Chef Chris Parsons
Catch | Boston, MA
Chris Parsons takes his fish seriously. He’s a fourth generation fly fisherman and spent his childhood summers on Cape Cod catching a lot of fish. So, it’s no surprise that the focus of his first restaurant Catch is seafood and local produce.
Parsons and his partner and wife spent a year searching for the perfect location for their joint venture, which they found in Winchester, just north of Boston. Combining his love for fishing and food, Parsons focuses on forging relationships with his local fishermen and farmers so he can ensure the best product for his guests. He goes to great lengths to bring in top quality product; in fact, he can tell you where each piece of fish came from, when and where it was caught, and who caught it.
Prior to opening Catch—and when he wasn’t water-side with a fishing pole—Parsons attended Johnson & Wales and graduated with a culinary degree. He then headed west and settled in Boulder and Telluride in Colorado for several years, where he cooked and, as he says, enjoyed the outdoors.
But his heart is in the east, so Parsons returned to the Boston area. He worked in the kitchen of Rialto in Cambridge, and then moved to south to Manhattan. A sous chef position at Arizona 206 preceded his move to Cena, where he worked with Chef Normand Laprise of Toque! fame in Montreal. Parsons returned to Boston again, and opened Pravda 116 and then worked with fellow 2009 Boston Rising Star and friend Joanne Chang as chef of Flour.
Parsons opened Catch in September of 2003. He has visions of expanding the restaurantbeyond its current 48 seats and small kitchen staff, but for now he’s happy to focus on making the restaurant the best it can be.
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Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Chris Parsons: I worked at a kitchen in high school, although not in a serious way. It was called St. Stevens Priory. I didn’t really feel a huge draw to food. My parents’ best family friend is a guy from Italy who makes his own sauce and wine. He just had a passion for food that still drives me today, So I did grow up with people who appreciated food. My family had a house in East Dennis in Cape Cod. I'm a big fisherman and my dad is too. We'd go out on the boat, catch fish and throw it on the grill. That being said, at that point (age 14) I didn’t feel I'd be a chef. I'd worked at a kitchen at St. Stevens Priory more because my friends worked there. We'd do garde manger stuff and do the dishes. I enjoyed some of the environment in the kitchen—being on your feet, moving around, not being sedentary, but I really didn’t enjoy the general environment in the kitchen. When I got to to the end of high school I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so as a shot in the dark I went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Providence. The first year I was a little unsure if it was the right thing.
AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
CP: Not that I want to advise anyone not to go, education is important, but a positive kitchen experience is what molds you. At 18 I was a little unfocused and a little too close to home. In my second year I transferred to the Charleston campus. When I transferred, it really began to click for me. I graduated and moved to Colorado and worked in a little restaurant called Evangeline’s. I lucked into that job; my roommate was the sous chef here. It had New Orleans driven cuisine; it was upscale creole and we had a prix fixe menu that changed every day. Only three of us were in the kitchen. I started there as garde manger, moved up to the line, and worked up to sous chef. Then I moved to Boulder and got a job at The Flagstaff House. That was a great experience. It was a busy restaurant and I learned a lot about being a line cook at a really high end kitchen. Then I moved to Martha’s Vineyard. I spent a summer there at a restaurant called The Oyster Bar. It was fun, not serious food but busy; it was a bistro where celebrities would eat. Then I moved back [to Boston] and worked at Rialto. Once you're a line cook for a number of years you want to take that next step to become a sous chef. My experience at Rialtowas amazing and I'm still close with the people I worked with there. When I got [a job as sous chef in New York] Jody Adams wasn’t thrilled that I was leaving to take the other job but at the time I was very into food and wanted to be aggressive and take the opportunity to get the sous chef position. The time at Rialto was great; that was when [Jody Adams] got the Beard award. It was an exciting, fun time to be there. That all led me to Cena, which was great.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
CP: Normand Laprise definitely made an impression on me. I was really lucky I was working at Rialto at the time and a kid I knew got the head chef position at Arizona 206. Scott Linquist asked me to be the sous chef. I figured it was a great opportunity to get a good position. So I spent a year there, which was tough. I have a lot of respect for those long time New York chefs. Until you go work down there I don’t think you can understand. There are different expectations in terms of the customers, and also in terms of what you’re expected to deliver in the kitchen, the amount of hours you have to put in. I was at Arizona 206 and I saw an advertisement about Cena looking for sous chefs so I sent a resume and decided “I'm going to get this job.” I put in my notice with Arizona 206 before I even got the job, but I got it. It was fun and it was great, but unfortunately Cena didn't make it.
AB: At StarChefs we publish a technique features for chefs to learn new things. Is there a culinary technique you use in an unusual or different way?
CP: We use a lot of milk in our cooking. All of our soups are milk-based instead of cream-based. We'll set aside the actual cooking of the soups. We cook the vegetables until tender, no stocks, always a vegetable base, and very little butter. Milk becomes the backbone. Our corn soup is ridiculously simple: We sweat the vegetables, add the milk, throw the corn in, and turn off the heat. All the soups are milk-based and then garnished with something bright and crunchy.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
CP: My philosophy at Catch is to try to get the best local products we can, with a focus on regional seafood. We’re not limited from using other areas, but local is our focus, so we’re trying to build connections with local fishermen and bring that across to the guest and help them make that connection. We try to treat those great products with finesse and not be selfish with them—to let them shine on their own. We’re always trying to refine our technique every day, trying to take the dishes and refine them.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
CP: Opening my own restaurant and trying to focus on being the best chef I can be. Also being a smart business owner and boss, especially trying to sort out that stuff as a young chef.
AB: If you had one thing that you could do again, what would it be?
CP: Now I'm married with two kids and a restaurant, but I certainly wish I could have had the opportunity to work in Europe. Not that I'm unhappy with who I am. When I was younger, living in Colorado was great and fun, but I do wish right out of culinary school I had gone and worked with some of the great chefs.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
CP: I participate every year in the mentor program at the local schools. This year we had nine kids from three different schools in Winchester. The owner of the Cambridge Culinary School and I have been talking about teaching some classes over there, maybe some continuing education classes with people who are there to have fun. We do a little class here where 15 people come in for dinner and it’s a five course meal with demos in between.
AB: What does success mean for you? What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
CP: I love this small environment here. I do see myself as a chef growing a bigger team. It’s fun to have a small team, and I call all my chefs "chef" and that’s how I see it, but as time goes on I'd like to have a bigger team. I'd love to see the concept of Catch grow.
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