By Seth Daniel
Popular writer and former restaurateur Gordon Hamersley made a name for himself in the South End with a Red Sox cap always on his head and a wonderful recipe for chicken.
This week, however, he talked turkey.
In his first talk since he and his wife, Fiona, closed their destination eatery Hamersley’s Bistro on Tremont Street two years ago, Hamersley appeared at the South End Library to talk about the Thanksgiving meal, closing his treasured restaurant after 27 years and a host of other topics as part of the Library’s conclusion to the fall South End Writers’ Series.
Prior to that talk, the Sun interviewed Hamersley about what he’s been up to over the past two years and what we can all do to have a successful Thanksgiving meal.
“The classic struggle for turkey is the thing is a beast,” he said, still as lighthearted as ever. “It’s got a huge big breast and legs that don’t cook at the same rate of time. When the breast is done and you need to get it out, the legs are still half an hour away. So then you start to sweat it out because you don’t want someone to get raw turkey or you don’t want a dry, tough turkey. So, you keep it in for a while longer and it’s a disaster and the guests say, ‘Pass the gravy’ and ‘Get me a glass of water.’”
Hamersley advised that what he does and what many chefs have done for centuries is to cut the turkey apart to cook it.
“The trick is I separate the legs and breast and cook it at different times,” he said. “Does it work out for the classic American presentation of turkey on the table? Not so much. To me, it’s much better to have that than the presentation. If it doesn’t taste good, it’s not worth it and no one at my table has complained yet. Unfortunately, we’re hamstrung by the artistry of Norman Rockwell.”
Another must-do, he said, is to brine the turkey – which is basically immersing it in salt water for several hours.
And finally, he said some chefs who don’t want to chop up the bird beforehand will use cheese cloth soaked in butter to keep the breast tender and protected while continuing to cook those tricky legs.
“The cheese cloth protects it and it slowly transfers the butter to the breast and saturates it with butter, which can’t be a bad thing, while you wait for the legs to cook,” he said.
This year, Hamersley said he is making the gravy for his family dinner, and also plans to bring a stuffing containing game birds like pheasant and woodcock that he has been saving. Another adventurous side dish, he said, is a puree of celery root, which he makes more interesting by adding Bosc Pears.
“I add the grated pears at the very last minute and it’s good and naturally sweet,” he added.
Topping off the Hamersley table this year will be an apple pie with cranberries added to the mix.
“I’m traditional in respect to liking apple pie, but I like adding cranberries,” he said. “You have to be careful because cranberries exude a lot of liquid and they’re tart…Once you get the proper ratios, it’s a great combo.”
A final piece of Thanksgiving wisdom is to experiment with new things before Thanksgiving morning. He said to treat Thanksgiving meal like a chef might approach a new menu item, practice it before the big day so that there isn’t a 50-50 shot that the exciting new side dish might become a failure.
“People have the idea that if they just follow the recipe, it will work out great – that they’ll have 20 relatives over and see how they like it,” he said. “My suggestion is practice, practice, practice.”
And that’s just what Hamersley has been doing since he left his popular South End kitchen, except without all the pressure of owning a popular restaurant. He said he spends a lot of time practicing new recipes in his kitchen at home, calling on his old chef friends to help him out on occasion.
After being dissatisfied with his pie crust recently, a quick call to Joanne Chang of Myers + Chang in the South End eventually resulted in an improved final result for his pies. And that improvement came over a relaxed period of days, not a few frantic hours.
He said life has been enjoyable since closing the restaurant in October 2014, but that wasn’t an easy decision at first.
“The ecology had changed,” he said. “The decision included quite a few long discussions across the kitchen table…When you own the business with your spouse the stars and moon have to line up much more accurately than in most other circumstances. We talked quite few times about closing and in the end we decided it was the right thing.”
Hamersley’s started out in the South End in the 1980s, and the chef said he chose the neighborhood because of its diversity and it’s tight-knit, small business culture. While he had been in France cooking, and had bumped elbows with early celebrity chefs like Lydia Shire and Julia Child, he didn’t have the name to open a destination spot in the Back Bay or Beacon Hill.
He said he first looked at the waterfront, but with the Big Dig just starting up, he backed off locating anywhere near such a long-term construction project. That, of course, brought him to the South End.
“I walked around every neighborhood I liked the look of, and when I got to the South End, it was almost instant,” he said. “It really had to do with the diversity of people. It had independent businesses and still has great pride in those businesses. You can’t just put a Starbuck’s on every corner of the South End. If Starbuck’s wants to come into the South End, they’ll have to endure 10 years worth of community meetings to do so.”
He added that an unforeseen part of his success had to do with the great access the South End has to the western suburbs via the Mass Pike. He said he always only planned on having a neighborhood restaurant, but the access to the west really helped move his restaurant in a much bigger direction. During it’s run, the restaurant was first located on Tremont Street where Mela Restaurant is now located, and then moved in the 1990s to the Boston Center for the Arts, occupying the corner where Banyan now serves up Asian Tapas fusion.
Hamersley said both he and Fiona had always intended to pursue many more things in life beyond a restaurant, and saw it as a chapter that they enjoyed. Now, moving beyond owning a restaurant, he said he hesitates to say he is “retired,” but concedes that the term is as close as one can get to his current season in life.
The pressure of having to prepare his restaurant for the night rush has been lifted, and he said he has the freedom to wander and to enjoy cooking, hunting, fishing and whatever pops up in a day.
“I can follow my nose, which is something I didn’t have time for,” he said. “You have to be cutting fish at 3 p.m. on Thursday if you own a restaurant or you won’t survive 8 p.m. on Thursday night…When you own a restaurant, so much of what you do has nothing to do with cooking or being in the kitchen. It’s the same things that every small business owner has to deal with.”
After closing the restaurant, he was soon approached by the Boston Globe to begin writing a food column, which he still does today and said he really enjoys. The column requires a shared recipe and a nice photograph, but beyond that he is free to write what he wishes about food and restaurants.
He has also concentrated on spending his time in the out-of-doors, having always been an avid hunter and fly fisherman. Beyond perfecting his “fly ties,” he also serves as an advisor for the non-profit youth cooking program Future Chefs – which is based in the South End.
“It was a humbling experience to close the restaurant and see the outpouring of support we got from the neighborhood when we moved on,” he said. “We’re both fine and we’re happy. The food being prepared in that space now, although completely different, is great too. That’s what should have happened. It’s the evolution of restaurants.”