Chef Will Gilson
Garden at the Cellar | Boston, MA
Will Gilson’s farm-to-table cooking is second nature. He was the chef at his father’s farm/restaurant starting at the age of 17, and the experience set the foundation for his appreciation for farm fresh produce and the value of seasonal cooking.
But even before he took to the stoves at the family restaurant, Gilson apprenticed with Chef Charles Graghi at Marcuccio’s in the North End when he was only 15. Later, he also staged at London’s Lanesborough Hotel, Silks at the Stonehedge Inn, and Oleana. Gilson is a graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI, and in 2004 was the recipient of the R.C. Kopf Student Achievement Scholarship. The scholarship funded Gilson for a three-month tour of several wineries throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, in Venice, Italy, and Paris, France.
Today, Gilson is the chef of both Garden at the Cellar in Cambridge as well as The Herb Lyceum in Groton. Though the two restaurants are very different in nature (Garden at the Cellar has a young, lively neighborhood feel with an innovative menu, while The Herb Lyceum prides itself on the seasonal, multi-course dinners that are served in its farm-oriented country environment), they share the same vision: sustainable, seasonal cuisine made from the freshest local ingredients.
In his spare time, Gilson works closely with organizations like Chef's Collaborative to help educate patrons and fellow chefs about making sustainable food choices. As for the future, Gilson has his own restaurant on the way.
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Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Will Gilson: I was the chef out at my dad's farm restaurant since I was in high school in 1999, and while I was attending Johnson and Wales I worked there on weekends. When I graduated I spent 3 months in London and 3 months traveling in California, Italy, and France studying wine. Then I worked with Ana [Sortun] on an internship and stayed with her for a year and a half after college. There was no upward mobility with her and I started drinking downstairs here and the owners offered me the chance to turn this into a restaurant.
AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
WG: I went to Johnson and Wales, but it's not a huge criteria. I like working interviews and seeing what people are capable of doing. I ask very vague questions and let people run with it. So I like to ask questions along the line of “What's your biggest fault?” and let them run with it. If someone says they don't have any, I don't hire them.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
WG: Never underestimate the value of routine and be willing to seek out the people you want to work for, i.e. the people you think emulate where you want to go in your career. But it’s also okay not to know where you want to go.
AB: Who is the coolest chef you have worked with?
WG: Chuck Draghi at Erbaluce. I worked with him at Mercutio’s in the North End. It was the first restaurant I ever worked in and it made sense. He had a way of describing food to you that made you forget that it was food. He would say when you’re eating and drinking you have to garnish the food with the herbs that flowered on the hill where the grapes were grown. Every time I have his food it brings me back. Every time I have his risotto it makes me cry.
AB: What goes into creating a dish?
WG: I start with the time of year first. I think of what the weather’s like and the season. The growing season is 6 months at best. So we start with what’s in season and we think about where there are voids in the menu. As a neighborhood restaurant we have to not change certain things and be tactful. Every month we change the menu and have a new signature dish using whatever ingredient we want to highlight. From there we go with other ingredients, sauces, and accents that will highlight the main ingredient but all work harmoniously.
AB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
WG: Salty-sweet is number one. Anything that I serve that’s sweet also had salty flavors. It really wakes your palate up. I like to really focus on the freshest herbs you can get. Obviously that’s a huge part of my background. I love being able to take people to new levels with herbs they never thought of in that way, like lavender with a savory dish or rosemary with a sweet dish. I also like the combination of fresh herbs with spices that are a little more exotic.
AB: At StarChefs we publish a technique features for chefs to learn new things. Are there any techniques you use in a different or unusual way?
WG: For an olive oil emulsion we’ll use the left over sous vide eggs as the base.
AB: What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated?
WG: Wild boar. We do a wild boar Bolognese and we also do a wild boar and rabbit liver terrine.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
WG: Fresh, seasonal, sustainable, and all natural—but have fun with it at the same time.
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
WG: Leave the family business, take a risk and come here. Leaving that safety and security. Or working in London at the most expensive hotel in England, the Lanesborough.
AB: If you had one thing that you could do again, what would it be?
WG: I would have continued the track that I was on for doing sommelier work. I took the Level 2 exam and stopped after that. It just didn't work. I also stopped to do business school stuff.
AB: What trends do you see emerging?
WG: The local food movement is something huge. More people are starting to get into it and they're making it less trendy. People are just embracing it and making it a solid part of their cuisine. That's why I wanted to be a chef in Boston. I grew up working at farmers markets. I was going to Chefs Collaborative meetings about 10 years ago and it was all those people who were making a difference. I wanted to be a chef in a city like this, where chefs are tight. I've spent a lot of time trying to recruit the next wave of chefs to shop at farmers markets and raise their own products. There’s the perceived value that goes along with it: restaurants that charge a little less but give a little more.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
WG: What I do in my spare time is work with Chefs Collaborative. We work with the Greater Boston Food Bank, Share Our Strength, and organizations that help to create money and revenue for food bank work. We support a lot of smaller organizations like Massachusetts farmers markets, just trying to give money to the state of Massachusetts to make better marketplaces. We're trying to work with Boston public market to find enough people to support a year round market in Boston like the markets in San Francisco and New York, so it’s a lot of board meetings.
AB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
WG: I miss doing desserts like savory ice creams, like olive oil gelato with rosemary and orange polenta cake. We don't get to do that so often.
AB: What are you doing to survive in this economy? Are there any practices that are working for you?
WG: When the economy tanked we did the best we ever did. June wasn't bad because Harvard graduates in June so we had a lot of private stuff. This has been our best summer so far.
AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
WG: I'd be an awesome philanthropist. I love to spend money, especially other peoples’ money. Otherwise I'd be a food and travel writer. I love to travel. My last trip to Spain was my first trip in 3 years and it made me realize how much I miss it. It’s such a great way to be inspired—for food especially.
AB: What’s next? Where will you be in five years?
WG: That's a loaded question. I'd love to have a collaboration between this restaurant, my family's restaurant, and one more restaurant. Of course I want my own place. I want a flagship restaurant. I have a gastropub style and I’d like to put that concept a little more on the map in Boston. We've been doing that here for three years, and unbeknownst to me there's The Spotted Pig in New York. When I was working in London I got into gastropubs. I love the fact that a farmer would stop by in a truck with asparagus and sell it to you. I don’t need a lot of money—just enough to start it. You can create a successful business and get your name out there without having to report to a chef above you.
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