Gordon Hamersley wants to help me cook for my boyfriend’s mother. “I’m not going to get into your personal life,” he told me, and yet I distinctly heard the words “I’ll give you the recipe” come out of his mouth at least once. And why in the world would I say no to this offer? Gordon’s restaurant, Hamersley’s Bistro—a landmark in Boston’s South End since 1987—has earned its four-star Best-of-Boston reputation on straightforward, classic French-American dishes. But for Gordon, simple isn’t boring and straightforward; simple and straightforward are an art form.
Before everyone was all about the ingredients, Gordon was all about the ingredients. Gordon is one of the original locavores, sourcing from area farms, dairies, foragers, and fisherman who take advantage of New England’s seasons. Influenced by Wolfgang Puck, Lydia Shire, Alice Waters, and the homey bistros of rural France, Gordon’s cooking is perfect for the seasonal eater in all of us…and our mother-in-laws.
“The best time of year to cook in New England is from the end of August to the end of September, though, because you get the best of all worlds.”
I caught up with Gordon right before dinner service one night. Here’s what he told Hungry Beast in the 15 minutes before he had to get back in the kitchen.
Your restaurant, Hamersely’s Bistro, is (obviously) a bistro. What does “bistro cooking” mean to you?
I think it’s the best of French home-cooking brought to a restaurant setting. Bistros are small, neighborhood, simple, straightforward restaurants serving simple, straightforward food. In our case, it means I’m inspired by the French bistros that I came to know and love when I was young traveled in France. And I’ve expanded that to mean that my cooking is simple, hearty, straightforward, somewhat affordable—depending on your bank account—and is also as seasonal and local as I can make it.
You’ve been using locally raised, seasonal produce for many years now. How did you become interested in sourcing ingredients in this way?
Twenty-five or 30 years ago, when I was traveling extensively in France, I discovered that local restaurants, especially outside of Paris, tended to use the things that were locally grown in their area. So at the market in Nice, for example, the fish and some of the meat and 90 percent of the vegetables were from the surrounding area. It makes sense from a freshness point of view, a transportation point of view, and from a cost point of view. Theoretically, the closer you buy to home, the cheaper it is and the better it is. Also, meeting Alice Waters and the other people who began to bring that thinking to America in a vocal way in the early 1980s really influenced me as much as anything.
What are some of your favorite local seasonal products right now?
At the moment we have an abundance of fennel, beets, green beans, squashes, eggplants, peas, shell peas, English peas. Also striped bass is about to come into season here, and bluefish, lobsters, scallops, oysters, and clams are native to New England. That’s what I think about in the summer. The best time of year to cook in New England is from the end of August to the end of September, though, because you get the best of all worlds: You get the end of the summer—tomatoes, corn and all the summer vegetables—coupled with the fall vegetables.
Aside form the seasonal stuff, what are your five refrigerator must-haves?
Mustard, cornichons, maple syrup, cheese, bacon. Hey, you could make a great dish by just adding all those things to most anything. Well, maybe I might 86 the cornichons but you get the point. You need stuff in the fridge that packs a punch.
And is there just one ingredient that you couldn’t live without?
Probably garlic because I put it in everything. We used to have a little thing at the bottom of our checks at the restaurant that said, "Life is nothing without garlic!" That about says it all.
What's one dish you think everyone should know how to make?
Roast chicken for family and friends. It is the perfect, easy, healthy meal and almost any vegetable or starchy sides will work well with it. Also, it shows you can cook. It takes a little bit of skill, it takes good knowledge of the product, and then of course you can be as creative as you like.
So how do you roast your chicken?
We rub ours with a puree of garlic, lemon, parsley, and Dijon mustard, with a little olive oil and some herbs. And we bathe that in this kind of green mayonnaisey-looking stuff. Of course, there are no eggs or anything in it, but still, that’s kind of what it looks like. And then we roast it until it’s golden brown and that coating on the outside has solidified and formed a crust.
What is your favorite comfort food?
Peanut butter and honey sandwich. I've always loved the flavor combo and my mother used to make them for me when I was young.
What do you cook for your own child?
Grilled cheese was my daughter's favorite thing when she was little. Straight or innovative, either way you can't go wrong. She made me a grilled cheddar and bacon on a baguette the other day for lunch with spicy blue corn chips and a beer. I guess I taught her well…
No kidding. So your daughter likes to grill; what’s your favorite cooking technique?
Braising meat. I love the way you can take a big, ugly hunk of tough meat and turn it into something succulent, spectacular, and creative. You can flavor meats in so many different ways and, from a technique point of view, it is absolutely not rocket science.
You mentioned that you enjoy the cotton candy at Fenway.
I do. As well as the hot dogs and the sausages. Oh, god, the sausage guy. He’s great. He’s got a little stand on the outside of Fenway Park and I go see him every time I go to Fenway.
Well, everyone knows that you are a Red Sox fan. And in New York, the new Citi Field (the old Shea Stadium) has opened a ton of upscale restaurant outposts: Danny Meyer has Shake Shack and Blue Smoke, and Floyd Cardoz of Tabla is making tacos there. Would you like to see similar changes at Fenway, with more upscale food? And would you ever consider cooking at the ballpark?
Well, I certainly welcome the possibility of at least having a choice as to whether or not I was going to have a famous Fenway frank or a lobster cooked by Jasper White or a pork chop cooked by Lydia Shire. God almighty, wouldn’t you like that, too?
Sarah Whitman-Salkin is an editor at Cookstr.com. She lives in New York City.