At the Market with Steve Johnson
|Features - Chefs and Restaurants|
|Written by Jane Ward|
Chef Steve Johnson and I begin our conversation at noon at the bar of his Central Square restaurant, Rendezvous. He has placed on the bar a carafe of water and two tall and slender glasses, the perfect refreshment after a long, rainy drive into Cambridge.
The dining room is bathed in the gloomy day’s gray light as it pours in through the large front window, but Rendezvous is nevertheless a welcoming place, full of relaxing horizontal lines and warm Mediterranean colors. There are no lingering vestiges of the hyper bright fast food Burger King that occupied the space before Chef Johnson opened his restaurant here in 2005. Rendezvous is calm itself, a haven from the weather and the Mass Ave traffic.
Central Square has staunchly resisted the gentrification that has crept into other Cambridge neighborhoods. Mass Ave and its side streets comprise a bustling, working crossroads of a neighborhood, a place where MIT students, biotech workers, residents on shopping excursions, local employees, and – on occasion – the down-and-out pass each other on the sidewalks and getting on and off buses or subway cars. It looks and operates no differently today than it did in the summer of 1985 when I used to wait at a bus stop for the bus to take me to work in Brighton.
Year after year, Central Square has chugged along by virtue of this mix of people, a very real, very warts-and-all kind of place. A lively scene for sure, but not one that seems at first glance to be a natural fit for fine dining. And yet fine dining has made its way here, accepted into the fray since Central Kitchen opened its doors in 1998. Rendezvous, Garden at the Cellar, and Craigie on Main soon followed.
Good fresh food has been welcomed here too, at the neighborhood’s dedicated farmers’ market. As I take a few sips of water and organize my belongings, Johnson says, “Monday is farmers’ market day. I thought you might like to do a walk through of the market with me.” He will return to the market later to do the actual purchasing, he adds.
I am game, so we set off across Mass Ave. As we walk Johnson praises the market for being one that does a good job of meeting the needs of patrons who come from all walks of life. It meets his specific needs too, he says: Monday is the one day the restaurant gets no food deliveries. “The market,” he stresses, “fills that void for me. I rely on it.” He smiles. “And I can walk to it to get what I need.”
Central Square Farmers market is small, almost shoehorned into a parking lot one block away from the hustle of the main street, but the stalls are well staffed, well-stocked, varied, and busy. Even with the threat of rain, every stall has a line of customers.
Chef Johnson points out produce as we make our pass around the perimeter. He says, “Kimball Farm has the small fruits I like to use on our fruit plate.”
This late in September dusky blue Italian prune plums, winy Concord grapes, and late raspberries occupy center stage. Moving on, we talk the virtues of the beefsteak tomatoes sold at the next stall over. And when we reach a basket of large gooseneck squash, Johnson tells me he purchases pieces of produce like this to adorn his bar. “As a conversation starter,” he explains.
“Conversation starter?” I ask.
“Something unusual resting on the bar gets people involved with the food and talking about it.”
It’s obvious, even after just a few minutes in the company of the chef, that conversation plays a large role in his day. Hardly a person passes by without a greeting from the chef; he knows almost everyone at the market. And everyone knows him. Not so surprising given his long ties to fine dining in Boston and Cambridge, a resume including work at Hamersley’s Bistro, Mercury Bar, The Blue Room, and now Rendezvous.
We stop in front of the Parker Farm stand where Steve Johnson exchanges greetings with farmer Steve Parker of Lunenburg, Massachusetts. For the next few moments, easy conversation flows. Clearly the two Steves have formed a tight and friendly working relationship, one grounded in a mutual understanding of and respect for each other’s roles in the world of delivering quality food.
Chef Johnson agrees, saying, “These are the kinds of relationships that we imagined back when the CHEFS Collaborative was formed. The Collaborative began as a way to bring chefs and farmers together.”
The CHEFS Collaborative became chartered in 1993, with Boston’s chapter being the first one nationwide. The core ethics were simple: member chefs would promote local, sustainable, and healthy ingredients through their kitchens and through education. Locally, this effort took off thanks to the combined efforts of Jodie Adams, Chris Schlesinger, and Steve Johnson.
“Today,” Johnson notes, “these chef-farmer relationships are more the norm than the exception.”
Local and sustainable dining is certainly the norm and the guiding principle at Rendezvous where the chef continually reviews his menu and updates or changes dishes to reflect the week-to-week changes in what he finds at the market. On an early fall menu at the restaurant, the last of the season’s corn and tomatoes share space with apples, butternut squash, and kale. When the corn and tomatoes disappear from the market in the coming days, they will also disappear from Chef Johnson’s preparations.
“So what do you see here today that you’d like to cook with?” I ask with a look around at the loaded Parker Farm shelves and produce bins.
“Greens,” Johnson answers without hesitation. “This is a great time of year for hearty greens like kale.
“Leeks are wonderful. Leeks improve every dish they are added to. And the blue Hubbard squash is one I love to make into soup. It’s a dense and intensely flavored squash.”
Johnson’s eyes light up when he spies a crate of mushrooms. “I love cooking with mushrooms. Steve (Parker) forages for these.” He points to some Hen of the Woods mushrooms. “I’ve put a whole one out on the bar, and in the evening, under the low lights, its aroma will start to bloom. People ask all sorts of questions about it.
“It made a great conversation starter.”
“You’re fond of the conversation starter,” I say.
“I’m in a real people business,” he explains. “At Rendezvous we’ve been known to work with certain suppliers because we like the delivery person. The person who will come in and say ‘Hi, how’re you doing?’ instead of making the delivery and leaving without a word.
“We like the grower connections and we like the connection we make with our clients. It adds to the experience. The relationships between people keep the business fresh.”
It is now closing in on one o’clock but Johnson seems content to talk to a few more shoppers at the market and pass along a quick idea for serving the Parker Farm mushrooms with orecchiette. He has been working around food since the age of nineteen, first washing dishes in a vegetarian restaurant. Several cooking and ownership positions later, Johnson is still happy to talk food, still happy it seems to go to work.
On the way back to Rendezvous, he shares that prior to opening in 2005 he decided to give his life a few tweaks. He had reached a point at The Blue Room, he says, where even the act of buying a few limes for the bar meant a substantial car ride. “Everything was too difficult.”
With Rendezvous and its Central Square location came the chance to change.
“I bike to work. The hardware store is across the street if equipment breaks. And of course if I run out of something, I have the co-op or the market. Running a restaurant will stay fresh for me another 25 years this way.”
Life and work are one; both chef and work place are genuine, approachable, convivial. When one enters Rendezvous for dinner, the experience is akin to entering a really good cook’s home, a place where someone has set the scene for an enjoyable night, right down to the perfect glass for your water. At Rendezvous, details and service matter, and there is always a conversation starter waiting at the bar.