you know? It is the whole process that will guarantee the results, and the attention to details will make the difference. Because anyone at home can make beef bourguignon, right? But why is it better someplace? It is the marination, the seasoning, choosing the right meat, taking the time, cutting the vegetables not too small and not too big… it is all these details that are, to me, what cooking is all about!
You know, last time I was in Paris, it was a few years ago and we were in Saint Martin and we found this great little wine bar. We were sitting there, it was the end of the night, the kitchen was kind of closed. We had just flown in, we were having some great wine, and the bartender brought us some bread with something which I thought was cheese at first. I asked him what it was and he said, “fjdnsijhf,” so I was like, “Hmm, I don’t know that cheese,” and after trying it I realized, “Holy cow, this is butter!” So it was just bread and butter, but really, really good. See, bread and butter is the simplest thing but that tasted amazing. The right cow, the right process, taking time to age the cream… It is something that is so simple but then you eat it and it is spectacular. To me, that is what French cuisine is about. It is not about the truffle or the foie gras, but it is about something that is really, really well done.
We were in Lyon, and it was late at night, and there was a cart with calf’s heads on it. The people were doing the jelly calf’s heads. I stood there and I was staring at it wondering, “Is that what I think it is?” Then I looked at the whole process, it was steaming, and he was cutting pieces. And I finally thought to myself, “Alright, I think I can get into this.” You know, with Dijon mustard and some parsley and garlic. Frightening at first but a great surprise overall! This reminds me of something. Actually, I was very fortunate I worked with Tony Maws [famous Boston chef] for a number of years, and I remember walking into his restaurant, the old one: I had never seen half the things that were in front of me. I specifically remember one day as I was arriving, there was a meat delivery, a whole box. I decide to help out, and I open it up and bam! It was all lamb heads! Fifteen lamb heads just looking at me, and I was like “Wow!” As I went back with Tony, he showed me how to saw the head open and take the brain out, like a surgeon really. Then he taught me how to roast it perfectly with capers and brown butter. Honestly, at first I thought I’d never eat that, and now I can tell you it is really delicious! In cooking, there is always funky stuff and I think the French do it best!
A KITCHEN DISASTER
When I was working at the Bistro, I was in charge of cooking the octopus. We cooked like 15 octopuses at a time in olive oil in these big stockpots. We started cooking it towards the end of service, it was somewhere around 2 in the morning that I was supposed to pull the octopuses out before going home. And I totally forgot about it. The next day, I had to open the restaurant. I get there at seven in the morning, I walk in, and this smell comes to me. And bam! Oh sh*t! It is bubbling everywhere and the whole place smells like octopus. I got the dishwashers and was so stressed out, I kept telling them, “We have to clean this up before the chef gets here!” It was terrible. We even had to put Febreze in the dining room. Seriously, it was such a disaster! I was only 21 years old, and every time I smell octopus, I think about that!
Seriously, a really good attitude. That is the most important, it is really hard, it takes a long time, it is difficult some days, but if you have that, you will get to wherever you want to be and become who you want to be.
This was a few years ago, it was for my nephew. He was turning 5 and was really into whales. So I made him this whale rice crispy treat birthday cake. It was three layers and this giant whale on it. It had these Swedish fish on it. It was really stressful. I was just there on vacation and made this giant cake. Once I saw how excited he and his friends were about it, I was so happy. And proud!
IN ANOTHER LIFE?
I would probably be either a really bad professional tennis player or a really good high school tennis coach. That is sort of my dream some day. I went to high school in Cambridge. They have a culinary program, which I did, and they also have a great tennis team, which I was a part of. Those were my two favorite things about high school. Someday, when I am retired and all is well, I want to teach high school culinary and coach the tennis team.