Josh Lewin has been working in a basement for the last four years, so it's rare that he sees that magical time between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., "when life really happens." We're sitting in backbar in Union Square at 4:30, blinking into the sun streaming through the skylights and drinking Star Wars-themed cocktails, and Lewin is thinking about everything he'll be able to do in the coming months — during the day, even! "What's it like to show up at a restaurant early without a reservation and get a seat?" he wonders, laughing.
After nearly three years as executive chef at Beacon Hill Bistro, he and the restaurant have parted ways this week, and he has a lot of new adventures brewing, from expanding his Bread and Salt pop-up concept with business partner Katrina Jazayeri to eventual restaurant ownership, not to mention some book ideas in the works.
What was your experience at Beacon Hill Bistro?
I came on as the sous chef under Jason Bond in 2010 at a time when I was considering leaving the business. I had been working in this bar in Roslindale that doesn't exist anymore, and now Roslindale is kind of looking like it might happen, but this was a few years ago. I was recently out of the military and I was taking the firefighter exam, but I gave one last ditch effort and did some stages — Craigie on Main, elsewhere. I just really clicked at Beacon Hill Bistro, and I came on there.
Shortly after, Jason left to open Bondir. Things got a little weird because I had almost gone in a totally different direction, but then I kind of fell in love with the food that this guy was doing...and then he was gone. But about a year and a half after that, they promoted me, and we had a great run. It was almost three years, plus that first year and a half.
They're a 15-year-old business — a great business — and they have their goals. My trajectory started to take a different path, and since we're in the slow time of the year, it's just best for us both to ramp up now and look at our next steps. I accomplished a lot and I learned a lot there about developing a program and developing a staff. I've left some really awesome people in place there that I hope they're able to utilize. I'm just so amazed at what we all accomplished there together, and I'm really sad to leave them, so it's bittersweet for sure. I'm so excited about where I'm going, but to leave all of them behind...but the team that I've left in place there can accomplish anything with the right leadership. I hope that proves to be true. I can't wait to see what they do next. But it's time to close that door and move on to the next door.
For the past year and a half I've been working on a pop-up restaurant concept, Bread and Salt. My first event was actually in Chicago; I didn't want anybody in Boston to know about it. I threw a free event in an Airbnb apartment with a beautiful kitchen bar seating area and a nice view, right near Wrigley field. Bread and Salt comes from a common Arabic phrase that essentially translates to "There's bread and salt between us." It expresses the power of a shared meal to influence relationships and history, and while it refers to an area of conflict, there's such a rich hospitality there.
Middle Eastern cuisine is having this huge resurgence, and people are into the flavors, but a lot of them kind of shy away from the history behind these things. The hospitality of that culture is so, so rich.
It's become one of my major influences, along with the American South. They're very similar in so many ways, where you walk in and you're fed until you leave. I did a big trip to Texas, which was really revolutionary for me. Sometimes we're in the big city in the Northeast, and our business is very extravagant, going out and dressing up, which is all great — but sometimes that true hospitality is lost. In the American South, you're given an iced drink because it's hot and life is hard, and now we're gonna feed you, and we're gonna tell stories.
That happens across the Middle East too, and that's where that phrase comes from. Essentially once there's bread and salt between us, we can be friends no matter what is happening beyond these doors. It's about complete hospitality. That's what we're moving toward; that's what our concept is all about.
Also, I like to teach. I always wanted to be an educator. I have some things lined up at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and I've previously done a lot of butchering education, so I want to expand that concept. We're kind of rolling out a multi-part plan, and the goal is restaurant ownership. We're testing different locales, markets, geographies. I'm getting used to the outlier neighborhoods a little more. I'm a resident of the Union Square/Inman Square area, but I've spent all my time in Beacon Hill, and I want to get out of that centralized tourist hub and get out to where people live. You see places like La Brasa — they're doing comfortable food, and the concept is to execute it better than the neighborhood has seen before, but their prices aren't much higher, and I think that's important.
I'm excited to have some downtime because I want to travel a little bit. I'm definitely going to take a couple months, but we're not going to disappear. During this time, we're going to make sure we're reaching out to the people we want to reach out to. We're getting into the communities. We're cooking for people, whether it's through charity tasting events or themed things like we've become pretty experienced at pulling off. We have some themes that we're going to hit real soon. So the next few months are going to be active but with the idea in mind that we want to learn a little bit. We just want to really get our boots on the ground. I've been working in a basement for four years, and there's only so much you can see from there. I'm aware of all of these things that are going on, but I want to get out and walk the neighborhoods, my neighborhoods, the ones that are close by. There are some properties that are very interesting to me right now.
For example, I want Mid-nite Convenient. It's the oldest building in Union Square. It's not available right now — it was briefly and somebody snapped it up — but I'm interested to see how that property develops, because there's a lot of history there. I swear to God I would barely renovate it — I would keep the vending machine out there, and I would give Union Square the best convenience food it ever had. That's something we're looking for — a building that has some history behind it. We want to leave our mark, but we would love to be able to unlock a door into an existing history and merge our concept with that and just happily integrate with the community, giving them something familiar but showing improvement.
I think it's a really fun concept, acknowledging the history of what you're part of, but that might not be possible, and if the right hole in the ground presented itself, we're open to that too. We do have some concepts in mind that would be ground-up stuff, but we're more interested in sharing a history with something and celebrating a community on the rise. Our focus is definitely on Somerville and Cambridge, but we're just going to get out and walk around a lot and eat and talk and see.
Do you see yourself always having the Boston area as a home base?
I can't saw always...we looked a lot at other geographies, and for various reasons our focus is definitely Boston, but we do have a few other areas we love. Katrina was born in Queens and she grew up in Austin, two areas which we've had a lot of fun in. Chicago is a lot of fun too. But I think we do want to stay local, at least for now. We'd like to make our splash here. We have deep relationships here with the food community, and it's so supportive here, not like in New York, where it's a little more cut-throat because it has to be. Boston, Somerville, Cambridge — we're coming up together, all of us. Everybody wants to see everybody succeed, and you don't get that in a lot of places right now. We're a young food town — mature, but young — and everybody has been so supportive. I'd like to be a part of that, at least for awhile. I've just been sowing all these seeds, so now I want to start harvesting them.
· All coverage of Josh Lewin on Eater [~EBOS~]