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Will Anyone Stand Up for Boston?

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A local chef speaks out on the relationship among Boston restaurants, the media, and awards

Will Gilson, chef and owner of Puritan & Co. in Cambridge
Will Gilson, chef and owner of Puritan & Co. in Cambridge
Galdones Photography

For a chef, restaurant owner, and member of the Boston restaurant community, it is a particular kick in the stones when you read that our local and national food media think that Boston is one big snooze fest when it comes to dining out. It would seem as though the perception of Boston from inside and out is that our restaurants need to emulate our local sports franchises. When a question is asked, “Why don’t more Boston restaurants win national awards?”, it makes each chef in this town want to throw a saute pan through a window, but hell, it’s 2018, and the press isn’t writing about bad-tempered chefs.

The press wants us to win awards, but they also want to know about our mental health, our fostering of environments laden with sexual misconduct, and our weight-loss journeys. They want to lay our problems bare for the public, not acknowledging how many of those problems stem from the very system of awards, reviews, and press. After we have been picked apart in each review — and compared to restaurants that no longer exist — I am left asking the question, “Who are these awards even for?”

What really grinds my gears is that everyone today is obsessed with new. Every website has its “best new,” its upcoming openings, its pop-ups early in their gestation period. It assumes that the moment a new restaurant opens its doors, it is ready and prepared to handle everything with the precision of a ballet that has been rehearsed so well that it never gets a single move wrong. The reviews and first bites that we come to count on happen sooner and sooner in a restaurant’s adolescence.

The damn paint is barely dry before someone is penning their hot take on a restaurant that will live on the internet and be read by hopefully thousands. And when it comes to the standard for what’s “award-worthy,” it’s newness and risk-taking that are celebrated most. The rent gets higher, the stakes get larger, the competition fiercer, market share smaller, and talent pool dry, yet we are supposed to be out here taking risks. Risks, are you fucking kidding me?!?!

Being a restaurant owner is like being a compulsive gambler. Everyone around you is telling you it isn’t a good way to live and that if the hand doesn’t go well, the consequences are irreparable. Yet still we go back to the dealer, which in this case is the media, the public, and the actual paying guests, and we keep playing a hand, trying to keep our poker face straight and our strategy solid and adaptable no matter how the chips stack up or disappear. Many lose their shirt and never come back. But sure, risk is sexy from the outside.

We do take risks, but they are just more about survival nowadays. Everyone is hustling to adapt to a changing restaurant dynamic. Venture capital money that used to live in the realm of search engines, social media platforms, and finance is now hyper-focused on our business. New apps for delivery services pop up every day. You worry that if you don’t use them, you’ll lose market share.

The prime real estate is getting filled with VC-backed “fast-casual concepts” that can pay the rent and take a loss to expand a brand. We pivot our whole business to cater — no pun intended — to this shift of the way people dine out now. We aim to give guests unique and memorable experiences that corporate brands hire teams of people to curate on their behalf. You want to talk about risks? Every day we fight in this David and Goliath battle where we risk our reputations, our business security, and our livelihood.

I chased the awards when we opened. Hell, I chased them at the last place before this one, too. I got just a taste of what it means to be acknowledged as an “up and comer.” It’s addicting. You get that taste, and then you lose your focus. You start putting things on menus to shock and stir and get attention. You study mugshots of reviewers like you’re an FBI agent looking for Whitey Bulger. You finally identify them and then put the whole focus of the staff and restaurant on them while forgetting that they will likely never be back after that review. You squander the chances of meeting great guests who will dine at your place over all the other never-ending openings in town. You won a single hand, but you didn’t accrue wealth or stability.

This mentality and tendency took me three years to realize. During those years, I lost great staff and loyal guests, and I felt a hollowness inside because I didn’t become the Sean Brock of the Northeast. I thought I had failed. I believed that in my soul, and it affected the success of the business, which — let us not forget — is what restaurants are. They are businesses, and businesses need to be healthy.

You can portray that health on Instagram (a whole different problem), where the photo looks great and everything looks happy and sexy, but once the finger scrolls past the photo, you don’t realize that the place can’t staff itself, the owners are leveraging themselves into the poor house, and ever since the media moved on to the next thing, the restaurant can’t fill its seats. It’s really easy these days to make your restaurant look like an award-winning place, but that chase is fleeting and usually results in endless pivots or eventually closure.

Take Alma in L.A., for example. It was Bon Appetit’s 2013 best new restaurant. It closed two years later, citing, among other things, that the expectations of guests were too high. Although many places don’t see that fate after winning a coveted spot, if you can’t sustain, then what’s the point?

We can sit here touting our participation trophies and saying that we win the local and regional awards, but why? The dirty truth about awards is that they are business. The publications or organizations or foundations stay in business because we are chasing their endorsement. We give away our time, our food, our talent, and our sanity to receive a piece of paper that says “good job” so that we can tell people about it and use that to make more money, hopefully. The snake is eating its own tail.

When our own local media doesn’t have our backs to tell the rest of the country how great we are and how proud they are of us, how do we even stand a chance? Our local food media should be our biggest cheerleaders, yet they are the ones who are telling the rest of the country that Boston is a “boring” food town. I can name over a dozen local chefs whom I am lucky enough to call close friends whose food excites me every time I walk into their restaurants. They might not be household names yet, but they are all making their mark in Boston and shaking the restaurant scene up.

Listen, I want the awards, and I think that if you get them, then you earned them. I just don’t want them hanging on the wall of my apartment while a daycare center takes over my defunct restaurant space. Most of us aren’t in our 20s anymore, when risk-taking was encouraged and applauded. We have families now. We have mortgages, daycare bills, and teams of people who work for us who can barely afford to live here. This equation in our Boston-area restaurant math sucks.

We do this because we love it, not because we need national validation. Ever since our place faded from the media attention, we became a stronger, busier, more profitable, and healthier business. We focused on what really mattered, and to us that meant doing what we should have been doing in the first place: making guests happy and giving them a reason to come back. Maybe someday that will be an award category, but until then I’ll just be over here with my fellow disappointing chefs, not taking enough risks, trying to make it work with the deck stacked against me.

Will Gilson is the chef and owner of Puritan & Co. and Puritan Trading Company in Cambridge.