Who cooks & eats here: Chef and author Barton Seaver and his wife Carrie Anne
Where: Jamaica Plain, Boston
Rent or Own? Rent
In August I spent seven days sailing around Alaska with a crew of fellow food writers, photographers, and chefs, one of whom was Barton Seaver. Barton is an accomplished chef, two-time cookbook author, and National Geographic fellow currently serving as the director of the Healthy and Sustainable Food program at Harvard's School of Public Health — and, as it turns out, my neighbor! (We live five blocks away from each other in Boston.)
He was gracious enough to let me check out his rental apartment kitchen, where I discovered oak barrels full of aged vinegar (his newest hobby), jars of bourbon cherries and preserved lemons, well-loved appliances handed down from his grandmother, and a way of working that's all about the proper setup.
Five years ago Barton was the executive chef of two different restaurants — Hook, then later Blue Ridge — in Washington, D.C. and working incredibly long hours (a life he does not miss, he tells me). Since selling his restaurants, he's focused on writing, speaking, and championing sustainable seafood. This new life has also afforded him more time to cook at home in the rental apartment he and his wife Carrie Anne have lived in for the last 10 months.
Upon entering the kitchen, I immediately knew this was no ordinary rental kitchen: tin ceilings, spot lighting, a built-in wine fridge, and large gas stove all make for a renter's dream, and a great place for a chef. Barton isn't shy about saying that the kitchen is what sold him on the apartment, but he's still made adjustments to suit his style: it's a relatively dark room, so he installed under-cabinet lights; he also built the kitchen island where he stores all his pots and pans, put a trash can near the stove for easy access (despite a pull-out trash in one of the cabinets on the far-side of the kitchen), and organized all the drawers and cupboards so everything essential is easily within reach... which is his whole kitchen philosophy — a philosophy that goes back to his restaurant days. As he tells me:
One of the things I did in restaurants is when I had new cooks working at particular station, I would draw an 'X' on the floor in tape... and while you were manning the station, your left foot, say, could not leave that tile. So if your station was set up so that you had to move that foot, your station isn't set up properly.
He goes on:
Work flow is as much about your physical presence as it is how you set stuff up. So, don't set up your kitchen and then figure out the work flow. Set yourself and then put everything you need where you can reach it.
To that end, Barton organizes his kitchen in order of operation: right by the stove he's got his spices, knives, and a utensil jar full of his most-used "reach and grab" tools, then he's got drawers for "secondary use" (kitchen shears, fish pliers, can opener, oyster knives) and "tertiary use" tools (ladles, citrus, whisks, mandolin). He also keeps a drawer full of bar mop towels, which we told you about before!
He cooks everything in olive oil (he'll buy six 101-fluid-ounce tins of this Cento extra virgin olive oil at a time, and use them all within six months), and keeps an impressive collection of vinegars, which he picks up on his travels or whenever he finds an interesting bottle. "Acid is key," he says. "You want balance in food, so if you've got something that's got a sweetness to it, you really want to balance it out with a punch of vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice." He also likes to keep a variety of chiles, and buys most of his spices from the bulk bins at health food stores.
But the most impressive part of his kitchen, in my view? His collection of preserved goods, all of which he's made himself. This includes salt-preserved lemons with cinnamon and black pepper (which he and Carrie Anne plan to give to friends as Christmas gifts), bourbon cherries ("an adult's dessert"), a few bottles of vanilla-infused bourbon, and two oak barrels full of vinegar, which he's been aging for the last 10 months.
What does he do with preserved lemons, you ask? Make lemon-infused olive oil! After three months he'll cut off the flesh and put just the rind in a jar with olive oil, which he'll keep in the fridge for months. Then whenever he wants, he'll scoop out a spoonful or two. "Talk about a quick vinaigrette," he says.
And those bourbon cherries? They make a wicked ice cream topping, or an interesting take on a Manhattan when combined with regular bourbon, a quick float of Scotch to add smoke, and dash of dry vermouth.
Want to make your own bourbon cherries? Follow Barton's advice:
- Get a jar and a bunch of cherries. Now's the time to buy them!
- Wash and de-stem the cherries, separating out any that are bruised. ("You need pretty much perfect fruit," Barton says.)
- Put the cherries in a jar and add bourbon. Play around if you want by adding a cinnamon stick or a little orange zest.
- That's it! The longer you wait, the more intense they'll be.
10 Questions for Barton (and His Kitchen)
1. What inspires your kitchen and your cooking?
I remember well the nights I spent in the kitchen with my parents—which was essentially every night of the week when I was growing up. Food was the formula through which we came together as a family. The dinners of my youth were always pretty simple. Fresh vegetables simply cooked and seasoned. Diverse proteins sautéed or roasted. We were a part of the process of shopping, cooking, communing, cleaning and so today my kitchen represents just that, a retreat at the center of our busy lives.
2. What is your favorite kitchen tool or element?
I love the hand-me-down appliances that my grandmother gave to me. She no longer cooks and hasn't for many years now. She gave me her Robot-Coupe, her KitchenAid mixer, and a number of pots. It's very special to be able to cook with the same tools that she used for so many years. It can be a little tough to find parts for such aged models, though.
3. What's the most memorable meal you've ever cooked in this kitchen?
We've been fortunate to have a number of distinguished guests dine at our house since moving to Boston. I can't say that one meal stands above the rest as we have so blessed by the company of new friends and colleagues. It is very flattering that such busy and accomplished professionals would accept an invitation to our home, but that is one of the great benefits of being a chef—people tend to take you up on the offer of a meal.
4. The biggest challenge in your kitchen:
I think that the kitchen is dark. I like my kitchen to be flooded in light. But the location on the back corner of our house limits the number of windows we can have. And the ceiling lights can only do so much to feed my desire for a bright work space.
5. Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
I wish that I had read the directions on how to put the kitchen island together. Of course, being stubborn I just went for it and it didn't quite turn out as it was supposed to. It's level, and that's a good start. But the wheels never made it on, and the whole process was far more frustrating than it needed to be.
6. Biggest indulgence or splurge in the kitchen:
I recently bought a Smoking Gun from Williams-Sonoma. I am a huge fan of the flavors presented in the smoke of various woods and I use it often in my cooking. In my hometown of DC I could cook outside all year round. It would be cold, for sure, but doable. When we moved to Boston we were immediately greeted with a couple of feet of snow. I really like cooking outside in cooler weather, but that is dependent upon my ability to find my grill which is hard to do when it's buried three feet deep in white. So I bought the Smoking Gun which is a tool that burns a very small amounts of wood shavings to create a directed smoke that can be used to flavor cooked foods simply by trapping the smoke in a bowl with the food under plastic wrap. It's a little bit of a ridiculous thing to have a substitute for a grill, but I really like it and it is a very effective tool.
7. Is there anything you hope to add or improve in your kitchen?
I would love to have a bigger freezer. We eat a lot of seafood and I tend to buy it frozen in large quantity. Frozen seafood can be just as good quality as fresh, if not better. And when purchased in bulk, this super convenient ingredient can take up a bit of space. We make stocks and soups in large batches so that we can easily pull from the freezer on busy nights and this can be a challenge to find room for with all the seafood.
8. How would you describe your cooking style?
My kitchen is essentially a well-stocked pantry. I focus on putting ingredients first, highlighting simple yet expressive flavors. More often than not my dishes are just two, maybe three flavors such as chicken breasts rubbed with fennel seed and topped with thin slices of preserved lemon. Such simple cooking is possible because we have a lot of these accent ingredients. Most of them I make myself, such as the preserved lemons, spice mixes, infused oils and vinegars, etc... It is convenient to be able to reach for these ingredients when in a rush. But when I have the time to dedicate to the task, making these pantry items is a fun and relaxing way to spend a few hours.
9. Best cooking advice or tip you ever received:
Keep it simple. I don't know if I heard this from anyone in particular or if I learned it out of necessity. Most cooks tend to think that more is better, fancier is always tastier. But this is rarely true. The best food is food that you enjoy. And if you don't enjoy the process of making the food because there are too many variables, ingredients, steps, pots, pans......whatever, then you are not going to enjoy the food as much. The simpler the food, the better the meal and the easier the clean up. And this incentivizes you to buy really good fresh food at your local farmer's market or specialty store because great ingredients do most of the work for you.
10. What are you cooking this week?
My wife was out of town and so I was able to splurge a bit on some dishes that she doesn't eat. One of my favorite dishes is the mac and cheese that my father taught me to make. But my wife doesn't eat much dairy and so I tend not to make this very often. Not that I am upset about this because it is not the leanest of foods—a béchamel based sauce with a laughable amount of white cheddar cheese. It's for the best that I don't eat this very often. I'm also going to get out to the grill to take advantage of the stunning autumn weather here in NE. It's a nice way to spend an evening with a warm sweater on standing next to a hot grill with a glass of brandy-spiked mulled cider in hand.
Resources of Note:
I shop at Asian and Latino markets as I tend to use things like citrus in large quantities. Often I find lemons 10 for a dollar at stores such as these and when I'm doing a big batch of preserved lemons or rum-cured limes it saves me a lot of money. Plus the fruit tends to be riper and more flavorful.
I really like the Le Creuset cookware. I splurged and spent a bunch of money on a bunch of cookware. I justified the purchase by he fact that I will likely pass these pieces on to my children, so ultimately they are a great value.
Buy Barton's cookbooks on Amazon→
Thank you so much for letting us peek into your kitchen!
Share your own kitchen renovation or improvement!
We're always looking for real kitchens from real cooks.
Show us your kitchen here!
(Image credits: Cambria Bold)