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One Year In at West Bridge: Part One

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Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater chats with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their first anniversary.

Alexis Gelburd-Kimler and Matt Gaudet
Alexis Gelburd-Kimler and Matt Gaudet
Chris Coe for Eater

One year ago, the booming Kendall Square neighborhood saw the introduction of West Bridge inside a space that had once been a hose factory. The French-influenced restaurant and cocktail bar has received multiple accolades since then: The Globe gave 3.5 (out of 4) stars, GQ named it one of America's most outstanding new restaurants, and chef-owner Matt Gaudet was recognized by Food & Wine as one of America's best new chefs. Gaudet and fellow owner Alexis Gelburd-Kimler chatted with Eater about the restaurant's first year, from trying to develop a vegetable-focused menu using protein as a garnish to coping with a dish (Gaudet's egg in a jar) that had an Internet fan-club before the restaurant had even opened.

Does it feel like a year?
Matt: {long pause} Noooo, but I can't remember some of the opening menu items.
Alexis: I can't remember a lot of things.

Do you remember opening night?
Both: No. Not at all.
Alexis: I think everything leading up to it was so tiring: Two friends and family dinners that were insane. Learning a lot, and bumping into everybody. It was cloudy. I was tired.
Matt: That whole month was cloudy.

When did memories start forming?
Matt: August.
Alexis: There was a very clear moment in August when I thought we could breathe the first time, when the review came out. July 4th was our first day off.

Alexis, earlier in your career you worked across 1 Kendall at Blue Room. Were you eyeing this space for yourself then?
Alexis: I always loved this space. Always. I never understand why no one was in it. But that was a long, long time ago. I never thought I'd be the one in this space, but I would always look at and then whatever life threw at me, it automatically popped back into my head. I drove by and there was a sign in the window and I literally cold called off the street. I have a video I reminisce to a lot of the first time I saw and walked through the space.

Jolyon Helterman wrote an article for Boston Magazine where he kind of chewed out Eater and Grub Street for hyping the egg in a jar. You've said you don't want to be known as the egg in a jar guy. David Chang recently publicly ruminated about getting rid of his famous Momofuku pork buns. Is that something you'd do with the egg in a jar? Or are you afraid of it?
Matt: I'm not afraid of it. There's a certain amount of respect to the fact that not everybody's had it. Not that it really stands out in my mind as something people should have. But if we sell 30 to 60 a night, then that's 30 to 60 people a night who perhaps said they wanted to go try that and then tried everything else as well. So the joke according to that article was "they came for the egg and stayed for the carrot."
It's such an overall powerful dish in the sense that to garnish it with the duck skin we have to buy whole ducks. That means we have to run a duck breast entree, duck confit on the salad, and other duck parts in other places, all because we need skin. A good 40% of the menu seems to have duck parts floating on it. Whether it's hearts on the tasting menu, livers in the liver mousse. We've done things with the tenderloins as well. You're talking about six dishes right there. All because there's an egg. (jokingly) It's really put a stranglehold on my creativity. THAT DAMN JAR!
Alexis: Plus you can only order so many jars in a lifetime. We order a lot of them.
Matt: We've gone through lots of jars.

Does the company ask what the hell you're doing with the jars?
Alexis: I needed 40 for the James Beard dinner in New York and the store asked me "What are you doing with 40 of these?" I don't think they'd believe me if I tried to explain.
Matt: (in a not-quite townie accent) Ya I take a pahtato a mashroom and an ehg... MAGIC!

Matt, after culinary school you worked for a lot of big New York names like Jean Georges Vongerichten, Marcus Samuelsson, Danny Meyer. What brought you back home to Boston?
I came back to Boston to open Gaslight. I had been at Tocqueville (Marco Moreira and Jo-Ann Makovitzky's New York restaurant), and there were a lot of options out there. Boston was always on my mind. It stems from a conversation I had with Chris Robins of Gaslight whose wife had worked in catering for Tocqueville. I said screw it and came up to Boston to have a meeting with them and look at the construction site. It was one of those quintessential springy early summer days in Boston where's it's sunny out, blue skies, not too hot, kinda cool. And I was like, "ahhhhhh," and said, "you know what? I'm in." I also thought I was going to get season tickets to the Celtics; they just traded for Ray Allen, then the day after I signed on the dotted line for the Aquitaine Group, they got Kevin Garnett. So much for season tickets.

You met and worked together at Aquitaine Bistro. How long was it until you got the urge to do this together?
Matt: Still not sure. (laughs)
Alexis: I got approached to do a different project completely on my own and I asked him to come look at a space with me in Boston. It was a great deal, but I decided for certain reasons to walk away from it. And in the same breath when I decided to walk away, I looked at Matt in the Aquitaine office and out of the blue said "so, will you come look at spaces with me?" He said, "ok," and that was it. We never talked about it again. We just started brainstorming every day as we were talking about what kind restaurant we'd build. It just naturally worked
Matt: We got along pretty well with how we ran service and worked with our staff. The goals and philosophies we had were the same. We're both idiots - we joke around, we're lighthearted. it's gotta be fun. It doesn't have to take a lot of pain and anguish to get to our goal. We were able to do it with a comedic sense even though we had a very serious focus.

I think that plays out in your food. It's very much a comfortable, fun experience, but you have a lot of classic, almost picky technique thrown in from your French background.
Matt: It's such a huge influence. I was taught in school how to make food precise and perfect and beautiful. But it has to be tasty and always has to be approachable. It's food, it's nourishment, as well as entertainment. It's not pretentious, it's food. Some of that background comes through. I want to challenge myself, I want to challenge my cooks to make stuff that they enjoy, we enjoy. Lots of complex things go into the food that you (the diner) are never supposed to know.

So what's next?
Alexis: Our biggest goal for the first few years is to take care of our baby here and to accomplish everything we want to do here. After that, who knows? We constantly read and watch and see what other people are doing to stay inspired.
Matt: There are a lot of different ways from a culinary perspective of how to cook, some of which are bubbling in the back of my head. But there's a certain loyalty to this space. And we're pretty overwhelmed and thankful for all the reviews and it's kind of humbling in a sense. But I have to be loyal to the patrons that haven't been here -- the guests that are just still learning about us. It's a responsibility. If I'm going to have someone say I'm the best new chef in the US and never be here, what's that? That's not the best new chef. That's a guy who punches a card three nights a week. So there's a loyalty and responsibility we all have to this space and building - at least for the next year or two, or three, five, seventeen. I want everybody to have the same experience that someone else wrote about.

Do you feel the menu has evolved in more ways than just using seasonal ingredients?
Matt: I'm still trying to wrap around the fact that I want to be a veggie based restaurant that garnishes with proteins and stuff like that. I think the responsibility in eating these days is not to be gluttonous. Not that I don't enjoy a big piece of meat, I mean we serve a whole chicken, it's part of the entertainment. But I definitely think the first half of the menu needs to focus on the grand scale of how the modern world needs to eat.

How do you figure out which feedback from customers and critics to incorporate versus trusting your own instincts of knowing where you''re going and continuing on your own path to get there?
Matt: Some things you have to listen to. Some things you have to take with a grain of salt. In this business, you can't please everybody, and nor should you try.
Alexis: You look for consistency in reviews - repetition. If people are writing the same negative thing about a dish in a review as on Yelp or somewhere else, maybe it's time to go.

Any parting thoughts?
Alexis: I think we've been pretty lucky. I love when you look around the dining room here on a weekend. You've got one table where they're all dressed up and it's girls' night out. You've got your Cambridge guys in their jeans and hoodies. It's such a mixed room of age and style. When I see nights like that, I think we have something special going on when all these different people want to be in the same room - our restaurant. We're pretty lucky.

· All coverage of West Bridge on Eater [~EBOS~]
· All coverage of One Year In on Eater [~EBOS~]

West Bridge

1 Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA 02139 Visit Website

Gaslight Brasserie du Coin

560 Harrison Avenue, , MA 02118 (617) 422-0224 Visit Website

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