Four Years Of New Years

Four Years Of New Years

Juliet and Persian New Year go way back. 

Well, I guess we only have so far back to go on our corner of Washington and Webster streets, just a few blocks from home, where our little restaurant just celebrated its first birthday. Our company though, likes to claim the Persian celebration of spring as something of an anniversary. 

We named Bread + Salt Hospitality in front of a full dining room on the first day of Noruz [Farsi. Literally, New Day. Colloquially, New Year], a thirteen day holiday beginning on the spring equinox. The dining room overlooked a cavernous, darkened ballroom at Cuisine En Locale, which would later become Once Lounge, but where Bread + Salt Hospitality would first, just over a year later, produce Gitana, a temporary restaurant celebrating classic and modern Spanish cuisine. 

Katrina and I were still working long hours running a couple of the area’s notable restaurants. On that New Day, 2014, we announced to a full room of our biggest fans that at some yet undefined but not too far away date, we’d build a restaurant of our own together; and we intended to do so in the city where we live. 

A week later (still Persian New Year), we packed the whole show up and took it on the road. Bread + Salt Hospitality presented Noruz to two sold out seatings in New York City. Manhattan. East Village. A neighborhood gem of a bar, Jimmy’s No. 43, put their evening in our hands. They kept a few seats open at the bar itself but otherwise shut down the place for us to try something new, very far from home. I cooked brunch and then boarded a bus to the city, where Katrina was already waiting, having driven down a few hours earlier in a Zipcar loaded top to bottom with a week’s worth of work and a dream. Six hours later, we filled that room twice. The next day we went back to work. 

But it was only a couple of months before I worked my last shift in someone else’s kitchen. We took our little event production company and took on a more substantial calendar of catering and private party requests, and started knocking on doors. One of those doors we eventually leased for our restaurant, but it was a long march to get it renovated and ready. 

Another Persian New Year came and went first. This one we spent cooking at the prestigious James Beard House [another New Year in New York], preparing their annual celebration dinner for the holiday. We brought along a team of five, almost our entire staff. In that year’s celebration, we looked around with as much confidence and hope as we had uncertainty about the future. This was our first event that wasn’t entirely self produced. On our first anniversary as a real company, the table was laid for us at the center of the American culinary establishment, and there was a place at that table for everyone who worked with us throughout that first year. Noruz 2015 was really something. 

Katrina’s history with Persian New Year goes back much farther than Juliet’s, farther than Bread + Salt Hospitality’s, and certainly farther than my own. While my partner’s father, from Tehran, may not have espoused cultural identity and traditions as a rule; that rule did not apply to culinary heritage. Maybe you saw Katrina last month contributing to Bon Appetit Magazine on just that subject: Nobody Hosts Like An Iranian

When she introduced me to this cuisine of her childhood (reintroduced really, but somehow I missed the point the first time around), I was immediately hooked. Surprisingly uncommon in a sea of trends that values cultural culinary mashups from the Arab world, Persian cuisine is a compendium of textures and colors applied to bright, fresh flavors. Persian cuisine, and specifically the meals built around mountains of fresh herbs folded with rose and scented with saffron of Noruz, is a perfect balance of extravagance (expensive spices, caviar, salads built entirely of herbs) and simplicity (rice, pickles, flatbreads) that would be the envy in design of any temple of high gastronomy. Although Katrina is quick to remind me that her father or her Amehs (Farsi: Aunts), would be horrified at my heavy hand with the saffron. I can’t help it, I love it, and I like to promote the cause of our farmers who grow the spice on repurposed opium poppy fields in Afghanistan (we purchase it via fair trade arrangements supported by a company born at Harvard Business School, Rumi Spice). 

Last year I shifted left and right on my feet struggling to keep up with a steady stream of tickets printing during our busiest lunch to date, just about a month after opening Juliet. We weren’t yet serving dinner at all, just breakfast and “long lunch” seven days a week. I was open twelve hours a day and working almost twenty trying to keep up with ordering, inventory, prep lists, and cleaning without established systems, and without yet a manager or sous chef to lean on. 

As I shifted nervously trying to remember which refrigerators which ingredients were waiting in and which sandwiches required which breads, Andrew Knowlton took a seat at the counter directly in front of me. I had no idea he was Andrew Knowlton, editor of Bon Appetit, at the time. Although I did suspect he was somebody. The guy wouldn’t stop asking questions that I really didn’t have time for. And so politely too… Something was off. But I made time, of course. We usually do. 

I had no idea that was Andrew, or that Andrew was on official magazine business. I had no idea that a few months later he would name us to the magazine’s annual list of the 50 best new restaurants in the country, based largely on the strength of that Persian New Year lunch. We were overreaching a bit that week, but we didn’t want to miss out on our annual tradition. We held on though, and it paid off. It usually does. 

Anyway, here we are. One year post being named to the best in the country, two years post serving dining culture big shots, three years post deciding to leave our jobs and turn our attention to creating jobs instead; another Noruz. 

This year will be our biggest New Year production yet. Four years in the making. With six full performances, Thursday through Saturday, this week and next. I’ve been developing the menu for years, back and forth for audiences across two cities. We spent a lot of time bringing this event to you, and we’re very excited this year to simply bring you to us. Although I wouldn’t wait to make those reservations, they are nearly full. Happy New Year. 

What Is Important?

What Is Important?

We live in a world of superlatives! 

I wake up every morning to a string of emails telling me what is the best of this or the best of that, what cannot be missed, the ten things that I absolutely have to do before I ever this or that again; the last five things I’ll ever have to read, to understand all there is to understand, I guess? 

That one’s been coming through a lot lately. It’s tempting, to read those last five things. I’ve resolved each year for the past almost ten to read more. I keep failing, allowing all sorts of busy to get in the way. Maybe I should just read those last five and be done with it; move on to a new resolution, maybe an easier one.Tempting. 

But not really. It’s really just stressful. It can’t all possibly be true. If the ten best beaches of this week are just replaced by ten new ones by April, I’ll never keep up. If there’s a list of the five most important reads of all time; how do I keep receiving a new list called the same thing? I don’t know how to make the emails stop, so I just get better at funneling them away as quickly as they come in. Although, I am now plagued by fear of missing something that I actually did need to know and spend at least an hour a week carefully but quickly skimming through the folder of cast aways. 

The world of restaurants is the world of superlatives but on 1.5x speed. The way I took to “reading” my audiobooks for a while before finally admitting that while I was checking the complete box faster, and more frequently, I wasn’t really listening to anything at all. 

The best restaurants of all time, of the country, of the world. The best restaurants of the month, the season, the moment. The RIGHT NOW. That’s one I can at least understand changing so frequently. Right now doesn’t last for long. 

The best new restaurants, the best new chefs. The best restaurants run by people under 30. The best restaurants with a fireplace. Those are all lists I’ve been lucky to be a part of at least once over the past few years. I appreciate them all, except one. 

I once woke up to a text message on Valentine’s Day, after prepping all the night before for one of the busiest services of the year, from a PR company encouraging me to get all my friends to log on to their computers and smartphones to vote for me as… Hottest Chef Of The Year. 

Yes, hottest. Yes, like that. Yes, me. 

That’s a category I’m happy to have seen retire. I am sure that I’d feel the same even if I had won the pageant that year. 

When we were busy planning and building Juliet, Katrina and I didn’t have much time to think in superlatives. We took our project very seriously as we set out to turn our once favorite neighborhood coffee shop into something more closely resembling a full service restaurant, but on a very small scale. A scale our little company could afford. A scale our little space would accept. We took our work, and ourselves very seriously. We just weren’t sure how seriously we should expect to be taken. 

It didn’t take long for us to know that we should be ready to accept more than we first expected. We opened to some fanfare that we were ready for; that any fresh project from a known cast of characters in the ever more popular food industry should be ready for. Before the opening buzz settled, something changed. 

First it was the reviews. The weekly paper came first, and we allowed some expectant suspicions to boil up slowly. Then Sheryl Julian, the award winning recently departed 30 year editor of the Boston Globe food section, walked in. They could have sent anyone. Close behind her was Corby Kummer of Boston Magazine and The Atlantic, etc., etc. 

“Three stars.” “Jewel box full of surprises.” “Boatload of refined technique.” “Ambition and skill of a destination restaurant.” 

We had yet to secure our liquor license. 

More superlatives followed. Best this. Best that. We were past the initial buzz phase now, and now these things started to feel good. We had put a few systems in place, hired a manager, had begun training the would be sous chefs, and actually had the time to click the links in those emails, realize they were about us, and share them with our friends. 

Bon Appetit named us one of the fifty best new restaurants in “America.” A designation I had a lot of trouble swallowing because a) I couldn’t believe it! That was the sort of list my mentors sometimes found themselves on and b) they seemed to have left out most of the countries in America, as only the USA was represented. 

I came to terms with both of those realities and celebrated the news with our staff. Spring turned to summer, generally a slow time for restaurants; especially new ones. We weren’t slow, and every third guest came in clutching one of those articles or at least mentioning them. 

This was a difficult time for me as I straddled the dueling emotions of wanting to celebrate each unexpected victory but being mostly paralyzed by the new perceived expectations they brought. Juliet had been built by us, for us and our neighbors. Before we had time to learn how to use it; it was picked up by the neck like a show dog on the way to the groomer; laid out, scrubbed and brushed, tied with a bow, ready to be repackaged, and trotted out for everyone else. 

The other names on those best of lists were names I had heard of. The headliners that we were inches from in the newspaper columns had worked for the stars. 

Then just before Christmas, after a lull in media attention in general — for the holiday? Cold weather hibernation? Election season fatigue? Election result terror? — In quick succession by the same publication we were named again one of the best new restaurants of the year (of 8, we were the only new company on the list) and then I was named one of the best chefs in Boston (of 4). 

A few days later Zagat named Juliet one of “Boston’s 25 Most Important Restaurant Openings of 2016.” After a year of coming to terms with the glossy finish that greeted us so regularly, something about this one stopped me, and I couldn’t share it right away. I had to stop and think about this one, a lot. Typing this now, I haven’t even discussed it with Katrina yet. 

What is important? 

Are we important? Can restaurants be important? Should restaurants be important? Is ours? 

Well, not for cooking alone. At least not in our opinion. Thankfully that seems to make a difference. When Katrina was named one of Eater’s Young Guns earlier this year, they noted her eye for design, warm service, and palate for wine. But above all that they held her up on a litter of social justice. When I was named a finalist for BostInno’s 50 on Fire, extending our reach beyond just the restaurant industry, cooking was discussed; but so was a commitment to mentorship and excellence in professional development.

A wedding we hosted, Juliet’s first, brought a former employee across the country to visit us, as a guest this time. He was seeing the new restaurant for the first time, he almost ran me over with his enthusiasm. Conor was a first time cook when he entered our organization and was now well on his way to distinguishing himself in a difficult job in Seattle. He cited his experience with us as making it possible. I told him there are a lot of places to learn. 

“Not like the way I learned with you.” 

At a holiday party hosted by a current staff member last week I found myself in a conversation with her husband that eventually led itself back around to previous jobs, hopes about future jobs, and current jobs. 

“So many of us have had to sacrifice some portion of our ideals as the realities of rent and expenses set in. Especially in restaurants I’ve seen” 

“You are giving people a chance to do what they want to do in a way they can feel good about doing it.” 

If I had been tasked with writing the list, I don’t know that I would have titled it “Important.” But maybe it’s for the best that I’m not the one writing it then. Juliet is certainly important to us; the work we do here, the way we do it, and the ideals that drive us to do it differently. I couldn’t be more grateful, if a little uncomfortable, that it is so quickly important to so many others also. 

And now that I really think about it, those chefs in the articles alongside us, turns out I’ve worked where they’ve worked. I know because I have heard of them, and I suppose they’ve probably heard of me too. 

There Will Be Time

There Will Be Time

Its scenes of oysters strewn on sawdust floors, its toast and its tea, its frequent indecisions, constant circling revisions, its coffee spoons measuring the day morning noon and night, could be so many things. Could be Juliet. Will be Juliet, for now.

Not Every Victory Is Gold

Not Every Victory Is Gold

Not Every Victory Is Gold

 

 

Good thing I didn’t accomplish all my goals yet, because then what would I do tomorrow. - Alexi Pappas, Olympian


Over the past week I have watched the fastest man in the world solidify his reputation, outpacing the assertive American seeking to unseat him, a gymnast who stands half a foot below much of her competition tumble head and shoulders above them earning gold medals in rapid succession; and a Japanese wrestling team roll their opponents one by one across the mat toward sweeping victory, at least for one night.

In that same week I watched that same gymnast fumble a somersault then reach down and touch the beam to find her balance. I watched her face fall as she knew immediately that that touch had melted away her next gold medal. I watched hopeful swimmers lose their place on the podium by fractions of seconds that I couldn’t distinguish by sight, that even a computer had trouble measuring for sure. I watched the understanding sink in, as their hopes sunk down, that they had done everything they could, swam as fast as they could, and maybe even as fast as the winner next to them but that still wasn’t going to be enough this time. I watched as countries took home first ever medals in various events and as champions were unseated. Maybe most notably I read the recap of two runners colliding, finishing their route injured, any hope of a medal completely eroded. I kept reading as one of them was eventually granted a rarely awarded commendation for spectacular sportsmanship which should carry with it important lessons for everyone paying any attention at all, to anything at all.

That week I also spent a number of nights waiting, wondering, and hoping that our little restaurant might graduate from the finalists list of Bon Appetit Magazine’s best 50 new restaurants in the country to the winners list of just 10. We didn’t.

For three weeks we had been hoping, just to be let down. Ten recently opened restaurants were in print, their names being delivered to mailboxes around the country. I remembered going home for a holiday five years ago and seeing my step mother reading the 2011 version of that same feature which listed a restaurant by one of my mentors among the awardees. I had nothing to do with that restaurant but felt an enormous pride for him, and for being so close to it. For the past three weeks I had unbelievable visions of joining that rank.

It came to my attention through researching some of the competitors that I found interesting in Rio that roughly 10,500 olympic athletes this year will not win any medals at all. You probably won’t read their names unless they happen to be from your town, or maybe your state. Years, often most of a lifetime, of preparation will end in frustration, defeat, and the deep lung burn that only comes after a truly desperate effort that fails.

But how many will never come near that stage at all? Many more than 10,500. And what a privilege to have your years of preparation amount to your chance to claim a title that so few could even dream of being possible.

In our case 50 restaurants would make it to the final heat. We were one of them. Somehow not only was our name tossed around in an editorial meeting somewhere as a contender but we made it to the top of the class after the trial round. We found ourselves among the elite crop of new arrivals. Six months ago when we turned over the key in the lock to open the doors of Juliet to the public for the first time we had no specific reason to suspect we would even be considered. Something like 4,000 restaurants open each year.

The crush of defeat in the end was real, but just for a moment. Like that swimmer who touches the wall in the same instant as his opponent but looks up to see his name in the fourth position instead of the third, but then remembers where he is in the first place. I read the list of the top 10 and was amazed with some of their stories. I can’t wait to try some of them as my staff continues to grow and improve and Katrina and I eventually take a little trip away from this place for a day. Maybe. One of them is within an afternoon’s driving distance.

I notified the staff that we hadn’t made the final cut and thanked them again for such an amazing performance to reach as high as we had. I set off around the corner to attend a local business owners meeting as my attention abruptly and happily narrowed from national accolades to the community around us. Later I laced up my running shoes and took my usual route which twice crosses the front doors of my restaurant and beamed with pride at the bustling scene I saw there. I strode by unnoticed by the staff inside whose attention was held fast by the business of serving our neighbors and continuing to put one foot in front of the other toward something uniquely special.


Dedicated to my adoptive grandfather, Buddy Johnson. Who at 87 years old was presented yesterday with his hometown’s first Hall of Fame Award for all time athletic achievement. One of only eight individuals to receive the distinction.  A four sport varsity athlete and later small business owner and generally all around great guy, Bud was responsible for landing me my first job as a dishwasher, inarguably changing my life. In more ways than the obvious. When I received a call that Bud was being discharged from the hospital to spend whatever last time he could carve out for himself in this life in the living room of the house that he built, I scrubbed the kitchen down and made the hour and a half drive home that I generally reserve only for Thanksgiving and Christmas to see him. He sat up straight and gripped my hand with purpose. We discussed childhood, and business; determination, and the Olympics. I have never seen an individual confront finality with such brave understanding, the strong look in his eyes easily overshadowing the pained effort of his voice and possibly changing my life all over again. I am proud to show him what I’ve done with that phone call he made so long ago to send a teenager to work.

 

Who Was Captain Leo Brooks?

Who Was Captain Leo Brooks?

A sign has stood outside Juliet for the past five days asking “Who was Captain Leo Brooks?” Like many of the adornments around and inside the restaurant, Katrina built that sign. Like many of these things, this one is repurposed from another time. She first built this sign for our Spanish restaurant, the intentionally short lived Gitana. It stood tall on Highland Avenue for nearly two months proclaiming the availability of various jamon; Serrano, Mangalica, sometimes Iberico, tortilla espanola, patatas bravas, bocadillos, and our incongruous but never undersold lobster roll. Often the sign would also list the name of some punk band playing later that evening. Gitana existed in the entryway to a friend’s music venue/catering company, Cuisine en Locale. One night there was an unexpected burlesque performance in the accidentally double booked dining room. Another day, pinball machines were delivered right past our makeshift lunch counter. The sign was there for it all.

Its hinges had loosened sometime ago. Its chalkboard surface was cloudy. Katrina took one evening last week before dinner service and refinished it, secured its hinges, and put out a new message along with the expected hours of operation and the day’s special; a question.


Captain Leo Brooks was a retired commercial airline pilot who invested (money as well as time, and reputation) in a farming operation in his recent home of Westport, MA. There with his wife Barbara Hanley he committed everything to helping the Santos brothers revitalize a third generation single herd dairy, Shy Brothers Farm, through cheesemaking.

 

 

New England once had a rich tradition of dairy farming for milk production. That has become increasingly difficult for many reasons, most notably related to how the price of wholesale milk is regulated to favor large scale industrial farms. The region has been losing farmland, especially dairy farmland at a record pace for a few decades. I saw this firsthand working for a failing dairy in northern Connecticut over ten years ago. The farmers had to resort to cutting staff and other resources, working incredible hours for no income just to attempt to keep the farm in operation. Slowly I watched this fail as section after section of the land was sold off to developers. The conditions for the farm’s owners, staff, community and eventually even the animals there deteriorated rapidly.

 

Leo and Barbara saw another answer in the increasing demand for high quality local cheeses. Together with the family they fortified their herd and recommitted to only the best practices in raising it. They are always ready, even without notice, to show off not just their cheesemaking facilities but their entire farm of happy, healthy, and cute Jersey cows. They dedicated their time to celebrating and evangelizing the hard work of their farmers and cheesemakers, eventually pioneering a guild of similarly minded artisans and dairy producers across the state.

 

Barbara has had a standing invitation open for me to stay at her home for years. She called me once at Beacon Hill Bistro, just to say hi. My former boss there, Jason Bond, had been an early customer of Shy Brothers, using their now popular Hannabells in a baked pear dessert. I hated that pear (not because it wasn’t delicious but because the garde manger chef always failed to tell me we were running low on the ingredients to prepare it) but loved the cheese and the Hannabells were still on my cheese cart even after Jason’s departure to open his own restaurant, Bondir.  She heard the young age in my voice when I picked up the phone and immediately asked me out to the farm. I think she just wanted to buy me lunch, which she did. She spent a minute brushing away parsley that was laid down in an unbroken ring all the way around the rim of her plate. She looked up at me and laughed.

 

“I have nothing against parsley but this is just here for no reason, isn’t that annoying?”

 

I love parsley. But yes, that is annoying. Barbara is from Alabama and reminded me of my mother in all the best ways. I was dying to take her up on her offer to stay that night, or any night.

 

Years later Katrina and I were called for a major catering event in neighboring South Dartmouth. We packed the car with everything we’d need to serve three services over two days. The capstone was a ten or so course tasting dinner prepared outdoors in a covered kitchen complete with range, oven and two dishwashers preceded by a picnic inspired lunch. The prep counter was a few feet from a pool. The pool was 100 yards from the sea. The opening meal though, was really special. Using nothing but a large grill we presented bouillabaisse in three courses. The way we imagined it might have been at L’Ane Rouge, a Michelin starred restaurant we visited in Nice but had failed to reserve 48 hours ahead of time to experience the bouillabaisse. That day we had our chance though, cooking it ourselves, oceanside. It was wonderful.

 

In between we stayed with Barbara. In the Martha Washington bedroom. At breakfast we met Captain Leo Brooks. Leo humbly regaled us with stories of visiting this country or that one while looking over his newspaper. He hinted at his profession in the skies, subtly. He got up to make us breakfast. Eggs from a neighboring farm. Scrambled well. Tomatoes, from their garden, with salt.

 

“Would you like some cloumage?” Leo.

 

Of course they want Cloumage!” Barbara.

 

Laughing. Everyone.

 

Leo’s personality opened up at the stove. Booming now. Probably not on purpose, Leo was well over six feet and his voice filled the room as readily as his frame. He spoke more specifically about favorite airstrips around the world, and restaurants too. Leo had favorite places in France and Spain. I was interested in those, but predictably more so in his list for Africa, India, Vietnam. They each told us the story of how they first met. It was in a bar. Just like Katrina and I. There’s a lot more to the story than just that. Likewise again. 

 

He tells me about his favorite saffron and goes hunting for it in a cabinet. I tell him not to bother, I have the best saffron. Ours is grown in Afghanistan and purchased directly from the farmers with the help of our friends at Rumi Spice. It’s awesome. His is Kashmiri. I’m sure it’s just as good. We both smile knowing ours will always be better than his if only for sentimental reasons. Katrina laughs to herself I’m sure imagining what her Iranian father would have to say to either of us. Katrina grew up with saffron smuggled in suitcases, first to Los Angeles and then distributed among the family on yearly visits.

 

“Look I just have to say it. I have to get it on the table. Leo was a gunrunner.” Barbara.

 

“What!?” Katrina.

 

“Who’s ready for scrambled eggs?” Leo.

 

Reminding me of my mother again, I immediately know that although Barbara wasn’t lying, the real story was probably a little more complicated and a little less illicit than what was presented at first. Over those eggs we got the rest of that story, and a few more too.

 

Leo pulled out recipes collected from near and far, more than a few with stories of families and cooks to go with them. Barbara hinted at a cookbook project. I was dying to sign up to help without looking overly eager. Sometimes my ambition for ideas I love can roll out a little too quickly and a little too strongly. I left praying they’d write someday to discuss that project further. I’ve begun two short stories that center around Captain Leo. I look forward to having time to finish them.

 

Leo Brooks was a friend. Although we only met him that one time. He recently died, unexpectedly. Leaving behind a wonderful wife, and friends that I am sure are countless. We have a sign proclaiming his name outside the restaurant and we hope it draws you in. Of course because we’d love to offer you a toast for breakfast spread thick with his beloved Cloumage, a Shy Brothers Farm cheese that is worth a morning detour to taste, but also because we’d love to tell you more about him, so please ask.

At Juliet our farmers are important to us. We’ve been overdue in telling you more about them. We are proud to start with Captain Leo Brooks.

 

 

 

 

100 Days of Juliet

100 Days of Juliet

 Juliet is about us, but a little bit more now it is about our team too.

On the House, Part 8. Snow. Quiet.

On the House, Part 8. Snow. Quiet.

Over the course of sixteen weeks, ending on Dec. 31, 2015, we published a series of stories at Eater Boston chronicling some the details involved in taking an empty space an turning it into Juliet. 

On the House, Part 7. From Someday to Any Day

On the House, Part 7. From Someday to Any Day

Over the course of sixteen weeks, ending on Dec. 31, 2015, we published a series of stories at Eater Boston chronicling some the details involved in taking an empty space an turning it into Juliet. 

On the House, Part 5. Abandoning Autopilot

On the House, Part 5. Abandoning Autopilot

Over the course of sixteen weeks, ending on Dec. 31, 2015, we published a series of stories at Eater Boston chronicling some the details involved in taking an empty space an turning it into Juliet. 

On the House, Part 4. An Old Dream

On the House, Part 4. An Old Dream

Over the course of sixteen weeks, ending on Dec. 31, 2015, we published a series of stories at Eater Boston chronicling some the details involved in taking an empty space an turning it into Juliet.

On the House, Part 3. Flexibility, Listening

On the House, Part 3. Flexibility, Listening

Over the course of sixteen weeks, ending on Dec. 31, 2015, we published a series of stories at Eater Boston chronicling some the details involved in taking an empty space an turning it into Juliet.