Interview with Chef Louis DiBiccari of Sel de la Terre – Boston, MA

November 3

Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Louis DiBiccari: I first wanted to be a writer. I still believe I will spend my twilight years as a writer. I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I was taking classes in English and journalism and I loved it, but the food I ate was so horrible. I'm from a big Italian family. My mom made breakfast every morning and every holiday had more food than you knew what to do with. I was like on suicide watch at school—I moved off campus just to get my own kitchen! I'd call my mom and grandmas and ask for all of their recipes. Before that I had never taken part in the cooking, but it came out of necessity and I fell in love with it. It’s so much fun. I started picking up books and got a restaurant job. When it came time to pick a major, I couldn’t because I felt I was going in the wrong direction. I started working in a restaurant near where I grew up and I ended up going to Scottsdale Culinary School.

You're going to get out of it whatever you put in it - wherever you are. I worked at Christopher’s Bistro out there. They had just won a Beard award. I’ve never been so scared of any one person or experience in my life. It was an intense kitchen, but I learned so much and learned the work ethic in this field and I became comfortable with it—after some tears. I came back here, looked at the number one and two restaurants in Zagat and started working at L'Espalier. I've been working here for 10 years. I worked garde manger when Geoff Gardner was a cook and Frank McClellan was on the line. It was the best food I've ever seen. When Geoff opened Sel de la Terre he asked if I was interested and I said I'd think about it and he said “Hurry up, you're already on the schedule!” I left the group to have some new experiences. I worked with Tony Susi and Amanda Lydon at a restaurant called Metro in Cambridge. I learned a lot there—it was really about the food. We were working with Gabriel Bremer and we were opening sous chefs there. I ended up leaving and coming back to Sel de la Terre. Metro closed 3 months later. It was a 300 seat restaurant in Porter Square doing beautiful French food with nothing but college students all around. I came back to Sel de la Terre because I decided that I wasn’t done working from Geoff and Frank and I wanted to learn more, and I wanted to finish the education. I found an opportunity and they really embraced my ambition to learn and to be part of the growth of the company. What I loved was the way they were going about it. I have complete control of the menu and Daniel [Borjorquez] has complete control of the menu [at the Sel de la Terre]in Natick. The menus are different compositions, but how we cook is similar because we worked with the same chefs. We are very similar in cooking styles and that’s why it works. The chefs are all from Sel de la Terre and L'Espalier, but they trust us to do food within the concept. We can change the menu as frequently as we want and they give us reign over the business side too. They don't get angry when we make mistakes. They work with us, they’re risk takers and its paying off. It's different because we're a 200-seat restaurant. Local, neighborhood places have 50 seats, and are really popular. I have 25 guys in the kitchen.

AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
LDB: So far opening this restaurant has been the hardest thing in my career. Opening this restaurant in a recession, especially. This isn’t a low rent area. There’s a lot of money here now, and there are a lot of challenges in trying to drive in more limited clientele and guests. There are more people going out to eat, but there are also more restaurants now. People are very opinionated and they are eager to share that information with you. One of the best things we’ve done is reformat the menu. It was always first course, second course, dessert. Now we offer the charcuterie items all individually. You can customize your dining experience. If you want to get out of here only spending $25 you can do that, and if you want to have a more involved experience that’s okay, too. Getting the wait staff to speak with our voice for us is very challenging. We’re trying to put our voice down so it’s right on the menu. We're making the concept of the restaurant more accessible. I want my friends and family to eat here and not feel like they need to save up to do so.

AB: If you had one thing that you could do again, what would it be?
LDB: Traveling. I haven’t done enough traveling. I realized that when I got back from Spain. It affects your palate, the way you think about food. You can’t fully mature as a cook unless you travel. I have to travel more to mature as a cook or I'll be paralyzed. I'll continue to develop but at a much slower rate. It goes beyond the boundaries of Europe. I need to get to Japan, to do things outside European and French styles just to have new experiences and be influenced. Just going to Myers+Chang isn’t enough. I need to go outside my comfort zone and I need to commit to it. I found that traveling makes me want to write about my experiences. They want me to do a blog here and I love it, it forces me to write, which I love.

AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
LDB: I would like to start chef organizations together, binding the community, working to bring the forces that are directing the present culinary community together to meet over the issues and educate each other. We’d have fun, casual, cool seminars with a website and a direct link for farmers to post their ingredients and info. It would be a way for us to communicate more closely and be casual and professional at the same time. We do it informally a lot. Dante [DeMagistris] and I went to Nantucket for the weekend, Will [Gilson] and I went to Spain, and we always talk a lot of shop. But get everyone together with an agenda and I think there’s some potential. There are some energetic people in the city right now who are excited about what they’re doing and excited about what is going on in a larger sense as well. Even though we're very competitive we're also in each others’ corners. I know they're out there talking about Sel de la Terre because they like it, and I do the same thing for my friends. We all have this natural bond and I don't know if that's unique, but I fee as if it is. It keeps me in Boston.

AB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
LDB: That's a ways off. I haven’t gotten to that point yet. I don't feel I've made any major accomplishments in my career. I'm excited for short term and long term goals. I feel I've always been part of the team. When you work here your name isn’t on the jacket; you’re all the same, you’re all part of the team. That's why I started working at L’Espalier in the first place. I didn’t know who Frank [McClelland] was—I just knew it was the best restaurant in the city. The restaurant was the profile, not the chef. Now you owe it to your restaurant to get your name out there. TV food channels have done a lot of good; magazines, online and print, have raised awareness. These are all positive things. I think it’s opened up opportunities for chefs in other ways. When I was in culinary school maybe you opened your own restaurant, but now there are so many ways to catapult your career. I love working in restaurants, but I don’t know what my future will be. I want to be as creative and have as much fun as possible. I don’t ever want tunnel vision. I want a broader spectrum of what’s happening in the field.

AB: What does success mean for you? What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
LDB: Boston. In the grander scheme of things I want to run my own businesses. I feel that through experiences I've had and will have, I'll be able to complete the picture of what I want. Right now it’s a little vague. As much as I love food and being a chef, I like being able to entertain people and I would like to be a more complete entity. I think about the places in New Orleans, or [Boston’s] The Beehive. I love the idea of a place people go for entertainment and they don't necessarily have to eat, they can enjoy the space even if they've eaten somewhere else. And if you do decide to eat, you'll have good food that's made with love. There are a million concepts and if the food wasn’t made with love it’s obvious. I'd really like a venue people gravitate towards, where they know they can get great food, but they can also enjoy the space because it’s been born out of the community and out of what they enjoy and love. I would like to help accelerate careers in industries that are sometimes difficult to introduce your product too. Like the arts and music: Fields where, if you're talented, you need a place to show it and showcase it. You need eyeballs. The Beehive does a great job of showcasing local artists and they have a really strong concept. And there’s room for that concept to be done in different ways.