When Parsnip opens — most likely next month — it will be "globally inspired and ingredients-led," presenting a relaxed, casual approach to fine dining over two stories of mid-century-inspired design. In the works since the closure of the space's previous occupant, UpStairs on the Square, at the end of 2013, Parsnip aims to create a new haven of hospitality in Cambridge's Harvard Square.
Long gone are the pinks and the greens and the frolicking zebras of 91 Winthrop St.'s former life. As Parsnip, the space has been transformed with a quieter aesthetic, a mid-century modern look with more subdued tones, angular lounge tables, and striking yet simple light fixtures that harken back to a nation with rockets and stars on its mind.
But those with a soft spot for the space in its more colorful days will find a memento in the lounge upstairs — tall, narrow windows carved deeply through the wall have been left framed with a bit of fuchsia paint, embellished with gold and silver polka dots. "UpStairs on the Square was an institution," said executive chef Peter Quinion, "and we're just honoring that. We have to make sure that we come out and pay some real respect to the site that was here before."
"A lot of our potential clientele has a really longterm relationship with UpStairs on the Square," said bar director Steven Lemley. "We want to welcome them back to see how different the space is and how different the culinary experience will be."
For Quinion and Lemley, this is brand new territory, geographically speaking. The chef is from the UK, where he had been working with Parsnip owner Gerald Chan's company for the past seven years, developing an 18th-century manor house outside of London. And Lemley hails from New Orleans, where he was named "Mixologist of the Year" in 2013 by New Orleans Magazine. "I came here specifically to familiarize myself with another historically significant city," said Lemley. "It certainly shares the same sort of culture as New Orleans in the sense that it is a time-tested and insular city. What I've noticed here is that we need a serious dose of kind and giving and bountiful hospitality, and that's certainly my role here in structuring the bar program and the welcoming space that we offer — really pairing the design elements and our foresight with the luxury products that are in front of our guests."
Rounding out the team is chef de cuisine Ryan Marcoux, previously chef de cuisine at Boston Chops in the South End.
Parsnip's general concept is casual fine dining, according to Quinion, and he and Lemley both stress the importance of hospitality. "At its heart, Parsnip is really offering the elements of hospitality and fine dining, the core beliefs of what service is about — good quality food and wine being the important part of the restaurant, but also the service side of it — everything that's in fine dining but relaxed and casual," said Quinion. "It all boils down to one thing, and that's the hospitality side of it. I have years of experience in hotels, and you just have to have those little touches, the little je ne sais quoi which really makes things tick. So it's all about the service, the food, the wine, and the hospitality in the space. It's a grand building."
When you're here, you're in our home.
"When you're here, you're in our home," added Lemley, "and we like for you to feel that sort of equal comfort with all of the highly skilled elements of hospitality that come into it. It's very important to us that we provide an excellent product with humility."
And that excellent product? It's all about the ingredients. "By the nature of where I’ve been and where I’ve worked and even just how food is now, it’s globally inspired," said Quinion. "If you’re trying to say 'What are we?' and 'What’s modern American cuisine?', well, that’s global. Food is global, unless you’re talking about [cuisines like] traditional Italian, traditional French. Food is naturally becoming globally inspired. And it’s ingredients-led."
"The days of buzzwords like farm to fork and steak to plate have almost gone away because those are prerequisites of a good place," Quinion continued. "It's almost something that's not spoken anymore because it's expected. And from my background and where I've come from to here, that's just what it is. It's globally inspired and ingredients-led."
While the "modern European" label fits in some cases, Quinion said, he's ready to embrace what New England has to offer, noting that there are a lot of similarities between the region and his home, particularly when it comes to seasonality — but seafood tends to be easier to come by here.
We never stop learning. Nobody stops learning.
"We're making sure that we try to stick to the seasons as best as possible, even if we combine stuff from around the rest of America," said Quinion, noting that he'll be putting his own spin on some traditional American dishes, like chowders. "It's all a learning curve," he said. "We never stop learning. Nobody stops learning."
"The ingredients tell the story," Lemley said, elaborating on the "ingredients-led" approach. "Our whole culinary team actually visits every farm site from which we procure ingredients, so the ingredient-driven aspect really begins to tell the human story. We represent all of the human aspiration that goes into creating these products. We top it off with our aspiration and really the identity of Parsnip."
"That’s represented not only in the culinary side but in the beverage program as well," Lemley continued. "We have a lot of smaller wine producers on our wine menu. A lot of it is Old World, but certainly some of it is New World, so we really get a nice spectrum of wine experience, certainly cocktail-wise as well. One thing that we do stress is sustainability, and that goes with that ingredient-driven approach. The human story is something that, in this day and time, we have to find ways to sustain in a way in which we recognize that we’re all interconnected. [We'll feature] a lot of biodynamic producers, organic producers, sustainable producers. We have really gone very far out of our way to assure that everything that we offer to our guests really meets that requirement for sustainability."
"And the sustainability not only of the produce but of the artisan suppliers," added Quinion. "At the end of the day, they’re craftsman like we are. So it’s a two-pronged attack: It’s the ingredient and the person who produces it."
The multi-story restaurant will feature a somewhat different concept on each floor. In the sprawling downstairs dining room, it's more of a standard appetizer-entree-dessert experience, while the cozier upstairs lounge will focus on light bites. "It's a little bit more casual, a bit more fun, and a little bit more British and eclectic in some cases," said Quinion. "Overall, the larder is the same, so the difference is in how the food is presented. The staff, the love, the ingredients are all from the same box," and it's always about the balance between "simplicity" and "technicality." When Parsnip opens (in mid-October, if all goes according to the current plan), it'll just be dinner at first, but brunch service will be added at a later date.
While Parsnip has been providing a couple sneak peeks of potential menu items on social media, the team is more concerned with the big picture. "I don’t think that there’s any one particular dish that I can say that I’m more excited about than any other one," said Marcoux. "I’m more excited about the direction that we’re going in, because that’s more what I feel like Parsnip is about. It’s less about individual dishes and more about the whole package."
"The bigger thing for us is how we tick as a unit," said Quinion. "By the nature of the people around our table, we’re a bit of a thinkbox. There’s no right or wrong direction; it’s all about creative minds. We’re also about maintaining the profession itself, and that’s not all about just the food. The profession is about how we work as a team, how we have those hierarchies, how we have the whole training, the mentoring, and development, which is sometimes missing nowadays. A dish comes up, and it’s a barrage of brainstorming and coming up with something quite special at the end of it."
"A phrase I like is 'creative camaraderie,'" said Lemley. "The way that their minds work in tandem has really been this beautiful thing for me to witness. One of our chefs will have an idea, and then it’s presented to the rest of the team, and they all sort of build it and give this dish an identity. Each ingredient that goes into the dish gains its own bit of identity, and it’s through their creative camaraderie they really work as a fluid team."
Who are we to let our egos get in the way of that?
"We’re not about egos and whose name is going to be on the dishes and stuff like that," said Marcoux. "Everybody who works here is going to have different experiences, and it’s all about melding all of that together to really just make the dining experience the best. At the end of the day, some diners do care about who’s the chef and who’s the GM and all that stuff, but the vast majority of people just want a great experience — they want great hospitality, they want great food — and who are we to let our egos get in the way of that?"
"Nobody stops that learning curve, and everybody’s got something genuine to bring to the table," said Quinion. "It’s about developing everything, not just a restaurant but developing people, the suppliers, the relationships, the food, the beverages, and developing a reputation."