When Celeste — Eater Boston’s 2018 Restaurant of the Year — opened in early 2018 on the edge of Somerville’s Union Square, a neighborhood already home to a bustling dining scene, the tiny Peruvian restaurant seemed poised to hold its own and become a favorite local haunt, the type of place where neighbors would sidle up to the bar for pisco and ceviche a couple times a week. It would feel like a dinner party, an extension of the dinner parties founders Maria Rondeau and JuanMa Calderón used to throw in their home under the name Kriollo Real, starting back in 2013.
Rondeau, an architect, and Calderón, a filmmaker, meant Celeste to be a “project between friends,” rooted in interdisciplinary collaborations, so the opening also involved people like Paola Ibarra, a writer, who developed Celeste’s bar program, and Juan Obanda, an artist, who played a role as creative director.
Celeste did end up becoming a neighborhood haunt — and a dinner party — but it also became much more than that, and it’s now one of the toughest reservations in town, constantly jam-packed with happy diners. Some glowing national press didn’t hurt.
But after five years, it’s all over. At least in its current form, with Rondeau and Calderón at the helm. According to them, that’s always been the plan, and Celeste’s explosive success doesn’t change anything: For the duo, there’s magic in moving on, and the idea of an end date is what helped the project come to life in the first place.
“It was the only way that we were brave enough to start the project,” says Rondeau. “It was an experiment, and we said that we’re only going to do it knowing that it’s a five-year project that we could handle; there would be a start and an end to it. We never imagined it would become what it is, and it’s been amazing, but we have other ideas and other projects that we would like to also work on.”
“It’s good to know where the exit is,” says Calderón, “but the exit is not the end. It’s the goal to go to another room, another place. We didn’t want to feel tied to something for the rest of our lives, so we were right to say only five years, even if it’s super.”
Still, Celeste may carry on past the five-year mark, just without Rondeau and Calderón. “We would probably leave it to our crew here,” says Rondeau. “That would be the idea. We’d like it to be inherited by the people who have made it happen.”
With about three years left on their timeline, Rondeau and Calderón are already working to put down roots up in Vermont on two separate projects. They’ve been approached by various Boston developers, but they say the traditional means of expanding a restaurant group aren’t quite the right fit for them.
“JuanMa has always said that opening a bigger restaurant is the easy step,” says Rondeau. “‘Let’s do something smaller — that’s challenging,’ [he says.]” As such, the two new projects aren’t the typical sequels to a successful first restaurant.
One of the projects brings Rondeau and Calderón full circle, harking back to their home dinner party days: They’ve bought a house in Andover, Vermont. Rondeau is renovating it to essentially include an inn on the upper level and a kitchen “lab” on the bottom.
It will be called Esmeralda. “It will be an experimental chef residency of sorts,” says Rondeau. “Having a restaurant has been extremely fun, but we think of where we started and what was important to us. We started cooking at home in our kitchen and sharing; [Celeste] is an extension of that. We have 24 seats and an open kitchen, and we relate to people. We took it a step further and said, ‘What if we actually go back to the model of cooking at home?’”
“It’s not only for us,” continues Rondeau. “We can invite other chefs to experience what it’s like to cook in a house, to serve people in a setting where you feel completely at home.” Some people will even be able to stay at the house.
The current plan is to host dinners monthly, starting as soon as May 2020. The house includes eight acres of land, and Rondeau and Calderón plan to grow some food there eventually. “You basically feel transported to another world when you get there,” says Rondeau. “It’s really hard to extract oneself from the house once you’re there.”
And then there’s the second new project: About 20 miles away in Bellows Falls, Vermont, Rondeau and Calderón have bought a classic ’40s diner that is currently in operation, serving breakfast and lunch.
“It’s beautiful and it’s tiny,” says Calderón. “My plan is to just put little touches of Peruvian things in [breakfast and lunch], but I’m not going to change the menu; we want to maintain the original customers. But we’re going to open for dinner, and dinner is going to be totally different.”
“We fell in love with this diner,” says Rondeau, “so we’re taking over, and in a way it’s amazing because it’s the original concept of an open kitchen. You have one single bar with the people cooking right in front of you, similar to how Celeste is set up. Everything is open and transparent.”
While Rondeau and Calderón work to get the Vermont projects up and running bit by bit, they remain dedicated to maintaining “good vibes” at Celeste.
“You don’t have to wait until Friday or Saturday to have a party; you can come over and feel the party on a Monday, because it’s a good vibe in here,” says Calderón.
“We need to know that we are having fun so that other people [have fun],” says Rondeau. “It’s basically contagious.”
And after that fun spreads from Boston to Vermont, it will keep going around the globe. That’s the hope, anyway.
“[The five-year end date for Celeste] might not be a hard and fast date, but we will be moving onto other projects, other locations, other geographies,” says Rondeau. “We always thought it would be a warmer climate, and here we are heading north, but I think that the model we’re establishing allows us to be in many locations. For example, the house in Vermont operates on a monthly basis, and it’s about bringing people together. So that same model, we can do it in Mexico, we can do it in Guatemala, we can do it in Peru, and be able to spend time in different places, connect to different cultures, and invite people to be part of it as well.”
• Celeste Coverage on Eater Boston [EBOS]