This interview is part of a series celebrating the publication of The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook. We've interviewed celebrated chefs and members of the Test Kitchen family, each of whom know a thing or two about how to best prepare vegetables. (Ed's note: This interview originally ran on AmericasTestKitchenFeed.com on March 3rd, 2015.)
Will Gilson—chef/owner of the highly acclaimed Cambridge, MA, restaurant Puritan and Co.—is a man of multifarious endeavor. On the one hand, he’s become a sort of celebrity chef, having made appearances on everything from Top Chef to The Today Show. On the other hand, Gilson is still at heart a kid that grew up on an herb farm in the relatively rural central Massachusetts town of Groton. The latter experience informs the way he cooks and the way he thinks about food at large.
Gilson has cooked all over—a six-month stint in the kitchen at the prestigious Lanesborough Hotel in London included—and while he admits that every experience has been formative in its own capacity, he’s found his true calling cooking at and operating Puritan and Co.
I interviewed Gilson to chat about his unique experience with fresh produce. Here’s what he had to say.
As a chef running a Boston-based restaurant, how do you go about sourcing to remain seasonal?
For me, when it comes to vegetables, seasonal is number one. The problem that we run into in Massachusetts is we don’t have a year-round season. We have a dining season of twelve months, and a growing season of six months at best. So what we try to do is work with local farmers when we get into the fall—we buy a lot of things in bulk, keep it in our own cellar just so we can extend that season for as long as possible. But you still run into this time of year when there’s ninety-one inches of snow outside and, you know, there’s really nothing we can do.
The biggest thing for me is knowing that when we have the opportunity to support somebody that we really value as far as the way they treat the product, that holds precedence to us over price.
How much of your produce comes from your family farm?
We started doing vegetables only about six, seven years ago. It’s grown from doing it as a little plot of land to now having close to ten acres. And we plant just for what we’re doing [at Puritan]. So we’ve got a good amount of land out there now . . . We’re trying to grow as much stuff for ourselves as we possibly can.
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Why did you want to become a chef?
More than anything, I think that [it was] growing up on my family’s farm—which was just potted herbs, that’s all we did, so I had more of a connection to herbs than to vegetables per se—but growing up and understanding that there were harsh seasons and you had to try to sell your products to people, you went to farmer’s markets. At those farmer’s markets, I grew up with other farmers, eating some of the best produce Massachusetts had to offer. We never shopped for produce at the grocery store—nowadays it seems hip, but it was just what you did. So I think for me, it was always having an appreciation for seasons and for locality. And then when I started to show an interest in cooking, and once I got into the kitchen and I worked for some professional chefs, it was the understanding that everything had a beginning, middle, and end to it. You receive a product, you work hard to prepare the product and make it tasty, you serve it to people, and then you get gratification from that. So that was always attractive to me.
What was your first gig?
I worked for Chuck Draghi at a restaurant called Marcuccio’s in the North End from 1999 to 2001. Now he’s over at Erbaluce, which is awesome. If you want to talk to anybody who’s got an appreciation for vegetables . . . Training underneath somebody like that who basically made you appreciate everything from peeling garlic by hand instead of using the peeled stuff to using herbs with reckless abandon, he was the guy. From there, I worked with my folks to start a restaurant on the property of the farm called the Herb Lyceum . . . Then I went to Johnson and Wales, and then from there—while at Johnson and Wales—I went to work for six months in London at a place called the Lanesborough Hotel. It was intense. It was also right after September 11, when nobody was travelling, and it was unpaid, and I got all of my money stolen the first two weeks I was there . . . Then I started to fall in love with the gastropubs of England. I just thought that that was such a cool way that people were approaching food. It was these high-end chefs that had just decided that it didn’t have to be white tablecloth. You can still serve the same food, you can still make people feel good about their choices, but you can charge them a little less and have everything else be a little more low key.
The London food scene can be pretty intense.
Marco [Pierre White] and Pierre Koffmann and Roger Vergé—I mean all those guys had set the tone, and that’s what every cook in London and England thought they had to do. You know, work in those high-end crazy restaurants and be throwing pans at one another and drinking and smoking and going crazy. Those are the kind of guys I worked for. It was when I left the city and I went to Birmingham and some of the surrounding areas there that I got a chance to work for guys who had worked in those kitchens (and worked under those chefs) and who were cooking beautiful food on, you know, rinky-dink china and keeping their jus and beurre blancs in teapots. Things that they just did because they thought it was fun and they worked in a small kitchen. But nothing was about sitting there and polishing the brass. It was just about real food. You know, you’d watch a farmer show up at the back door with a tray of asparagus and you’re like alright, it looks like we’re cooking asparagus tonight. That was really formative.
Were you a fussy vegetable eater as a kid?
I don’t think there was anything that I really disliked; there were just things that I would purposefully navigate around. I don’t think that I really learned to appreciate kales and cauliflowers and broccoli until maybe I was in my early twenties, though. And then I craved it. It was almost like needing iron. The hearty green veg, the leafy green veg. It’s funny, I was raised with my dad who had this crazy hatred of fresh tomatoes. And now he grows great tomatoes.
What’s the next big vegetable trend?
I remember when people hated parsnips . . . Especially growing up in New England, it became one of the “insert-how-it’s-overcooked boiled veg.” So it was like parsnips, turnips, potatoes, carrots, making their way into a pot and boiling the heck out of them. It all becomes the same taste, the same texture.
But I think now you’re starting to see creative uses of parsnips. You’re starting to see people putting them into hummus, people putting them into a potage, people putting them into soups . . . I think for me, the ability to serve somebody one of those things, whether it’s a turnip, celery root, or a parsnip—one of those things that’s usually a more aggressive, harder-to-understand, harder-to-cook root vegetable—to serve that to them in a method that is different and interesting and to have them go, “Wow, I didn’t even know I liked that.” That’s always a proud moment.
Any vegetables you don’t love cooking with?
I find that sometimes the way that we consume vegetables is wrong. A raw onion is number one where you find it in so many American dishes, and it’s just so abrasive and aggressive and it kills your palate. But I love onions—roasted onions, pickled onions. There are so many ways to treat the product that are so great.
What’s the next big thing in terms of vegetable preparation?
In the same way that there was nose-to-tail eating, I think you’re going to start to see whole-vegetable butchery. You’ll see plates that will be different variations and textures of one vegetable.
Any last words?
We want to get people excited when something is in season. And I think as Americans we get so used to being able to go to Whole Foods and get anything we want, any time. And that’s unfortunate because you should be able to buy all of the local strawberries when it’s strawberry season. You should be able to can them, and make jam, and make ice cream, and just eat them fresh for breakfast, and then know that you get to look forward to that again instead of being able to get what you want any time.