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Chris Himmel on Operating Decades-Old Restaurants, Bartending at Age Seven, and More

Photo: Chris Himmel/Chris Coe

Himmel Hospitality Group's three restaurants are all reaching milestones this year: Harvest is 40, Grill 23 & Bar is 30, and Post 390 is five. Owner Chris Himmel discussed with Eater his experiences growing up in the restaurant industry (from mixing Sea Breezes at seven years old to balancing operations of three distinct restaurants), the changing dining scenes in Back Bay and Harvard, and more.

How long have you been involved with these restaurants?
I got involved full-time 2001, and I really stepped into the role of running the day-to-day operations in about 2003. But I really grew up in the restaurants. I started working at Grill 23 when I was 11 or 12 years old. I think everyone saw a bug in me when I was a kid. I loved to cook, loved to fish, loved to do anything connected with that, so they essentially put me through the wringer of every position you can have at the restaurant. It was a really practical way to learn the business. A lot of the same people that I worked with when I was a kid still work at Grill 23, and it's been great to have them there. You don't find that in every restaurant.

When you were getting involved with the restaurants as a kid, did you know at that point that this is what you wanted to do, or was there something else you might have pursued?
I did. Well, I wanted to be a professional basketball player, but I learned pretty quickly after I got to college that there were two dreams I could end with, and one fell by the wayside pretty quickly. When I was younger, I actually used to look at working at the restaurants as just what I grew up doing, and I never really thought of it as cool. But right around college, if not a little out of it, I started to realize that people love to eat and are opinionated about it, and that's a great thing. That showed me that what I grew up doing — people really love it, and I loved it, so a light went off, and I said, This might be what I was really meant to do. Then it was really about trying to get the experience. I didn't want to just work at my family's restaurants the entire time. I think it's really important to have an outside perspective, so I went out to work for a couple of key people that were at the forefront of the dining scene. They really were able to inspire me and a lot of what I do around the restaurants.

What's your first memory from any of the restaurants?
I guess it's ok to tell it now because it's not going to get the restaurant in trouble years later! The first memory I have of the restaurant is going to dinner with my family at 7 or 8 years old. We had a bartender there, Chuck Ellis, who was really one of the better bartenders in Boston, a really great personality. He was exactly what you'd picture, sort of the classic eighties bartender — really knew his scotches, knew his wines, knew a great steak, could talk your ear off. People loved him. He actually brought me behind the bar during service on a Saturday night, and he could tell I really loved it, so he had me come back. I must have tended bar five or six times until the manager came over and said, Look, we could lose our liquor license if this happens. A couple nights, I made a hundred, 200 dollars.

The first drink I ever made was a Sea Breeze, and I thought it was really interesting, the shaking and the combination of flavors and all that. I do a lot of the cocktails at the restaurant, and it never even occurred to me that that's probably why, but maybe that's how I really got excited about the atmosphere.

How have you watched the Back Bay dining scene change over the last few years?
I think it's making a real effort to move forward. The difference, compared to a lot of the other areas where you're seeing a lot of growth, especially with independent chef-inspired restaurants — the rent is so high around here that frankly it's hard for a start-up chef to come in and get a good deal and be able to make something work. What you find here are a lot of the chains and a lot of the people that are not trying to do a four-star dining experience, but there's always been a density in terms of business.

In the last five years or so, a lot more residential buildings have begun opening up, and this is trying to become a neighborhood. This is an iconic area of the city, so it's not trying to forge its own path. In the last five years, it's trying to figure out who it is, and for better or worse, I think there are always going to be some of the chain restaurants around this area. But we have all of the guts to make it a vibrant area, beyond just business, and I hope it happens, because I actually live in the neighborhood.

And how about the dining scene in Harvard Square — how has that changed in the last five years, 10 years?
When I was there in 2001 it was somewhat of a classic dining destination with UpStairs on the Square, Rialto, Harvest — those places were sort of the fixtures of Harvard Square, and everything else had sort of fallen by the wayside. There was a lull for a number of years where there weren't as many restaurants opening, and there were probably more closing.

But now I think that Cambridge may be the best restaurant area around here, and it's got some of the best chefs doing some of the most exciting things. It started, I think, over in Kendall Square, and it has certainly moved its way down. You see Alden & Harlow — I find Michael [Scelfo], on top of being a great guy, to be one of the more talented people in the city. It's really exciting to see a place like that open where somebody's taking those chances, and I think that's a reflection on Cambridge. I think that the diner who comes to Cambridge is looking for something different than what they're looking for when they come to Boston, and I think it's great. They're delivering. It's exciting to see. We're excited to be part of it at the Harvest. With Mary [Dumont, executive chef] there, it gives us the ability to really stay at the forefront of that, and so we sort of evolve the Harvest as the city evolves.

Any big changes in store at any of the restaurants?
We're going to be doing a renovation at the Harvest, which is exciting. We're finalizing the plans now. I believe we'll start a major overhaul to the kitchen area and the front of the house in January, and we'll sort of do it phase by phase. We're going to do a renovation to the patio, which is going to be really impressive. The windows between the dining room and the patio are going to become NanaWalls and slide back, so during the summer, the whole area — front, back, and outside — will all seem like an outdoor terrace. We're going to hopefully put these outdoor trellises over the patio that will have a roof that can be pulled over, and that will give us the ability to be weather-proof, so we'll be able to take event bookings and guarantee that they'll be on the patio.

Here at Post, we're making changes to the charcuterie program. We're actually going to be working with Josh [Smith] from Moody's on a lot of different things. He's going to be doing several salamis for us; we already are doing a pork belly sandwich with his sriracha pork belly. Josh is a good friend, and everyone's so proud of what he's doing.

What's the hardest part of your job?
Balancing between the restaurants. Where the fire is, wherever it's going to need attention, that's where I'm going to be — and in a perfect world, when you're focusing on one, everyone can manage what they need to everywhere else, but that's never how it works. Right when you're at your worst moment with one restaurant, that's when something else happens at the other, and you need to shift your focus.

I think that the way you get around that is having incredible people around you. Each of my general managers are not just great managers but great people, and they know how to support people, whether it be their employees or myself and our senior vice president of operations or even my family when they come in. I don't even have to give it a second thought; I know that we've got people who know how to work together well, and we all support each other. If I need to be somewhere to focus on it, I know the other restaurants have my back, but you always have that little sinking feeling like you're letting someone down. But I think that's what drives you. The minute I lose that feeling is probably the minute that I'm in trouble, because it's what pushes you every day. If it's just about money and it's just about the work, you're not going to succeed in this industry; you have to be passionate, and that means living and breathing it 24 hours a day.

What's your favorite part of the job?
The people that I work with, and that means everybody, from my managers to the food runners. Each person here brings something to the table. I try to hire the individual over the professional, hire someone based on who I think they are as a person, not so much necessarily about where they worked or what their knowledge is of wine. This is a Danny Meyer quote; I worked for him — you can teach someone how to pour a glass of wine, but you can't teach them to care how their actions affect others. That's what hospitality is. It doesn't have to be forced and should come naturally to people, and if that's the case, than my job is to make sure that we do everything we can to foster that and to channel it appropriately and make sure that they're working smart.

Building teams at each of the restaurants is one of the most satisfying parts of my job, to have someone start as an entry level manager and then get promoted to general manager or even go on to another restaurant. Take Brian Young, who was with us at the Harvest, and then he was the chef de cuisine at Post. Brian just left to go work with Matt Jennings, opening up Townsman. Some people may say, Oh, I can't believe he left, but no one was prouder than I was. We loved having him around. The kid brought so much to the table, but who are we to stifle somebody's growth? There's nothing better than when someone gets an opportunity like that. You say Good luck, and if you need support, we're here, but otherwise it's about just trying to foster that talent, and that means building good team. I like to think that's probably one of the stronger things that I do.

Would you open another restaurant, or is three the limit?
I think we'd like to do more, for sure. We're always actively looking, and I think that our hope is to do something in the next few years. We always have people come to us with locations and things like that, but it's really about where we would go, the team we would put together, what kind of concept we'd do. I'd think that it would be something that would involve the people who are already in our company. We're not having Thomas Keller come in here any time soon or anything like that. [Laughs.]

Do you have any dream neighborhoods for your next project?
There's a lot of really exciting stuff going on at Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market — and people scoff at me when I say it, but it's true, given the developers that are coming in there. They actually have a lot of experience doing some of the better marketplaces in other cities. They have the capital and they have the know-how to really put together something exciting, and what I think is just amazing is the potential of that area. I think that it was run out of necessary more like a food hall than it should have been, but if you look at areas like the San Francisco ferry terminal or even what's going on at Eataly, why wouldn't that translate to something in there?

It's got the density and it's got the iconic nature of the architecture and the fact that it's actually a great location, right close to the water. You've got everyone feeding in from different parts of the city. You don't have to recreate an entire part of the city, which I think is dangerous sometimes. Cities have a way of evolving in the way that they see fit, and sometimes when you try to force an area, there's a hot one month, and then a year from now, it's not a hot area anymore.

What's the most difficult thing about operating a group that has three distinct concepts versus a chain?
Different personalities — and the biggest challenge that presents itself is the chefs. I think any chef would agree to that. One of the things that makes a great chef is confidence, and standing by what you believe. When you're operating multiple units that are different concepts, the easier approach would be to say, Ok, we're all going to buy from this person or We're gonna save money on this area. We do a lot of charity work: Eric [Brennan, Post 390's executive chef] and I work with the Boys & Girls Club. Mary works with the Food Project. Jay [Murray, executive chef at Grill 23] does the Greater Boston Food Bank. It would have been easier to just have a company-wide decision, but every day, you have different opinions on how things should be run, and you have to listen to all of it and let chefs be who they are. I'm lucky; the chefs that work with me appreciate my situation, and so they help me — they don't hurt me.

The biggest thing is who we use for our purveyors. Everybody has their seafood purveyor that they like, for example. While my chef from Grill 23 may get great relationship with his seafood purveyor, you can't guarantee that that's going to happen to the other two restaurants. You really can't stifle that and tell them what they can and can't do. It creates a lot more work for you, but I think it pays off, because in today's day and age, where we get our food from is more and more important. I push our chefs to really go directly to our sources, not just to their vendors. I want them to make connections, not just with the seafood company that's selling their seafood but the fisherman. We need to go out, go fishing with them, and help them however we can with their business.

It's nothing new, but farm-to-table has evolved to a point where we not just establish relationships with the farms but establish meaningful relationships and help them in their businesses. That, to me, is really what it comes down to.
· All Eater Interviews [~EBOS~]

Alden & Harlow

40 Brattle Street, , MA 02138 (617) 864-2100 Visit Website

Rialto

1 Bennett Street, Cambridge, MA 02138 617 661 5050 Visit Website

Grill 23

161 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116 617 542 2255

Harvest

44 Brattle Street, , MA 02138 (617) 868-2255 Visit Website

UpStairs on the Square

91 Winthrop Street, Cambridge, MA 02138 617 864 1933 Visit Website

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