Interview with Michael Leviton of Area Four — Cambridge, MA

March 2012

Antoinette Bruno: How did you get into cooking? What made you want to get into cooking professionally?

Michael Leviton: I think the answer all comes down to ADD [attention deficit disorder]. Seriously. I had been studying psychology, and I was programming database management systems. All of that was very well and good, but it involved sitting still. At the end of the day, that is one of the things I am worst at. I had worked at some delis in high school and thought, ‘Oh my god, I would never want to do this for a living,’ but that was the only other skill I had. So I got a job as a prep cook at this salad bar joint in Boston and very quickly rose through the ranks. I went back to where I was going to school and got a job as a line cook. Three weeks later the chef got hauled off to rehab because it was the ‘80s and that’s what happened back then. And so at 19, another young woman and I were left running a kitchen, and the learning curve was straight up. All of the chemistry, physics, biology, economics—everything I was studying in school and liked but couldn’t deal with because it involved sitting still—was given a practical outlet, a central outlet.

AB: Who would you consider to be your most influential mentor?

ML: Two: Joyce Goldstein, and Daniel Boulud, for entirely different reasons. So Joyce, when I worked for Joyce, and Square One was sort of the first real restaurants that I got a job in, the menu changed every day. It was the late ‘80s, and coming from the East Coast, the product was other worldly. It was just simple food, almost home cooking, just done with great ingredients, for 300 covers a night. You know, watching Joyce come on the line Saturday afternoon before dinner service and having her taste through everything … she would close her eyes, and I’ve never met anyone with a palate like hers. She could pull out the layers of everything we were doing and there would be this question of: ‘When did you add the salt? Did you add the salt to the onions here, or did you add the salt to the onions here?’ She knew and she taught me how to really think about food and put flavors together. And I guess I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s also just about the value of classic regional food based upon traditional ingredients, traditional ideas. You know the classics are classics for a reason, and I think sometimes in an effort to be creative, we lose sight of that.

From Daniel I learned classic French technique. The Le Cirque kitchen back then was a war zone, and I learned how much I could take, or I learned I could take a lot and not break. I have this vision of a whole roast turbot for two with new potatoes, wild mushrooms, some whole garlic cloves and thyme in a vermouth sauce; simple, simple food, but perfectly executed. And he said something to a TV crew one day when I was there: if you’ve chosen your product correctly, seasoned it properly, cooked it with the right technique, and put it on a plate neatly, it will have enough inherent beauty so that it needs no garnish. That is one of the most powerful things that I have ever heard spoken about food and so you’ll notice that none of my food is garnished. If it’s not completely and utterly integral, it does not belong on the plate. There’s no manipulation in the plating. I put the stuff on the plate and, boom, out it goes. If you’ve done your job, it will look and taste right.

AB: What’s your proudest accomplishment?

ML: Cooking for Julia [Childs] so many times before she left Boston. She came in[to Lumière in Newton] 12 or 13 times. There’s nothing better than having her walk through the door of your restaurant on a busy Saturday night, and all of a sudden the room goes dead quiet. To be able to walk out and welcome Julia and to know that she genuinely cared about how we were doing at the restaurant, that she was so pleased to be there—it doesn’t get any better than that.

AB: How do you describe your cuisine?

ML: Simple, ingredient-based cooking. Big, bold flavors. That being said, the simplest things are often the hardest to pull off. That was one of the things I learned from Joyce: big simple flavors. But if you have three flavors on a plate, and one is out of whack or something isn’t done properly, you come off with a lot of egg on your face. If you have 13 flavors on a plate, who is going to notice the difference if one is out of balance? I expect there are people operating at that rarified level that they can discern everything going on with those 13 flavors and how they should harmonize together, but I think that me and most of the population can’t. I’m a simple guy.

AB: You’re very dedicated to sustainability. Would you call your sustainability ethos a mission?

ML: It has become one. In my spare and free time, I’m the board chair for the Chefs Collaborative, so it really has become a mission. My philosophy is that we’re all not doing enough. It all stems out of how I learned to cook in San Francisco decades ago: we got great ingredients and the search was not for sustainable ingredients; the search was for the best possible ingredients. Twenty something years ago, there was no word sustainability; there was sustainable development, but there was no sustainable food or sustainable restaurants. But once you start looking at the whys of your great product, you’re naturally left at the doorstep of sustainability. In terms of the local farms. Produce that’s grown 3,000 miles away isn’t grown for flavor. It’s grown to be able to withstand the rigors of travel. If you want a carrot that tastes like a carrot, you’re better off buying a local one after the first frost, when the sugars have set and it tastes like a carrot, instead of something that tastes like a woody orange thing.

AB: And can you explain more about your thoughts on sustainability and seafood?

ML: A big pet peeve of mine is the local seafood here in New England. Years ago those little cards first started showing up about “eat this, don’t eat this.” I felt like, here in New England we have centuries of fishing tradition. Those cards which are great if you happen to be land-locked in the middle of Iowa or something, but I have access to fisherman who, if aren’t quite fishing for us, I know the boat, I know how they fish, I know how they are trying to do the right things.

AB: You talking about Monterey Bay Seafood? The little card that folds up that you are supposed to keep in your wallet?

Yeah. People started coming into the restaurant saying, “it says I shouldn’t eat cod.” And you’re right, you shouldn’t eat cod if it’s caught by a mid-ocean trawler and there’s tons of bi-catch. But if you get beautiful hooked cod from a day boat off of Cape Cod, those folks are not doing the wrong thing. They are doing the right thing, and if we don’t support them, the only people who will be left doing the fishing will be doing the wrong thing. So you have to take the balance. Similarly you can’t just say no more cod fish, no more ground fishery here in New England. So no more cod, no more haddock, hank, cusk, sole, none of those things, you can’t just eliminate that fishery and expect the economy of Maine and Massachusetts to survive. You also have this social diversity element. Families have been doing this for generations. You can’t just take away that livelihood. It needs to be looked at in balance, and that part of the message gets lost.

Everyone wants a very black-and-white answer: “do this, do that, it’s sustainable.” Well, you know what? It all depends on where you are on the proverbial food chain. Lumière is a small chef-owned restaurant, and I don’t’ have investors. I can do whatever I want. I can make these decisions that I believe are the right thing to do. Not everyone can do that. If you have 300 seats and you’re a big institution, maybe you can’t just get day-boat hooked haddock. Maybe you have different economic pressures, different supply pressures. If you want to have local fish on the menu, when do you draw the line—between local and sustainable from Alaska? There’s a calculus there that isn’t really talked about. The fish from Alaska may be days older than the fish from New England. And if you keep your doors open by serving the best, freshest quality food, what do you do? The first rule of a sustainable restaurant is to keep your doors open. You can be committed as hell, but if you can’t keep your doors open, you aren’t any good to anyone.

That’s what we talk about at the Chefs Collaborative all the time: just get on the path and take some baby steps. You’ll find that the more you know, the easier it is to make other certain decisions that have beneficial impacts. Sometimes the more you know makes it more difficult, but at the end of the day, the more information, you have the better decisions you can make. And the better decisions you can make, the better hopefully it will be for all of us, and for our children and for our children’s children.

AB: Five years from now, what’s next, what’s on the horizon?

ML: That’s a very good question. I have a million different concepts running around my head, so more restaurants. And I’m deriving a great deal of enjoyment from the non-profit stuff I’m doing right now. Area Four’s an inexpensive restaurant, and there are plenty of people who do not have access to this. I’m very concerned about those folks and getting good quality food to them.