I am excited to be writing today's post, because it marks the first installment of a new feature that I am calling “The Chef’s Table”. In it, I will profile a real honest to goodness chef (not just someone who plays one on TV, like me) who is also a parent. I’ll ask my guest to not only opine on their food philosophy, but also on how they bring that thinking home, and what important food lessons they hope to pass on to their kids.
I recently had a chance to chat with Peter McCarthy, the award winning chef/owner of EVOO Restaurant in Somerville, MA.. EVOO, an acronym for Extra Virgin Olive Oil, serves eclectic, New American cuisine, and was named best Eclectic restaurant in Boston in the 2007/2008 Zagat Guide!
Peter graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in November, 1987 where he was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" by his graduating class. Just out of CIA, Peter began working at the Bostonian Hotel, where he worked his way through the ranks and was promoted to Executive Chef in 1993, a post once held at various times by Jasper White, Lydia Shire, and Tony Ambrose….talk about big shoes to fill. During his tenure, the restaurant received numerous awards and much acclaim, including a 1995 vote by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine as one of the Top Fifty Restaurants in America. In 1997, the James Beard Awards selected Peter as one of "America's Great Hotel Chefs." In 1997, he left the Bostonian to pursue his dream of opening his own restaurant. Peter and his wife Colleen opened EVOO ten months later. In September, 2004, they opened their second restaurant, the very popular, Arlington-based Za, which offers an EVOO spin on pizza and salad.
Appropriately, when I caught up with Peter, he was home with his kids, a four year old son, and a one year old daughter. He was enjoying some dad time in-between a morning trip to his local farmer’s market, and heading off to EVOO for dinner prep. I was very curious to learn when Peter first remembered taking an interest in food and cooking. He told me that while the rituals surrounding food were important to the fabric of his childhood, and he has fond memories of extended family gatherings for Sunday dinners and holiday meals, those memories are dominated by images of time spent with his family, and not necessarily by the food itself. He went on to tell me that there was no long lineage of expert cooks in his family, and no cherished family culinary heritage to be passed down through the generations. As in many families, food was a functional part of their daily lives, but not a highlight. As such, he didn't have experience as a child, cooking with his parents as they worked to teach him "heirloom" family recipes, and certainly had no illusions of becoming a chef when he was a youngster. He came to cooking later, when as a young man he took a job as a line cook in at a local restaurant. He had bills to pay, needed a job, and the rest as they say, is history.
Peter’s most cherished “food” memories from childhood come not from big family gatherings, but rather from simple afternoons spent fishing on his family’s boat, and returning to the dock to have his mom grill up a freshly caught bluefish or striper on the spot. Talk about locally sourced! It’s no wonder that Peter is so dedicated to using local ingredients, not only at his restaurants, but when he cooks at home as well. At EVOO, he uses as many local and sustainable ingredients as possible, and changes his menu daily. Produce from various local farmers' markets, and livestock from local ranchers are frequently on the EVOO menu. Cooking at home means lots of simply prepared vegetables, locally sourced meats, and of course, an abundance of fresh grilled fish….some things never change.
Peter may not have grown up in a family where food played a starring role, but his kids certainly will. His son is already handy with a measuring cup and whisk, and regularly helps mom and dad whip up pancakes, muffins and breads. When he was born, Peter and Colleen made a pledge to keep him “fast- food free for five years”, a pledge that Peter tells me has been pretty easily kept. The secret to their success, an unwavering commitment to eating whole, locally sourced foods as a family, and always making the time to see that dinner is a sit down affair, and not something ordered at a drive-up window. Whether they are at home or at the restaurant, they eat wholesome, freshly prepared food as a family, with no special accommodations made for the kid’s tastes. They eat ONE meal as a family, and because the kids don’t know any other way, its rarely a battle. Peter laughed when he told me that his son’s favorite food is smoked salmon….a far cry from the McDonald’s hamburgers, Kraft mac and cheese, and Pop Tarts most four year-olds adore.
This family doesn’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk, and that, in Peter’s opinion is the key to successfully instilling in their kids the “food values” that he and his wife think are important. A parent can talk all day to their children about making good food choices, and then turn around and feed their family every third meal from a take-out window. When that happens, what lessons are the kids really learning? By not just talking about it, but by living it day-in and day-out, eating delicious, healthy, home-cooked food will be a way of life for the McCarthy kids.
There are few careers with a more demanding schedule than that of a professional chef, especially around dinner time, which makes Peter and Colleen’s commitment to feed their family only freshly cooked “whole” foods all the more impressive. Whether for the health of your kids, the support of local farmers, or your desire to spend some more quality time as a family, I urge you all to take a page from Peter’s book and make the time every day to prepare real food with your kids and enjoy it together. On those nights when you want to hand the cooking over to someone else, I'm sure Peter and the gang at EVOO would be more than happy to work their magic for you. You can find them at EVOO Restaurant.
Cheers – and thank you Peter, for sharing your time and wisdom with us.