"We had no idea that we were going to be as well-received as we were in the beginning," said Leviton, sitting at the bar of Lumière on Monday, his last day off before the final week serving as chef and owner of the popular French bistro just off I-90 in Newton.
Leviton opened Lumière in February 1999, just before Valentine's Day. He grew up in Newton, and by his assessment, there weren't enough good restaurants catering to the clientele out in the suburbs. After working in San Francisco and New York, Leviton saw high-quality restaurants pushing out of city centers and into neighborhoods, tapping into a new base of diners.
Within a week of opening, Lumière had more business than Leviton could have imagined.
"I think we opened thinking that we'd just have a nice little suburban bistro," he said. He had no idea what the level of demand for such a restaurant would be and was surprised at the turnout.
"Because it was 1999 and the height of the irrational exuberance, pre-crash, we didn't expect that people would want to spend as much on it as they did," Leviton said.
But people turned out in droves. Lumière would do three turns on a Saturday night, and to book a table, guests had to call six weeks in advance.
"Very quickly, what I thought would take four or five years to develop a clientele and a following and become a little bit more high-end — I think we accomplished that more because of the times and the location than actually of how well we were doing — but we accomplished that within a few months. It was beyond all expectations," Leviton said.
With a greater demand came a greater desire for menu items like foie gras and steak, Leviton said. It became a regular task at Lumière to walk the line between being a high-end place and serving as a neighborhood restaurant.
As it stood, Lumière wasn't a typical neighborhood joint. Leviton, an active advocate for using local and sustainable ingredients who works with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, has spent years partnering with local farmers, producers, and fishermen to build Lumière's menu.
"I started cooking in San Francisco in the late '80s, and that was just how it was done," he said.
Sustainable sourcing was part of the agenda. Leviton said he would order directly from farmers and pick up products from the Marin County farmers' market. When he returned to Boston, he said it was a bit of a culture shock to not find the same resources.
Part of Lumière's success depends on its relationships with farmers, fishermen, ranchers, and purveyors.
"Fortunately, there was a small group of very dedicated folks here who were really pushing that agenda as well, but it was nothing like I had in California," he said.
Over the years, the ranks of those dedicated folks have grown to the point where Leviton has had to turn down partnerships with local providers because his needs were already met.
"Part of our success, I believe, is predicated on the relationships we do have with farmers, ranchers, fishermen, purveyors who understand and appreciate what we do and are passionate about getting us the best possible product so that we can put the best possible product on the table," he said.
That has been the goal for 17 years, while Leviton has served as chef and owner. In December 2015, he announced the decision to sell the restaurant to Jordan Bailey, his chef de cuisine.
"He brings a lot of the same energy that I brought to it 17 years ago, and I'm thrilled that something that I put so much into is going to continue to live on," Leviton said.
When he first started out working in Northern California in the late 1980s and '90s, Leviton said "things were just exploding." He had fabulous teachers out west and in New York, and through reading cookbooks and obsessing over the craft, he developed ideas about the restaurant he wanted Lumière to be.
"We're just putting nice simple food on the table, trying to do that every night, taking care of people. It's so much about this idea of taking care of people," Leviton said.
One of his mentors, Joyce Goldstein, had likened the concept to Grandma's cooking.
"Your grandmother cooked for you because she wanted to show you how much she loves you, right? That's what we're supposed to do," Leviton said. "And I believe the same things about the hospitality. In a way it's the 'welcome, we're so glad to see you.' I mean, we have so many customers who have come here hundreds of times, and that is such a joy, to cook for those people who get it, and it's so nice to see the same friendly faces."
One of those friendly faces Leviton saw often in the early years of Lumière belonged to none other than Julia Child.
"She walks in the dining room or through the door, and just — hush — like you can hear a pin drop, every head turns, and it's incredible. And to have that happen over and over and over again," he said, gesturing with his hands and carrying as much excitement in his voice as if it had happened yesterday.
"What was I thinking, saying no to Julia Child?"
The first time she wanted to visit Lumière, Leviton said, Marian Morash of The Victory Garden left a voicemail at the restaurant.
"'We'd like to come in tonight with Julia Child, three people, 6:30,' and left Julia's phone number," Leviton said. "And we didn't have a table. We were packed to the gills, and I had to call her back and say, 'Look, I'm really sorry; I don't have a table for you tonight.' What was I thinking, saying no to Julia Child?"
Still, that didn't diminish Lumière's appeal, and Child visited at least a dozen times before she moved out to Santa Barbara.
"She was the sweetest woman, always asking about how business was and how things were. She was just a doll. And those are the biggest memories, of cooking for her," Leviton said.
She would even provide feedback at times, Leviton said, and she was the reason Lumière started serving a half chicken.
"She's like, 'No, no, no, you have to serve the leg and the thigh as well, because that's the best part.' Okay! Julia said, that's what we do. And since then, we've served the half a bird," Leviton said.
Memories like that, and the day-to-day antics of restaurant life, are the things Leviton will miss, he said.
"I've often made the analogy to the kitchen being a sports team, except that you have a game every night, and it's like a playoff game every night, because every plate matters now," he said. "You are judged on every plate that goes out, and everyone's a critic, and if you screw something up, you will likely feel the repercussions of that for years to come. So, on the one hand, I will miss that sort of nightly amping up and pressure. On the other hand, I won't miss that at all because the pressure is ridiculous."
He said he would also miss the inappropriateness of restaurant staffs, saying they get away with "all sorts of stuff that would not float in normal society," but any member of normal society dare not ask the specifics.
Yet Leviton will soon be a member of that "normal society," a designation he plans to embrace with gusto. His work establishing Lumière as a farm-to-table restaurant and his involvement with the Seafood Watch have opened doors to other areas of the food system he said he looked forward to diving into.
"I'm not saying no to anything right now."
He already serves as an instructor in Boston University's Culinary Arts program, and the "little gigs" he plans to pick up range from consulting on a new restaurant to working on corporate strategies, product development, and even urban planning cluster development around a food system.
As he said, "I'm not saying no to anything right now, until I have no more bandwidth. But the idea of doing all of these disparate things, to me, is actually really exciting, in that I'm hoping that I guess I don't have to settle on one and can continue to work all over the map."
Above all, he said, he looks forward to spending time with his wife and two kids, Isadora (13) and Sam (6).
"I'm really looking forward to being dad and husband on a more full-time basis. I feel like my wife and kids have put up with an awful lot, and I'm really looking forward to being more of a presence," he said.
Leviton's final night cooking at Lumière is Saturday, February 27. It's just business as usual for him — there will be no fanfare, no special meal, just a night of putting simple, delicious food on plates for his regulars, who have booked up the restaurant this week to catch the chef before he passes the torch on to Bailey.
"I worked very hard to get it to this place and would really love to see it grow to be here another 17 years, and maybe at that point, Jordan passes it on to somebody else. But the idea that this is going to live on beyond my association with it is inspiring and flattering and humbling and all of those things," Leviton said. "I'm excited to put this to bed and to wake up to something else."
[Photos of Michael Leviton by Dana Hatic; restaurant photos provided by Lumière]