Culinary Roots: The Full Conversation

Web Exclusive: Culinary Roots, the Full Conversation Between Lynne Curry '87 and Marc Sheehan '07

Lynne: And we are rolling.

Marc: When we were opening the restaurant, we were thinking a lot about what to call the style of food we were going to try to do, what to call the type of restaurant. A lot of people say like, oh, this is a new American restaurant or modern American cuisine and those words are very hollow. The term we focused on was East Coast revival and I think that word revival is kind of the key point. It’s trying to revive and bring back to the forefront what actual food in New England was. It wasn't just the recipes, it wasn't just the dishes that people were eating, it was the ingredients, it was the way of purchasing them, it was knowing who produced the food that you're about to eat.

And, you know, for whatever reason and there are a lot of factors, but in New England we were the first region to sort of abandon our true culinary heritage and how we sourced our product. And as things have started to change, we've been the last people to try to really revive it, to recapture it. You know, we're probably one of the last areas of the country to start to bring farmers markets to the area where, on the West Coast or in the South, they either never went away or they started to come back 30, 40 years ago.

Lynne: You see this happening in other regions of the country. The Southern Foodways Alliance is this real rediscovery of heritage southern foods. How much has that inspired what you're doing with the New England revival. You’ve coined that term, in fact.

Marc: I appreciate you saying that. It’s not like I' m creating this stuff or I'm making it up. It's that this is what the food was. And it's to try to make it so that people hopefully recognize that this is what people were eating, this is what either their ancestors were eating or just people who had lived in this region once considered to be dinner. And for whatever reason, we lost that. To me that's kind of sad.

If you go to other parts of the country, you can have people talk to their grandparents about what they cook and they're still making that for their kids today. Whereas when you are in most homes in the New England area, that isn't necessarily the case. It still exists in some pockets, but for the most part we sort of lost our way when it came to how we organized our food system here a little bit.

Lynne: One of the things I think about is food as social history. We were both history majors, and I was reflecting that I had that first “aha moment” in terms of food as a relevant and legitimate part of our history when I was taking a European history course with Professor Theresa McBride. What people ate, how they were getting their food and who was getting which food, these were all a significant part of the history of what was going on politically. Was there any particular point in time when you had a similar sort of trigger in terms of the role of food in our history?

Marc: It’s funny that you can remember the exact moment, class and professor, because I had the exact same thing. I was taking Colonial American history with Professor Ross Beales, it was my senior year, and I knew I wanted to cook, so I was always sort of on the lookout for stuff involving food. I was going through a database, and I found a document written by Benjamin Rush, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, to Thomas Jefferson, who at the time was secretary of state. It was a study on the maple syrup industry in Vermont, and how the United States could sort of expand and exploit the already existing maple syrup industry economically. So it was basically just a study on the economics of maple syrup. And right at the end of the document, Rush, who was a noted abolitionist, just threw in this bit about how if we could increase maple syrup production we could phase out all West Indian sugar from the new United States and therefore eradicate the slave trade. You know, he used some term like, “that miserable enterprise.” And it was just something that struck me, that you had this interconnectivity between early abolitionists, two people at the highest levels of government talking about this, and it was being brought up over maple syrup. And that was the first moment for me where I thought, there has to be more of this, there has to be more to the story, as well as probably some delicious foods.

Lynne: I’m curious about your menu. I've read that it focuses on the 18th and 19th century? What in particular about that time period prompted you to focus Loyal Nine on that era. Was it the historical event or was it ingredients, techniques?

Marc: A lot of it has to do with the fact that the 18th and 19th centuries are what I consider to be the purest form of food that existed in this area. When Europeans arrived in New England, they had a settling in period. They had to sort of figure out what was growing here and what they could grow here that they brought with them, and it took a while for the cuisine to develop. Prior to that, it was more of cooking to survive. But once the region flourished a little bit, people started to develop recipes and things were passed down from one generation to the next.

Then, around the era of the Civil War, you had this thing called the Colonial Revival. It was a moment where the country was starting to break apart. People were trying to develop a sense of what it meant to be American as opposed to be a southerner, be a northerner, that type of thing. And the one lasting impression that we have of it is Thanksgiving. People started to create this sense of what the Pilgrims experienced that really is a little bit more romantic than it is historically accurate. And that happened to the food, too. There was more sugar getting put into recipes, more fat going into them than had ever existed. People focused on ingredients that were a little bit more expensive or luxurious because, at that time, they were more plentiful than they were in the early 18th, 19th century. More recipes focused on things like cod and striped bass and less on mackerel and eel. So for me, it’s the things like mackerel and eel that give more opportunities to create something a little more interesting culinarily than, you know, using fish that is overfished, that is, on the brink of being eradicated and, to a certain extent, a little bit more boring flavor-wise.

Lynne: So you’re dealing with both current sustainability issues but also bringing back fish that are less appreciated culinarily. We historians, we love this stuff, but speaking to a public audience through the medium of a restaurant, how did you think this was going to resonate with people and not just be interesting, archaic information?

Marc: You know, we’ve been open a year and a half, so it’s still something that’s very much a work in progress. With anything where you’re trying to do something different, particularly with food, you always have to factor in that, one, someone has to choose to buy this and, two, that they’re going to put it in their mouth. If you can’t make it sound appetizing and be delicious once they eat it, what’s the point of me trying to make some statement if ultimately you’re not going to have a good dish? We’ve put some stuff out there that hasn’t really resonated with guests and as a result we’ve changed course a little bit at times. Usually it’s more like a dish here, a dish there, rather than a grand sweeping fault.

When you started cooking, was there anything that you were testing that didn’t work or a dish that wasn’t super popular? Did you run in to any resistance to it and, as a result, did you try to force it or work on it?

Lynne: I think part of what you’re doing through a restaurant—or, if you’re writing, as I do—is educating people. You want to inform them of something and they are looking for an experience. So I think you can play with that but only within reason, right? For example, I live in a very rural area, and one of our opening items on our menu was a roasted beef sandwich with homemade ricotta and nettle pesto. I love wild foods. And nettles are just a weed, a stinging weed that grows all over the place. But it was a resounding success and became a sandwich we couldn’t change. That doesn’t exactly answer your question, but sometimes people really go for it in a way that surprises you and then suddenly you can’t deviate from that at all. Which is kind of the flip side of the coin when you introduce a new food to people.

There wasn't anything that, off the top of my head, that was an outright rejection, in large part because I think people are ready for this now. I' m guessing that's what you're seeing too, that there is an openness to the hybrid-regional cuisine that you're offering.

Marc: For the most part, people are coming in with an open mind and they’re willing to try things. We do a dish, a soused bluefish, that has been on the menu since we opened. So it is pickled bluefish. It is raw, uncooked and never sees heat. We submerge it in pickling brine for about an hour and a half, which is a very traditional method of preserving fish.

Normally, you would fully pickle the fish, you' d put it in barrels, it would last months, type of thing. You still see it a lot with pickled herring and pickled mackerel. One of the reasons we chose bluefish is because, for the most part around New England, if you ask people about bluefish it's 50/50. It's either, “I love it,” or “It's disgusting, I hate bluefish, it's too fishy.” People either get really crappy bluefish that' s been caught poorly, not properly bled on a boat and then stored improperly. Or they're overcooking it. All of those things lead to fishy-tasting bluefish. My favorite way to eat bluefish is raw, because you taste the fish the most, you taste the characteristics of it. It's cleaner and, if you're not overcooking it, you're getting pristine fish. You're never going to deal with something that is going to give you an off flavor.

So we pickle it very quickly, thinly slice it. We serve it on toasted brown bread with cultured cream that we season with a lot of freshly grated horseradish and we garnish it with radishes. And it was one of those things that I thought, this is too out there, having this like molassesy raisony bread going with pickled raw bluefish. People aren’t going to go for it, and it is a dish for me, not for guests. But it is one of our biggest successes. It’s something that people have come to associate with the restaurant and it sells like crazy. And now it’s something that we’ll never be able to take off the menu.

On the other side, we did a dish with this old seasoning element called mushroom ketchup, where we had this rich, acidic, mushroom-like juice that we were folding into a mushroom purée with roasted mushrooms, serving it on toast with braised conch. And it was something that people just did not like. And as proud of it as we were, as historically relevant as the technique was, it just didn’t work. So we can re-approach it at some point, maybe try to fix it, do some tweaks to it, but, you know, we’ve made the decision of, well, if people don’t like it, let’s not serve it. I’m not going to teach anyone anything by serving them something that they don’t want to actually eat.

Lynne: Absolutely.

Marc: For us, that’s where the balance is: finding those dishes that make a point and are ultimately delicious.

Lynne: I’ve written a couple of opinionated articles about chowder. But I read that some iconic foods, chowder and baked beans and Indian pudding … are not going to be on your menu. Can you talk about why?

Marc: If you come to Boston and you want to eat chowder, you have a thousand options. And so the initial decision [at Loyal Nine] was if you want to come eat something that’s not chowder, come to our restaurant. The other reason for it is if you go back and you look at some of the history of chowder, it wasn’t originally what a lot of us think of as clam chowder. It developed into a dish that we know today as salt pork, onion, potatoes, fish or clam stock, fish or clams and some sort of crackers. A lot of times people will thicken their chowder with a roux or they’ll allow the potatoes to cook in it so that the starch from the potatoes thickens it. But initially you had things like cracker meal being ground up and put into the chowder so you had something that was more akin to a porridge. Oftentimes they didn’t contain any dairy because dairy was expensive or not available.

The first chowder recipe that I could find is from the 1630s and it was called chouder, C-H-O-U-D-E-R. And it was striped bass that was seared in rendered salt pork and as the fish was searing, you deglazed it with water and put installments of water, basically so that the fish would give out its own juices. And then you would stir ground up hardtack crackers into it to thicken up those juices and then it’s served with pickled apples and pickled mangos. And that just in no way resembles the chowder that we think of.

So, I just kind of looked at it as there are so many other dishes, so many other ingredients, so many other things that people aren’t aware of in New England food, that I was going to make the decision that we’re not going to do our own chowder. You know, to make that decision that this is what I think a New England chowder is, I don’t know if I’m quite there yet.

Lynne: I think it's like trying to find the perfect pizza. It's in people's mind.

Marc: Yeah, it’s a preference thing. So much of food is just personal preference. I will agree that you shouldn’t put bacon in chowder.

Lynne: No bacon, but salt pork.

Those are great examples. I wanted to delve a little bit into your research methods, because I still use the skills I learned in history at Holy Cross to do any kind of article I’m writing. And clearly what you’re doing takes a phenomenal amount of research, so I’m really curious about what kind of methods you are using to create these dishes.

Marc: I don’t know if anyone has ever asked me that … The great benefit of Holy Cross—and I’ve said this to a lot of people who asked me, “Why did you go to college prior to going to culinary school if you always knew you wanted to cook?”—is that it teaches you to think. It teaches you how to take a small piece of information, distill it and extrapolate on it. That’s the method by which I approach putting dishes together. If bluefish is coming in to season and I want to use that, I go through different sources, whether they’re primary or secondary sources, and find out what bluefish was served with, why it was served that way. Why did some people wrap the entire fish in salt pork and bake it? What did they want it to taste like? And then I take all that information and turn it into a plate of food.

You know, on your end, I’m sure you’re dealing with the balance between writing as well as cooking. I’ve never personally had to cook something and then go write about it. Usually I can just cook it, give it to a guest and it’s over with. They eat it, they tell me if it was good and then we do it a couple hundred more times. I’d be interested to know what that process is like.

Lynne: Well, when you do a cookbook, you will! It’s not that dissimilar, except that I don’t have the feedback that you’re getting through serving it to your guests night after night and training a cook to replicate it exactly the way you want it.

But it’s funny, because I start from the exact same place you do. I generally am looking at something seasonal or a local ingredient and I start with that and I kind of do a 360 and start to examine it from all those perspectives of what can be done with it. What can I apply to it in terms of technique? What direction do I want to take it, sweet, savory, spicy? And then it’s just a matter of, I have a recipe that I’ve drafted and I cook and I mark it up and it’s a big, old messy piece of paper, splattered with food by the time I’m done.

When I did my cookbook-- I did a grass-fed beef cookbook--I did that three or four times over for every recipe. So I think the process from conception and the research phase of any particular recipe to execution is really pretty similar to both of us.

Marc: Do you feel that the liberal arts background has contributed to that [research method], or do you feel like more specifically a background in history helped you? Because for me personally, in accumulating information, then having to write about it and form an opinion, you’re doing history studies. It’s basically the same thing when I’m putting food together: I’m having to compile a tremendous amount of information if I then want my result to be something original, it’s not that I’m just finding a recipe in another chef’s cookbook.

Lynne: I wouldn’t be doing this without the English classes I took, where you couldn’t turn in a paper that just was a series of your note cards–because back in my day we were still writing footnotes on our index cards and then amassing that into our term paper. You have to be both a critical thinker and a skeptical thinker even more nowadays, with the access to different source information we have, thinking about where it comes from and then doing a lot of interpretive thinking of your own to create something that’s your own idea. And it’s similar in that I’m guessing you feel like a dish is never completely finished, and they say writing is never finished.

Marc: The good thing with food is, you have the next time you plate that dish, the next time you cook it. The next day you can always be tweaking it, you can always be improving it.

Lynne: What type of ingredients are you interested or researching right now?

Marc: One of the things that I think will be a constant project for us is developing a pantry that we use to season our food. If I go and I read on a menu, pork chop with fermented turnips, the word fermented doesn't really get my stomach growling too much, as much as I like doing it or eating it. So one of the things that we try to do i use stuff like that as methods of seasoning, because that' s how people were cooking in New England. Like the mushroom ketchup I mentioned. It was effectively soy sauce of early, early New England. But it was how people seasoned food. Because it packed a big umami punch, because it also had acidity, they were using it at the beginning of their cooking process, at the end of their cooking process for different reasons. So we play around with those extracts. We have somefermented mushroom juice that we squirt into a dish of steel quinoa as its cooking for a little splash of intensity.

We make this stuff called Leicestershire sauce, which is my version of a Worcestershire-like condiment that was made in Boston and was called Leicester sauce. I don't have an exact recipe for it, so I call it Leicestershire sauce because it' s based off of Worcestershire sauce.

But that is the stuff that is longer-term projects that you need a few months or even sometimes year to really get going. We’re working on a lot of charcuterie right now and trying to take some European technique and meld that with the stuff we’ve read about how pork was preserved in New England. We’re trying to create stuff that has a bit of a unique approach to this area.

We’re also going to farmers markets every day, so some of the stuff that we're excited about it changes by the hour. We're at the fish pier in Boston every morning, too, so it's something where we're always on the lookout for like the one bonito a year that we get.

Lynne: I saw that on your site.

Marc: Yeah, and it's something where, for example,  last year we got one, we got one in this year, and we're constantly hounding them to maybe make this year the year we get two of them, that type of thing. I’m sure you’ve had the same experience in the Northwest, but there are all these micro-seasons or things that come in to the market for a day because someone only grew a very small planting of it. That’s what you want to work with that day. You always have to worry about your long-term things, but then there is the momentary excitement of, “Oh, there are fennel flowers today, we’ve got to do something with those.”

Lynne: Exactly.

You cooked for the chaplains’ office at Holy Cross, right?

Marc: Yep. I worked there for three years.

Lynne: Taking yourself back there, could you have predicted this career path? Clearly you wanted to be cooking, and here you are with a restaurant that’s getting tons of attention, tons of accolades, with one of the most novel concepts I’ve heard of in quite a long time. So how do you reflect upon the trajectory your career has taken?

Marc: The chaplains’ office … when it came about, it was kind of the perfect thing, because I didn’t do a ton of extracurriculars, because I was sitting in my room reading cookbooks, basically. It [the cooking job] gave me a chance to cook whatever I wanted to. The head chaplain at the time, Kim McElaney, who has since passed away … sorry, I’m getting a little choked up talking about her … had a great influence on me in encouraging me to pursue this. We talked earlier about how this isn’t a common career path for people who go to a school like Holy Cross. And, you know, she was so excited about the fact that this is what I wanted to do that it made me start to look at it like something that I shouldn’t be afraid to discuss.

Actually in my apartment, I’m looking at it right now, I have the final menu that I cooked at Holy Cross framed on my wall. Kim had it framed and gave it to me. My parents, Fr. McFarland (former College president Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J.,) Stephanie Yuhl, who was a history professor at the time (now director of the Montserrat program), all came to the dinner. It was five hors d’oeuvres to start, and then it was 11 courses with wine pairing. And if you look at that menu, there are a lot of dishes or ingredients or techniques that are on the menu at Loyal Nine. That was the beginning of me starting to think about the concept and trying to figure out a way to put some of these ideas onto the plate.

So it’s something that I look at pretty much daily as a little bit of a reminder of where this journey started.

Lynne: Absolutely. That’s quite a kind of origin story for where you are today and it started, well, that many years ago.

Marc: It’s definitely something I’ve been focused on for a while.

When you were at Holy Cross, were you thinking to yourself, “I need to get into the food world?”  Or is it something that happened later, that your time at Holy Cross prepared you? And either way, do you look back at Holy Cross and think, I was thinking about this [food] then?

Lynne: I remember my favorite professor was Professor Green; he was amazing, he was my mentor. And I remember going to him to get a recommendation for the job I got at Elle Magazine. I wanted to work at that magazine because I was a Francophile and I loved the culture and I wanted to write. And I went to him because I think I wanted his blessing that it was going to be ok to take a little less traditional path, in terms of my history degree.

I’ve always been obsessed with food and I come from a food-loving family like you do. It took a little bit longer for me, because I graduated 20 years before you, for it to be legitimized and for me to say, ok, I can take my education master’s degree, my history major and my culinary school training and I can craft a career that builds on all three of those elements.

In a way these are sort of “follow your bliss” stories, right?  You used your liberal arts, Jesuit education to follow your bliss and create an endeavor that’s completely new.

If you didn't stay in New England, is there another region or another time period of history that you can see yourself being as absorbed in as you currently are with Colonial revival?

Marc: Even looking at my old Holy Cross menu, my initial plan had been to go to northern Italy. I wanted to go to Ventao and Friuli and cook this darker, cooler climate Italian food. I wanted to go to culinary school, work in New York for a few years, then move back home and save some money to go over to Italy. I wanted to disappear into the mountains and come back to Boston with this wealth of knowledge of products that could grow here. Like I could grow purple artichokes here in Boston because they grew in the mountains in Italy. I wanted to start cooking that style of food in Boston using local products. That was my goal when I was 17, 18 years old.

And then when I was at Holy Cross, I started to find all this stuff while studying American history. My last name is Sheehan, I'm from the South Shore of Massachusetts, there is maybe one Italian member of my family. The most Italian food we grew up eating was like Prince spaghetti with Prego pasta sauce on it. Why do I want to go do this when there is a part of myself that's connected to this other food history that's from this area. It eventually led me to abandon the Italian plan.

But I think if I had ultimately moved away or maybe I had gone to school somewhere else, I probably would have found myself in the hills of Italy and would be making pasta right now.

Lynne: It's interesting that our conversation has come full circle to where you kicked it off, talking about heritage and discovery, learning about heritage that's kind of been passed over or discounted in the past. And you simply started asking these questions and look at where it leads.

Marc: For me, I love having conversations with people about food, what they ate growing up. It’s a little bit like you said, how you graduated from Holy Cross 20 years before I did, grew up eating finnan haddie. Then, less than a generation later, and I had never heard of it. Maybe if repopularizing some of this stuff, talking about it, discovering it and putting it out there on the restaurant menu means that more people start eating it and it becomes a part of their food memory, then maybe I’ve accomplished something beyond starting a business.

It’s an interesting thing. You talk about food with people and not only are you going to run across great commonalities and shared experiences, but you’re also probably going to discover something brand new that you never knew about.

Lynne: Absolutely. Well, Marc, I could talk to you for a really long time, but I have just one more question for you. What do you like to eat while reading Holy Cross Magazine?

Marc: As a result of my working hours, I have a pretty terrible diet. So generally, if I 'm going to sit down to read Holy Cross Magazine, I'm probably having a sandwich, because it's a self-contained meal all in something I can hold in my hands. And probably a glass of rosé this time of year.