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Chef Amanda Lydon of Straight Wharf Restaurant - Boston Rising Star on StarChefs.com

Photo Credit: Becca Bousquet

Amanda Lydon
Ten Tables
597 Centre Street
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130
(617) 524 8810

Straight Wharf Restaurant
Straight Wharf
Nantucket, MA 02554
(508) 228 4499

Recipe »

Interview:
Amy Tarr: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Amanda Lydon: I studied English and American literature at Harvard. The summer after freshman year I had wandered into Straight Wharf Restaurant in Nantucket and took a job there as a daytime prep cook. I watched the cooks at night – it was something very different for me – I was fascinated. I cooked part-time through college and just kept doing it after school.

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Amanda Lydon
STRAIGHT WHARF RESTAURANT | Boston


Biography
Growing up in Massachusetts, Amanda Lydon spent every summer with her family on Nantucket. The summer after her freshman year at Harvard, where she studied English and American literature, she wandered into one of her favorite restaurants on the island, Straight Wharf Restaurant, and took a job there as a daytime prep cook. Back at Harvard, Lydon worked part-time in the kitchen of Upstairs at the Pudding, like so many of Harvard’s English majors. The work was far from intellectual, but she found it more challenging than anything else she’d ever done before.

After graduating from college, Lydon earned a scholarship to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and received a crash course in classic French cuisine and technique. Returning to Boston, she took a kitchen position at Chez Henri, where she not only had an opportunity to work under Chef Paul O’Connell, but she also met fellow cook and soul mate Gabriel Frasca. Together Lydon and Frasca took off for Europe. Their first stop was Provence and an apprenticeship at the Michelin two-star L’abbaye de Saint Croix. Next was an awe-inspiring stage with Spanish phenom Martin Berasetegui in San Sebastien, an experience that has continued to inspire her for many years.

Returning to Boston, Lydon completed stints in the kitchens of some of the hottest spots in town, including Truc, Radius, and Upstairs on the Square, where she was co-Executive Chef with Susan Regis. Most recently, she has been at the helm of Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain. At Ten Tables, whose name aptly describes its size and intimacy, Lydon collaborates with an equally compact staff to offer original French/American cuisine based on local, organic ingredients. The vibe is warm and inviting, as if you’ve walked into a fabulous dinner party at home with family and close friends.

Amanda’s career has come full circle. For her next culinary adventure she has teamed up with Gabriel Frasca again, this time as co-Executive Chefs at Straight Wharf Restaurant. Together they will bring their world-class experience to bear on the seasonal New England menu of this summertime favorite.


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Interview Cont'd
AT: Was it a difficult decision to make, given your intellectual background?
AL: I guess I never really made the decision to be a chef! When I worked at Upstairs at the Pudding during school, the kitchen was full of English majors! It’s not intellectual work, but it’s much more stressful than I imagined. I found it so challenging, more challenging than anything else I could be doing.

AT: Did you attend culinary school? Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs today?
AL: After college I got a scholarship to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. It was basically the first year condensed into 3 months -- it was very touristy, there were a lot of housewives. But I had a blast. I came home and started working in different restaurants here in Boston and just kept on working for several years.
A lot of times I tell young people to skip culinary school - it depends on whether I think they are a kindred spirit or not. A lot of what’s so wonderful about restaurants sometimes is when a restaurant transports you – I love that feeling of foreignness – going out to eat in Paris – it’s going to be more exotic, more romantic. I think that anyone who works abroad is going to bring back a little something from that experience and be a better cook.

AT: Tell me more about your experience abroad.
AL: I met Gabriel [Frasca] at Chez Henri and we hit it off. So we decided to do some traveling together. Trying to get a visa was so difficult – in the early days of email, getting online would take over half an hour. It was excruciating getting a visa and finding someone who’d take us. We ended up in a restaurant that wasn’t right for us. The food wasn’t what we wanted to be doing. I had a magazine clipping on Martin Berasetegui in Spain, so I called him up - we got on a train and went over there. It was probably the right time to be there – it was before the Spain explosion – it really was something different at that time. The aesthetics of the food were really exquisite – it was different from anything we’d ever seen before – also the first time we’d ever seen up close the difference between European and American restaurants. –the restaurant had 40 cooks – there aren’t that many restaurants in America like that – and they were all working for free- so there were practically no labor costs. The financial model is so different in America – you’re doing much higher volume. In Spain it was so eye opening, seeing how people were sacrificing to learn and develop different skills and to be a part of something. There were 40 cooks for 20 people coming for dinner. Everything was thrown out at the end of the day, and the next day, we’d make everything fresh. It was very inspiring. We lived off that inspiration for several years.

AT: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
AL: Truly everyone I ever worked for I’ve learned something from. The people who really inspire me are the Paul Bertolis of the world, Suzanne Goin. I’m interested in classic technique. I’m not into this whole new-fangled stuff. I’m more interested in older ideas, older sensibilities.

AT: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
AL: I think the role of a cook is an invisible role. The whole celebrity chef thing is strange to me. A cook should be in the background of the whole dining experience. I was hosting a party one summer and it was so fascinating to see my work differently – to be reminded why we do this and where the cooking fits into the idea of pleasing people and giving them a couple of hours to have a moment, make them happy. I enjoy the geniuses as much as anybody. I walk into a Mario Batali’s restaurant and I think he’s a freakin’ genius. [Babbo] is the perfectly articulated extension of a marvelous personality – the way he transforms a room, with every element, including the music. But the food is just one part of that. To be able to throw a great party every night- it’s a long haul.

AT: Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like?
AL: I’d be lost without onions and garlic. Everything starts with that base. Beyond that I’m in love with odd little greens and beans– we have an heirloom chick pea – it’s flatter than the usual variety and doesn’t even taste like a chick pea. I think it’s called “Cicerchi.” Recently a customer brought in Castellucian mussels. We cooked them up for a prix fixe. I’m also into sea salt, butter, good bread, all the basic stuff. At the moment, I’m into greens, bean, leeks, and grains – like faro.

AT: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool?
AL: I use that little green Japanese mandolin for everything- for garlic, cabbage – it’s always around. I also use a meat grinder for a bunch of things – I used it recently to grind chestnuts for a stew. And, of course, my pasta machine – it’s nothing fancy – one of those $75 hand cranks. The gears on the electric pasta maker always break. I find it relaxing to take an hour each day and roll out ravioli.

AT: What are your favorite cookbooks?
AL: I’m deep into reading Eric Ripert’s book, A Return to Cooking. It’s by my bed – it’s a cookbook that you can read as well as look at. There are a lot of ideas about cooking and inspiration, it’s done so beautifully and simple. I’m in love with the Suzanne Goin book (Sunday Suppers at Lucques) , also the Zuni Café Cookbook.

AT: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
AL: “Whose food do you love?” “Do you read?” In my humble opinion, you have to be a student your whole cooking life. The second you think you know it all, you are done. So I try to assess what they are reading. Are they reading the Times Food Section, are they are evaluating other menus in the city to see what people are doing? I try to find out what their sources are. And if they aren’t reading, then what are their sources for inspiration? So much of the challenge of the job is staying inspired and being a sponge, learning something new.

AT: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
AL: Don’t chase the money. There’s not a lot of it to begin with! For young cooks, go work your ass off, work for free, suffer a little bit. It’s the greatest thing in the world to see the world. If you have a passport, you can work anywhere, so get going.
I skipped a lot of the crap part. That’s why the Eric Ripert’s book is awe inspiring to me, because he is on the cusp of old-school but completely modern. For him, technique is muscle memory – he will never forget how to turn an artichoke more beautifully – it’s in his bones. He suffered and learned it the hard way.

AT: What places do you want to explore for culinary travel?
AL: I love Asian food, and I’m dying to go – Vietnam, Thailand, or Cambodia -- just for pure joy! Also India.

AT: What are your favorite restaurants –off the beaten path in Boston?
AL: I like Jumbo Seafood, where they fish the eel out of the tank for you. Café D in Jamaica Plain. City Feed and Supply, also in Jamaica Plain – it’s like a grocery but they do sandwiches that we die over. That’s our little splurge.

AT: So you’re coming full circle with your return to Straight Wharf on Nantucket with Gabriel?
AL: Yes, indeed. Marian Morash was the original chef there. Her husband was Julia Child’s first producer – he put her on the air. Anyway, I spent every summer in Nantucket from 3 to 21. My mom grew up there. It’s a family place for me, not a glitzy party place. My sisters and I used to sell the restaurant berries that we picked on the island to make money for horseback riding. We have a menu from ‘81 or ‘83 in our kitchen and one of the menu items for the day was “Lydon’s Blackberries with Crème Fraîche.” So it’s a restaurant we’ve known and loved for a long time, and we couldn’t be happier. There’s continuity. We’re probably not going to be doing foams at Straight Wharf.

AT: I’m curious to know how you guys will work together – your food isn’t totally antithetical to Gabriel’s, but it does seem pretty different.
AL: We are too! We’re hoping and praying. Gabriel is definitely a little more out there. If anyone can convert me, he can. But I wouldn’t say his cooking is too far off - he’s not as out there or as trendy as a lot of other chefs out there. We wrote our first menu - a fake menu -a couple weeks ago, and it was fun. There’s a sense of relief of working somewhere that is its own place. It already has its own personality and we’re interpreting and extending it in our own way. And it’s also summer food, so it’s food in the real moment. That’s the beauty of a seasonal restaurant. It’s about relaxation and a different frame of mind. You have a little more consistency in the way people are spending time with you. It’s a little more relaxed.

 

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  •    Published: March 2006

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