With Bondir Concord opening soon, acclaimed chef/owner Jason Bond and his sous chef Rachel Miller will be spending most of their time in the pastoral suburb. Bond has turned to Marc Sheehan, the culinary mastermind of the elusive supper club Brasstacks, to take on the role of Bondir Cambridge's first chef de cuisine. Sheehan has worked previously at Menton and New York's prestigious Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Over a white clam pizza lunch, Sheehan spoke at length with Eater about the evolution of Brasstacks' modern New England cuisine, what diners can expect from him at Bondir, and the experience of recording a television show about underground foods with the former lead singer of the Barenaked Ladies.
How did you get the job as chef de cuisine at Bondir?
A friend had contacted me to see if I was interested. At the time, it wasn't necessarily something I was looking for. I sent Jason an email and we had a conversation. I had some reservations: my ability to perform the job, to keep Bondir — a very iconic restaurant — so that it is still Bondir. I feel like a lot of people go to eat there because they know Jason is behind the stove cooking every night, and now that he's opening the second restaurant I didn't want it to suddenly be "Jason is not there anymore, the food is completely different." I learned that's actually kind of his plan. Because he's not going to be there every night, he doesn't want to lie to people.
I've had conversations with him on how he puts dishes together; I still can't say I fully understand, how he pairs flavors, how he decides which ingredients he wants to work together on the plate and I didn't want to be in the kitchen trying to figure out how to execute a Jason Bond dish.
How would you describe his dishes?
They are very layered. There're a lot of textures, there are a lot of different flavors going on, but when you actually eat the dish, the food is remarkably subtle. I remember eating there a year ago, I had a salad which was oyster mushrooms, pears and foie gras. It sounds like flavors that might not work well together. But, the mushrooms were pickled in pear vinegar, the pears were pickled in mushroom vinegar. You had roasted mushrooms, roasted pears, and thimble-sized foie torchon, that were hidden underneath the dish so that the foie was actually an accompaniment to the salad. That was the dish that stuck with me since that meal, because it was so playful, but everything worked so well.. You are eating it and almost chuckling to yourself like "I don't understand why I like this but it's great!"
For the last couple of years, you've been working with Brasstacks as your restaurant, doing a dinner about once a month. Can you talk a little bit about what Brasstacks is?
Brasstacks is a supper club that I formed with my partner Matt Schrage about two years ago. And we've done a number of different events over the last two years ? not pop-ups! We are not a pop-up. We started doing small 10-15 person dinners, focusing around a single theme. Initially we were begging people to come because no one knew who the hell we were or why we should be cooking for them. The first dinner we did, people were asking if they should bring appetizers or bottles of wine because they thought they were just coming to a dinner party. The meals are generally five to seven course tastings, sometimes more, always paired with wine, beer, or spirits. We got to a point where we were doing some larger events over the last couple years — mainly because of demand — but I think our heart is in the small, private dinners that we started out doing.
How did you first come up with that idea?
After work at Menton one night, it was a friend's birthday and we had a few too many beverages and Matt and I started talking about what we were looking for, in terms of our careers. Eventually, Matt asked the question, "if you are opening a restaurant tomorrow, what's the restaurant?" I started talking about the concept that I've essentially been working on since I was 19 years old, which was a restaurant based very intensively on New England cuisine. Not necessarily the Durgin Park recipes — which are great, they have awesome prime rib — but it's ubiquitous. That's what people think New England food is and it's a tragedy in the sense that, there was this very rich, deep food culture — not unlike the food culture that has been preserved in the South — but it has just been forgotten.
In this conversation with Matt, we started building off each other. I was talking about the food and he was talking about what the restaurant would be. The next day, I woke up and I have an email from Matt saying "I had a great talk last night, send me a menu," and that turned into a 4 or 5 page document — everything that had been in my head for five or six years at the time, that I had never put on paper. We decided to model it and that's how we came up with the first dinner. We walked around town, giving out invitations to people. Our initial guest list was remarkably ambitious; no one came that we actually handed out invitations to. Most of them didn't even RSVP. We basically started begging people to come and ended up with a great group.
Tim Surprenant, [who works for specialty meats purveyor D'Artagnan] is probably the best cook in Boston that's not cooking. He has cooked with me since the first dinner and has been as important in making Brasstacks what it is as both Matt and I. If you think about it, we've cooked the equivalent of 3 weeks at a restaurant. 15 to 20 dinners or something like that. But it has been a two-year period of talking about the food, thinking about the food, talking about service style, talking about wine, adjusting flavor profiles. Matt and I will sit down after a meal and we'll discuss everything, and that process is very important. I think that's why — if you are paying attention to the dinners — you see things slightly evolving, going in new directions with each event. There was a period of time last spring where I started to get out there with some shit, and now I am pulling it back in because it didn't feel natural for me.
Do you have an example of getting out there?
We did a trash fish dinner last spring. The first course was a salad. My initial plan was to do smoked eel with wild onions and wild greens. It was in April so all that stuff was coming up. I got beautiful eel, but the guy I was getting it from couldn't get enough of it. So I decided to do a smoked eel panna cotta. I got these wooden smoking planks and I actually sanded them down and finished them into plates. I spent a day and a half of prep time making plates for one course! Not to say I was unhappy with the dish, but it wasn't fully fleshed out. I still thought the whole eel cream thing was awesome but, ultimately, a piece of eel is significantly more impressive than manipulating it too much. At the end of the meal, Matt had this off-handed comment of "that eel dish was a little out there" and it just stuck with me: "what does it mean? How dare he criticize my eel dish?" But then, as Matt made me think about it, it's not where I wanted to be with that.
How did you get into New England cuisine? I've lived in New England my whole life and I've learned more about New England cuisine from eight or so Brasstacks dinners than anywhere else combined.
That's kind of the goal. I hate restaurants that are preachy, that are trying to teach you something with each course. But, if you are going to pay a certain amount of money, you should get a little bit more. There should be a story to it. Some people want to know the thought process behind the dish.
When I was in college, as a history major, I was focusing mainly on early-American and colonial history. So much of it was defined by the movement of foodstuffs. Whether it was economically, or just people farming to feed themselves, that was defining their movements during the day. That defined the search for land and the expansion of the country. You have things like the slave trade, which are intimately connected to maple syrup production in the Northeast. Generally, when people are having pancakes, they are not thinking about the fact Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson were discussing how to increase maple syrup production to eliminate the West Indian slave trade.
And how interesting the choice of Aunt Jemima is as a result.
Exactly. So I had a plan, I wanted to go to Venice, in Friuli, and Alto Adige, and learn to make the best pasta in the world and come back to New England, thinking that the climates were the same, and I could cook seasonally, and I could plant a lot of these ingredients and have this great Northern Italian restaurant. Then I realized I was worrying about an area of the world I had no connection to. I am an Irish kid from the South Shore so going to cook Italian food didn't make sense. As a result, I started looking into it, collecting a lot of old cookbooks. The goal has never been to try to replicate dishes. We are not Old Sturbridge Village. A lot of that food, because it was being cooked back then, is not that good. There was no technique to it, but it's the flavor profiles that are interesting, the dishes that you look at and they are curveballs in term of ingredients. You look at them and "why the hell would they put that with that?"
At one dinner you had a pork fatback sourdough made with quahog starter. Is that traditional or did you come up with that?
I found a clam bread, where, basically it was a quick bread, almost like a savory scone that had quahogs in it. It was from the late 19th century, and it was something that I had wanted to try for a while. So I talked to Mike Geldart about it and we were trying to figure out what would happen if we put the quahogs in with the first ferment. Mike ultimately executed it and folded fatback into it. It's not necessarily the same dish from that time. The way I try to approach it, if this food had been cooked for the last 150 years, if people had still been eating it, if our food systems hadn't changed to the point where these dishes no longer make sense, that this would be their natural progression.
So for people who are personally familiar with Brasstacks, if they are in Bondir in 2 months, are they going to recognize your food? How are you going to differentiate the two entities?
I want people to come in a couple months and know that they are still at Bondir, know that it's Jason Bond's restaurant, but see the perspective has changed slightly. The food I've been cooking for the last few years is different than what's been going on at Bondir, but it makes total sense to be serving it at that restaurant.
I've been trying to figure out the difference between the two. Because my mind has been so focused with developing food for Brasstacks for so long, it's tough to snap out of it sometimes. And I think the way I go about figuring out dishes for Brasstacks — trying to figure out what that cuisine is — is being purposefully restrictive. If I can't justify something historically I am not going to do it. If something is not in season, if I can't find it from someone I know, I am not going to serve it. In trying to paint a picture, if you have every color under the rainbow to paint with, you can create a masterpiece. But, if you have three colors to paint with, it's a hell of a lot harder to paint something nice, and that's how I purposefully have gone about it. It forces me to think more about how to treat ingredients. If I come up with an idea for a dish but we see something like it frequently in Boston or outside the city, we cross it off.
I think what's great about Bondir is that Jason said my only responsibilities are to get the best possible ingredients I can, taste them, figure out how they should be treated, and prepare them accordingly. So I look at it this way: in Brasstacks I've been very purposely restrictive, at Bondir I can do whatever I want. And I understand it's going to be my kitchen, for the most part, but, what they've done there — as one of the few owner-operated restaurants in the city that has a very high level of food, and service, and wine — shouldn't be discarded. I think, if anything, it should be honored. Chef is very much a Francophile and I will run with that. The guy did Poulet en Vessie for a beer dinner he hosted. That's insane. No one does that! Except maybe Gavroche in London.
Can you describe the dish?
It's a chicken that is cooked in a pig's bladder, generally with a very rich sauce, madeira, chicken jus, truffles. It's stewed in the pig's bladder for three hours, opened up table-side so you get all the aromas of the dish. It's not just a very technically difficult dish to execute, it's also theater. Food should have an element of feasting to it. Which is something I've always tried to do at Brasstacks.
How will menu development be different for you now?
With Brasstacks, we do a dinner a month. We do one dish once and we very rarely get to try a second time unless we have a few events back to back. To me, things I did a year and a half ago are tired, even if I liked it and only ten people got to eat it. Now, there's an opportunity, where we get 60 people a night coming in to eat. I can try a dish for two weeks straight if I want and keep tweaking it.
It's interesting for a two week lifespan of a dish to be considered a long time. I know from your perspective, it is. But for almost any other cook in town, two weeks, that's a special.
Right, I think part of that is the restaurants I worked in coming up, that you had food that not only changed daily, but could change by the hour, or by the minute. And yeah, I get bored with stuff. I don't want to keep running the same dish over and over again. You have to taste it every day, who the hell wants to taste the same thing every day. The opportunity to tweak things and revisit old dishes that I've tried in the past will be very beneficial. The staff there, are all going to have very different perspectives than I have and that's something I look forward to: the opportunity to be able to sit down with the kitchen staff at the end of the nigh and figure out the next day's menu ."What are we doing tomorrow? What do you have left? What's coming in? What do you want to cook?"
Will the kitchen team be the same?
Some people are going to Concord. For the most part, I am not bringing anyone in with me, which will be weird. With Brasstacks, Tim and I have been cooking together for a long time. We can have conversations where I say "I want to try this," he executes it and I don't have to worry about it. Half of the time I don't have to taste the food. It will definitely be cool to work with someone else in that capacity and sort of start anew and get to that point.
Where does this leave Brasstacks now that you are heading to Bondir?
I wouldn't say that we have any plans of stopping or changing. Our goal is still our goal. Matt and I started this because we wanted a restaurant. And we still do. Because of the success of Brasstacks, our schedules have become a lot fuller. It has allowed us to have other opportunities in our careers. When I was just a cook at Menton I still worked long hours but, once I left work, I left work. I had time to work on Brasstacks. So, that's one of the reasons why we are focusing on doing smaller events. The bigger ones don't have the same level of joy at the end of it. You can't interact with the guests, and that's part of the experience, sitting there and talking to the guests and interacting with them as they receive each course. When we do 100 person events, we might as well be in a restaurant. It's not as much fun for us and it's not as much fun for the diners. Whereas, you recently came to a dinner that we did at Bondir which was our return to form, in terms of doing a very small intimate dinner. That was interesting because that was seeing where I wanted to go with Brasstacks but it was also seeing what could be done in the kitchen at Bondir.
Let's talk a little more about that dinner, for the upcoming Canadian TV show hosted by Steven Page called The Illegal Eater. How did they find you?
I don't know. (laughs) Probably, like 6 or 7 months before we did the dinner, we got an email from one of the production managers saying she was doing a show with the former lead singer of the Barenaked Ladies about underground dining. Matt and I, we immediately were laughing our asses off and thinking "who?!" Top that off with the fact it's for the Canadian travel channel. It was one of those things where we just kept asking her for more information to delay having to respond to it because we thought it was so absurd. She sent us a clip of the pilot so we could see that it was legitimate and we said "sure, why not? If we suck or if the show sucks, no one will ever see it in America." So we said "yes" and they kind of went dark for a while and then, three weeks before the dinner, we got another email "so we are going to be in town July 3, are you guys ready to go?" And it was kind of "oh of course we are, that sounds great!" And we had to hustle to get it together. Jason very graciously said "Bondir is closed on Tuesdays; it's all yours if you want it." But yeah, it was definitely an odd one.
Was this your first time cooking on TV?
First time. There are a couple clips of stuff that took place at Blue Hill where I am in the background. one is a Corby Kummer interview, where Corby and [chef/owner] Dan Barber are standing in front of the line, discussing Dan's food, and if you are looking carefully in the background you can see smoke continuously starting to build behind them and I start very frantically walking behind them because I was burning family meal. Every time they would say "cut" Dan would just be screaming at me. I think it was London broil with a marinade that was dripping onto the bottom of the oven that was causing the smoke to build and I just kept getting screamed at.
But yes, it's my first time on TV. It was weird, too. They stuck cameras to the wall in the kitchen at Bondir and they were worried about the batteries. So they kept wanting to come in and turn them off, and turn them on. And they never figured out the pattern of how we were cooking. It wasn't until the last course that they figured out that they needed to come in earlier and turn the camera on. It would be interesting to see what they actually caught. It was a trip. How was he at the table?
It was good, he really knows his food. The dude buys half cows and butchers them at home . Earlier on the day I was at Brick & Mortar with him and we ate an illegal ham.
Where did that come from?
I can't tell you. The Man might read this.
(laughs) Afterward, we had to do this interview segment with him. He would start talking about the trash-fish dinner I had done down in Philly, and the dude was giving me statistics about healthy fisheries and how he chooses what fish he eats. I thought It was going to be one of these very weird things where people would ask me to do things that I would not be comfortable with. But he was actually great, the crew was hilarious in the kitchen with us; they were great sports.
Last question. I'll ask you on the record and then again off the record. When is the next Brasstacks dinner?
You'll find out when I do.*
*For the record, the off the record response was the same.