STRAIGHT WHARF RESTAURANT | Boston
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.
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
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
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
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
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
AT: What are your favorite
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
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
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
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.