Making it to Middle Age
The history of Boston's Harvest restaurant is crowded with chefs who have gone on to do remarkable things, with prominent names such as James Beard winners Barbara Lynch and Chris Schlesinger among its ranks.
For it’s 40th year, the iconic neighborhood restaurant is celebrating this storied history with a tasting menu inspired by its past chefs’ favorite dishes. The classic dishes are then tweaked by current executive chef Tyler Kinnett and executive pastry chef Brian Mercury.
“The special menu is a great instrument to share not just with customers but with our staff at the restaurant,” says Harvest’s vice president, Chris Himmel. “Most of the people who work there understand the restaurant has a great history, but they don’t necessarily know the details of what it is, so it’s great to be able to energize them by sharing what makes it so special.”
So after 40 years of MVP chefs (including Bob Kinkead, Eric Brennan, Sara Moutlon—the list goes on), one has to wonder what it is about this Harvard Square hotspot that both attracts and turns out such exceptional talent, year after year.
The answer seems to lie in the culture of teambuilding and the cultivation of creative independence.
For starters, Harvest relies on digging deeper during the hiring process.
“Harvest is a small enough restaurant that we’re not going to go out and find a chef who’s already at the pinnacle of their career,” Himmel says. “We have to find the next great generation of chefs, and that means we really look deeply into the person we’re hiring and get to know them and what makes them passionate about the business.”
To steal a quote from Danny Meyer, Himmel says he “hires the individual over the professional”—seeking potential, not just an impressive resume.
After playing this delicate chess game of positioning each individual to create a winning team, Harvest then provides the structure to not only learn the basics of the business, but also opportunities for growth through creative freedom.
For instance, tasting menus aren’t just something the restaurant does to celebrate special occasions.
Harvest offers six-course tasting menus throughout the year in addition to its regular offerings. Uniquely, individual sous chefs spearhead these special menus, allowing them a chance to participate in the creative process while still having the safety net of an executive chef’s help and direction.
In this way, cooks at Harvest are allowed to flex their culinary muscles, find their own style, and do so in an environment that encourages personal growth and values each employee’s individual strengths, beyond just their ability to perform day-to-day tasks.
Harvest’s current executive chef is a prime example of the restaurant’s nearly uncanny ability to recognize and grow talent.
Tyler Kinnett joined the team at Harvest in his early 20’s, and had an opportunity to help craft a tasting menu as a sous chef. After a brief sabbatical at Chicago’s Publican, he returned to Harvest with even more culinary zeal.
Recognizing this, the team decided to send him to do a stint at Per Se, Thomas Keller’s famed New York City location, and he returning with a greater level of sophistication and creativity—signaling to Himmel that it was time to take a chance and promote him from sous chef to executive chef.
Now, Kinnett has nine months under his belt working with an almost entirely new group of sous chefs and line cooks, with a goal of running the kitchen up to Michelin-3-star standards.
Somehow, with the support of its wide network of now-famous chefs, its seasoned team members, and an experienced pastry chef, the kitchen staff has fused into a powerhouse culinary team.
Even beyond creating a space to cultivate talent in the kitchen, Harvest has managed to stay strong over such a long lifespan by maintaining its focus on the local community.
“It’s always at its heart maintained that it’s a neighborhood restaurant,” Himmel says. “We’re nothing without our local following, and we make it a point not to be stiff or overly formal.”
He adds that the neighborhood mentality also applies to the price point—“Even in our area, the quality of food you’re getting from our chefs could cost over $100 per person, but we want to honor our guests and stay approachable by offering it more affordably.”
So, at the crux, it seems as though Harvest’s success comes down to its emphasis on community: both within the kitchen and within the Cambridge community.
As Harvest takes a moment to celebrate its already storied history, foodies and restaurateurs will continue to watch out for what the next chapter will bring—whether it be the next great American chef, simply more happy customers, or a satisfying combination of the two.
By Emily Byrd