A Lordly Harvest

I didn’t notice my silver sedan 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.

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, the tuber slices baked upright, giving them a crunchy crust while letting them cook tender underneath.  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 said that the two biggest mistakes made by home cooks are failing to understand the difference between temperature and heat–noting that putting your hand in a 212-degree pot of boiling water will scald it immediately, while briefly holding it in an even hotter oven won’t cause any harm–and improperly using seasonings, especially salt.  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 and can, for example, taste the difference in chickens fed on insects.

The discussion at our table focussed on trends affecting the restaurant industry.  On the subject of the global shortage of sous chefs and line cooks, consensus among the dozen foodies was that the celebrity-chef culture and general “presumptuousness” of millennials have created a climate where students graduate from culinary schools feeling entitled to become chefs within six months, rather than the historic standard of closer to ten years.  On the issues of wages and tipping and work-life balance, Harvest owner Himmel Hospitality Group’s executive vice president Chris Himmel described his company’s desire to pay higher wages and offer more comfortable work schedules, but acknowledged that doing so would likely require raising prices, potentially backfiring by leading customers to eat out less frequently, thus suppressing restaurant jobs and wages.  “It’s gonna get a lot more expensive to eat 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 my mid-size sedan 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.

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