I didn’t notice my mid-size sedan, Mercy B, being measured as I drove on Monday into the Charles Square Garage, beneath the Charles Hotel, but apparently it was. The first certified green garage in Massachusetts employs nanoMAX(TM) technology, which assigns a lower parking fee to environmentally correct cars; of course, the garage also offers free electric-vehicle charging and bike parking. There’s also a complimentary Tire Inflation Station, but nothing on my dashboard indicated that my tires were soft, which was fortunate, as I was on my way to a luncheon at Harvest, nestled a couple of blocks away along a cozy cobblestone walkway in Harvard Square.
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A cheerful host validated my parking ticket and showed me back to a simple dining room where a warm fire welcomed the two dozen or so foodies gathered for a meal prepared by The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science author Kenji Lopez-Alt and the restaurant’s Chef Tyler Kinnett, along with Executive Pastry Chef Brian Mercury, as part of Harvest’s 40th-anniversary celebration.
Lunch started off promisingly with slow-roasted pumpkin soup, served with dots of yoghurt and smoked apple butter, a sultry side note to the savory fall starter. The chefs delivered on the pledge with spatchcock roast chicken with jus, accompanied by broccoli rabe and Delicata squash, radish & Brussels sprouts, and a green salad with mustard vinaigrette. But the star of the show was the Hasselbeck potato gratin, with its crunchy crust and tender underside. Dessert included vanilla cheesecake, chocolate almond cake, and Keylime custard. But my favorite was the cream puffs with malt mousse and Earl Grey caramel, the tea giving a surprising rich depth to the sweetness of the sugary pastry.
As we feasted on this stellar fare, the three chefs came out of the kitchen. Asked about his unusual name, Kenji Lopez-Alt explained that his mother is Japanese and his father German. “Lopez is my wife’s name,” he noted further. “We both changed our names.”
His magnificent book comprises nearly 1,000 pages aimed at helping non-chefs understand the scientific principles behind cooking. He noted two big mistakes made by home cooks: First, improperly using seasonings, especially salt. And second, failing to understand the difference between temperature and heat. He pointed out that putting your hand in a 212-degree pot of boiling water will scald it immediately, but briefly holding it in an even hotter oven won’t cause any harm. Chef Kinnett added not having a plan. Chef Mercury emphasized the importance of quality ingredients, noting that he and his wife are committed to buying organic foods.
The discussion at our table focussed on trends affecting the restaurant industry. Consensus among the dozen foodies was that the celebrity-chef culture and general “presumptuousness” of millennials have left culinary grads feeling entitled to become chefs within six months, rather than the historic standard of closer to ten years. This dynamic contributes to a shortage of sous chefs and line cooks. Harvest owner Himmel Hospitality Group’s executive vice president Chris Himmel discussed his company’s desire to pay higher wages and offer more comfortable work schedules. But he acknowledged that doing so would likely require raising prices. That could backfire by leading customers to eat out less frequently, which might reduce restaurant jobs and wages. “It’s gonna get a lot more expensive to eat out over the next five years,” he allowed.
I digested all this good food and bad news while walking back to the garage in the cool crisp Autumn air. Clearly Mercy B didn’t merit the small-car discount, as my parking fee with the validation came to $23. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.