It's been a year since Will Gilson opened Puritan & Co. in Cambridge, and it has been a year of "a lot of ups and downs," he says. From broken equipment to a city-wide talent shortage, from a busy opening to earning a full liquor license with no disapproval from the neighborhood, here's Gilson on the genesis of the restaurant, the importance of taking time off, the adjustments that were made over the course of the year, and lots more. He also ponders a world without internet.
So, does it feel like it's been a year?
In some ways. I think that physically it feels like it's been a year, but there are so many things in a restaurant that you look at every single day that continually make it onto your list...I feel like my dad, like there was something that he wanted to fix every year that broke in the house. You just see these things that you know that you want to be better; you know the have so much potential. And you just keep on keeping them on the list and doing everything else to make sure that the restaurant is the same happy, fun place it is every night.
What do you remember from opening night?
It felt incredibly surreal. Our opening was delayed and delayed, as most restaurant openings are. But we got our licenses 18 hours before we had set up our friends & family, so we kind of rushed to get that done. We had employees that had been patient and waited and didn't have jobs who we were trying to get money to, so we felt like we really owed it to them to get open. I think that that was hard on us because we didn't even have time to process that we were opening a restaurant. It was just like, go go go go go. And then it was busy for quite awhile after opening day. So opening day...I didn't even have time to go out and say thanks to the people that had helped get us here. It was just...tread water and cook food and try to remember where to put your salt and walk and what needs to be cleaned.
Anything surprising or bizarre happen in those first weeks? Did anything break down unexpectedly?
Everything did. Nothing worked. It became debilitating at some points. We had run out of money in the design process at one point, so we started sourcing a lot of used equipment, and some of the used equipment that we got didn't work when we got it, but it was already here, and we had to make enough money to pay to get it fixed, so that took a little bit of time. The thing that did work and worked best on opening was our staff. Our staff is amazing and still continues to be. The front and back are the foundation of what this restaurant is and what I always wanted it to be. Good people working hard at their job and doing it for the good of the restaurant, not just for a paycheck.
A lot of people have been talking recently—and you were even quoted in one of the stories—about the shortage of talent.
Yeah, the irony is waking up in the morning and hearing that you're on the cover of the Globe, above the fold, and then having two people quit that day while you're away. I think that it's an epidemic, and I think people need to pay attention to it and find a solution to it. I think that there are so many great restaurants that keep opening, and there are none that are closing, and the pool of staff that's in this city is not growing. Even with culinary schools, with Cambridge Culinary and Le Cordon Bleu here, and with Johnson & Wales not far away, and NECI not terribly far away…David Chang was even talking about it in an article. He was saying that kids are graduating from culinary school with $120,000 in debt and getting into a job where they're making $12/hour. Schools are telling everyone that they can come out of school and be a sous chef, and I'm telling them they've gotta come here and dedicate the time to learning from a kitchen before they can do that. So a lot of people chase secure jobs, like working for Sodexo or Aramark or maybe a hotel that's got a little bit more structure and benefits to it.
But the restaurants that get written up and do all these things are the ones that are investing the time in the staff and cooking next to them and trying to help them be better at what they do—and also create the culture inside the restaurant. Culture isn't just one person. It's everybody inside of it. And it's hard when you still have to work every single day and you still have to pump out the food and you still are excited to cook, to try to continually create that culture with new bodies all the time. But a lot of people have the ability right now to get a job pretty much anywhere they want, because everyone's hiring.
I remember years ago at Garden at the Cellar, if I put out an ad for a sous chef or for a line cook, I'd get a dozen applicants. It was more about filtering through and getting them in and finding the right person for the job. I was at the Overkill event last night, and I got an email from somebody who wanted to stage, and I screamed. I was like, Yes! I got one! And it was funny because everybody there was kind of in the same boat. It's definitely a thing that is inhibiting growth in this business.
The event was amazing. It was so great to see so many chefs coming together, and in such a small space!
I don't think I've worked an event like that in years, where every chef was excited to plate the other person's food. It was like, give me something to do. Tell me what to do. I think it's because maybe at this time everyone who was at the event last night is all sort of in the same age range where they've just opened up their own restaurant or they've just become the chef of a place, and I think that when all day long you're telling people to do things, it's nice when somebody tells you to do something.
How did the idea for Puritan & Co. come about?
I always wanted to serve food that was New England-focused, and I think that in any good restaurant plan, you are willing to adapt. When you're trying to plan a restaurant, and you're trying to court investors and partners and staff and customers, it's a little bit of a back and forth, a chicken or the egg situation. Do you find the space and then design the restaurant based on the space, or do you design the concept and then shop the space? I tried both ways for years, and it wasn't until I met with people who had already found this space. We were able to take a look at it and say, you know what? The economics of this will work. And we can do this. And then it became, well, what do we call it, what do we do?
With a lot of things, we stuck to our guns, and a lot of things we just sort of said, it'll sort itself out. I think three months into Puritan, we really had a good idea as to what our neighborhood wanted and what we wanted. Whether or not I've been quoted saying this before, it felt like an awkward eighth grade dance from the moment we opened the doors until about month three. There were industry people who were coming in supportive and they were excited for us; there were people in the neighborhood who didn't quite know what we were going to be. Were we going to be a neighborhood restaurant, were we going to be a fine dining restaurant, were we going to be a special occasion place? I don't think we knew yet either.
For me, it had been over a year since I had been behind the stoves with a staff. I had spent a lot of that time getting ready for this, doing things in the meantime to keep money in my pocket. Once we got this space and all of a sudden it was opening night, it was like, well, this isn't going anywhere now. We've got to make this make the most of it. I think after about three months in, we had the team working together well and the customers—the guests, rather—were coming in because they wanted to experience us.
Now, a year in, we're looking at the reservation reports and seeing people coming back in and seeing full nights and not worrying about whether we were going to have enough people to staff the restaurant. It's a good feeling to know that we can look at our OpenTable reviews and our Yelp reviews and our TripAdvisor stuff, and everything on there shows that people like what we do. That's the hardest thing as a chef, being in your place every day and not second guessing yourself—or second guessing yourself—and making sure that you can make the changes necessary to keep people happy. This isn't egos, this isn't this is my food and you take it or leave it. We have guests in here that we need to serve, and that's what we do. We take care of our guests. We go above and beyond in the best ways possible to take care of our guests, and if we make a mistake, we'd like it if somebody said so to our face, not elsewhere. That's the hardest thing as a restaurant owner, seeing somebody passive-aggressively write something on the internet when if they had just said I didn't like this, we wouldn't have made them pay for it, you know? And those are the things that it takes awhile of coaching your staff—and also coaching your guests—to be able to do.
Are there any specific changes you made in those early months based on feedback that you got, Yelp reviews, etc.?
We dropped the price on a couple things. I don't think we ever charged more than what our costs were, but we didn't know what we were going to be able to utilize in secondary things, whether or not we could make a charcuterie program happen with scraps and be able to decrease some of the food costs elsewhere. We were charging what we were being charged with appropriate industry mark-ups, but I think that we kept getting sick of hearing, oh, a $30 entree. So we dropped it to $29. No longer did anyone ever complain about the price after that.
Portion size also became a thing. We wanted to make sure that people were feeling satiated for what they were spending on food, and I think that takes a little while to figure out how people are going to order. We had really hoped that everyone would sit down and get a bunch of snacks for the table, a few appetizers to share, they'll get entrees, and hell, they'll share a dessert or two. That happens on the weekends, but on the weekdays, it's...share a salad between two people and then two entrees. Then you start to see, is that sustainable? Will people come in the middle of the week for that? You really have to keep trying to pay attention to it. You can't let things like that slip.
We also had a lot of dishes that I thought would be fun for the guests to experience: pouring soups tableside or serving things in sort of avant-garde manner, and we started to realize that people just want food. The flash in the pan isn't necessary. And I think that that helped us focus our flavors on our food a little bit more, because we were less concerned about a server bringing one soup bowl and a pitcher of soup to the table rather than getting two soups to the table in a better, faster, warmer manner.
And we didn't have heat lamps for the first two months that we were open. Our biggest complaint was that food was cold, and it was because we also found out that we had no heater on our make-up air for our hood, so we had cold air blowing into the kitchen in the coldest months. The cooks had to cook differently to serve the dining room, and that was problematic for the kitchen even with training, because we were asking them to do things that were almost the opposite of what you would normally do. So rather than plating all of the food so that all of the plates go out at the same time, it was plate one dish, send it into the dining room, plate one dish, send it into the dining room. And it's all part of the story now, and now we have heat lamps, and now things are fixed, and now we rarely get anything sent back for being cold.
Looking at the finished product, are there any major changes from what your original vision was?
We used to have two communal tables in the middle of the restaurant, and the two communal tables were something that I thought would be fun - especially in the neighborhood - to have people come here and sit down at the same table. For me, as an ode to the Herb Lyceum and how I got my start, sort of in kitchens. And we found that people didn't really like sitting together. And so we'd look out in the dining room, and every other seat would be packed, and we'd have a line of people at the door, and we'd have a communal table with only a couple people sitting at it. So we changed that, and it made for a happier dining room. We bought bar stools from another restaurant and they were the most comfortable bar stools I've ever sat in, but it makes it so that people can't comfortably walk down the aisle sometimes if somebody is really pushed out, so we had to shrink some of the chairs that we had elsewhere in the restaurant and now we - I feel like we set ourselves up to allow for adaptation. There was a place for a TV, and we didn't know how we were going to be, and we decided not to put a tv in. I thought more people would sit sort of ringside and watch the cooks cook at the food bar in the back, but that's usually a lesser seated place. Not that we are upset about that, it's just - we don't have quite as much energy, I wouldn't say that. We don't have as many people that are sort of there engaging the cooks, and probably rightfully so cause it distracts them and they've got to move faster.
Is there a moment of the year that you can pinpoint as the happiest—or the one that you felt the most like, hey, this is working?
There have been a lot of ups and downs, for sure. I think I couldn't be happier being at this stage right now, where we're one year in and with one year of experiences and battle wounds and stories and people that have been a part of this restaurant and have helped shape it. I think one of the hardest parts for us was having really great people who worked for us who got really great opportunities elsewhere. I was happy for them that they got opportunities for things that they would have had to work for me for years to be able to have the same sort of opportunity here. And that's always tough because it's not like saying goodbye. It's saying, I'll see you across town. But it does make it kind of stressful here because we invest in people; it's not just a job. We care about people's personal lives.
The first time that we were able to get in an order of produce from our own farm and watch all the cooks be excited to break it down—that was when I felt like people had really started to drink the Kool-Aid here and started to be a part of the culture.
And farm-to-table is almost so passe. So many cooks want to talk about foraging, or they want to talk about something molecular, and what we try to do here is make our cooks cook good food that people like. That's almost not cool these days. So we try to figure out a way to make that cool. Hospitality is a big thing for us, too, being able to have a story to tell about most things...not as an excuse, but it's definitely a way to enhance a guest's experience when you can say, well, this was raised by this person, this was here, etc. It sounds like an episode of Portlandia, but it's realistic. I think that some of the questions that we get asked seem like they're straight out of that show, and maybe that's just Cambridge and Somerville being a little bit too close to the culture that's out there, but I think now we're starting to figure out ways to also be good neighbors.
We went before the Cambridge licensing board, and we were awarded a full alcohol license that came from neighborhood support and zero opposition. We were in that same office a year and a half ago, having to prove ourselves—that we had a good concept—and there were people there to protest, to say I don't want another bar on this street or in this neighborhood. It felt really good to know that now we can stand in front of the board and have the commissioner say, well, you're here, and you've been open, and you've been great neighbors, and we've received zero people saying they don't want you to have this, so as long as you can prove to us that you deserve to have it, then you can. It's a good feeling to know that we won the neighborhood over by being a good neighbor and through being hopefully an example of what people like in this area.
Have you started implementing liquor yet?
No, the city of Cambridge wants us to get everything—and then the state slows things down a little bit. I don't think the government shutdown helped at all. But we're going to slowly incorporate it into what we do here. We don't want to all of a sudden just turn this into a bar because we can. We want it to be able to be balanced and with our program. I still think we have one of the coolest wine programs in Cambridge, but that's just me, and that's because I love Josh, our beverage director, and I really like how he and Chris, our general manager, spend the time with our staff to train them about it so that we can have the guests trust us when they're here. We don't have a wine list where you're going to go through and be like, oh, I know that because it's on Wine Spectator's list or anything like that. We're going to be able to tell you a story about the person that makes this wine and how small production it is and why they make it in this style and how they messed up and had a happy Bob Ross accident to get this flavor, and that's why we're serving it with a lamb that we dry-aged for thirty days in the restaurant.
So what do you see in store for cocktails?
A lot of amaros, a lot of robust things that are well-balanced with the food that allow for an herbaceous, earthy nature to take shape in a drink. But I remember Tony Maws saying this when he was getting ready to open Craigie on Main—for so many years, you say, I'm sorry, we can't. I'm sorry, we can't. I'm sorry. we can't, whether it's private dining, whether it's cocktails, whether it's being able to serve somebody brunch. But now we're able to say yes we can, and not in, like, an Obama kind of way. We don't put things on the menu that are available some places and not available other places. Once you start keeping things from guests, then you start creating a sense of want, and that's not a good thing. You should be able to accommodate and not make them feel like they're missing out. So it'll be nice when we don't have to say no anymore.
If you could go back to shortly before opening the restaurant, what piece of advice would you give yourself?
Close after the two days of friends & family. Take two days off, give your staff a break, give yourself a break. Take a look at everything that you aren't happy with, knowing that you have to live with it now for the foreseeable future, until you're at a point where you can change it. It's the one regret that I have. We were so pressured into being open and being able to bring money in to pay our staff that we didn't have the time to stop and look at whether what we were doing was actually right.
I also would have taken more time off. As a chef-owner, you get so fixated on being here to make sure that if a reviewer comes in or if something were to happen—that you're responsible or you're in control. Out of the first 140 days that we were open, I took two days off, and it was Christmas and the blizzard when the city made us close. I was no good to my staff here on a lot of those days because I was like a zombie. If we fell short in those first couple months and somebody didn't enjoy their experience, I hope they've come back, and I hope they've seen a restaurant that has worked really hard to be great and has matured. And that's all I can hope for.
Anything else to share?
One of the things about opening a restaurant in this day and age that's so different...in the last Lucky Peach, Stuart from State Bird Provisions was interviewed—he and his wife, with whom he owns the restaurant. Tthey were talking about how they remember what it was like working in restaurants before the internet. The past couple nights, I haven't slept thinking about what the world would be like if the internet didn't exist. I understand this is something that's going to be on the internet and the irony of that, but everything is so instant. At the Overkill event last night, there were 12 chefs, and every single chef had an iPhone out, taking a photo of the food and instagramming it and tweeting it and tagging other people.
I love the camaraderie of Boston. I always have, and it's why I still love working and owning a restaurant in Cambridge, but it's so different now. There's less emphasis on being in the kitchen and working on technique and more dedication to branding, and that can be really exhausting. There are times when that can cause you to not be in your kitchen...like right now. I think it's great, and I think that there are ways that you can get your product and your brand out there, and people will really enjoy it and experience it in a different way. But it's so crazy when I put up a picture of something in my personal life on Instagram, and I don't get as many likes as when I put up a picture of a piece of meat. There's something interesting about thinking about yourself that way. Who am I to everybody else?
It's just a different world now. Everything has changed, not necessarily for better or for worse, but we're starting to see food trends change where people are more interested in something that is the most raw and gritty. Being somebody who made a portion of his career out of doing pop-ups and the buzz that went around that, and being at the event last night with people who had been to all of those pop-ups, I'm forgetting that there was a part of my life when it was about buzz. Now I really enjoy that what I get to do is have a place where I don't have to pick up everything and move it across town and pop up somewhere else. Now I pop up in the same place every single night.