Michael Serpa Talks His New Restaurant, SELECT Oyster Bar

The chef opens up about his departure from Neptune Oyster, settling in Back Bay, and the vision for his first solo venture.
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Chef Michael Serpa. Photo by James Rose

For almost seven years, Michael Serpa has worked hand in hand with owner Jeff Nace at Neptune Oyster, making the North End restaurant, not only a can’t-miss seafood spot, but one of the city’s proudest culinary destinations. There’s no evidence of that changing any time soon, but starting later this month, Nace will be forced to do so without the input and expertise of his longtime executive chef. Serpa and his wife Lina Velez, herself a 9-year veteran of Neptune, will be opening their first restaurant in Back Bay. In an exclusive interview, Serpa discusses his emotional departure from Neptune, his family’s long lineage in the restaurant world, and the casual neighborhood vibe behind his first independent venture, SELECT Oyster Bar.

 

How long has SELECT Oyster Bar been in the works?

I grew up in a restaurant family. My grandfather, dad, and uncles— in some capacity—have all been in the food and restaurant world my entire life. Since I started to work full time in restaurants, I’ve always had that “treat it like it’s yours” attitude. I think any ambitious cook coming up has an idea to open their own restaurant eventually. I feel like I’ve been in restaurants long enough, have a good enough grasp on how to run a kitchen, and more importantly, understand what hospitality is and how to offer it in a meaningful way. So short answer: for a little while.

What made this the right time to step away from Neptune and start your own place?
I have loved working at Neptune. The Naces are like family to me. The staff is a collection of my best friends. The kitchen crew is super tight and I have been lucky to have them on board for a long time. I met my wife, Lina, while we both worked there. I couldn’t have asked for a better setup than working at Neptune, but I think it’s time to continue challenging myself and I think our new spot will get me out of my comfort zone. When you work at a place long enough you get really efficient at your job. I want to feel that pressure of the unknown again.

With other seafood/oyster restaurants (B&G Oysters, Island Creek Oyster Bar) not far from your future location, how will you differentiate yourself?
We are just going to do what we do and hope that it makes people happy. Some people think that the seafood restaurants, or restaurants in general, are “competition.” But the Boston restaurant community is so supportive and welcoming. Restaurants are by nature unique. I think Boston is one of the best places to work in restaurants, especially for a chef. The more great restaurants the better, in my opinion. We are just trying to be a neighborhood seafood joint. I want to showcase New England seafood, do it in a casual atmosphere, and provide great, genuine service.

Are the dishes on SELECT’s menu ones you’ve been perfecting over time? Will you be taking anything with you from Neptune?
I think I have figured out my style of cooking at this point. Most dishes are a diminishing product in my mind. You make them, you love them for a while, and then you get tired of them and say “Ciao.” Signature dishes and dishes you are known for are kind of like a marriage; you’re in it for the long haul. You don’t get to decide what these dishes are, your guests do.

In terms of taking dishes from Neptune, that would be pretty boring. Neptune has its really good dishes and I would never think of putting those on my menu out of respect for Jeff and Kelli. I think that would be in bad taste and not really challenging myself as far as being creative and pushing myself.

What will the interior and overall atmosphere look like? 
It’ll be a cozy little spot with good tunes and a very personal feel. No $10,000 chandelier has ever made the fish taste better.

Will there be a separate bar or late night menu?
Nope.

Why was Back Bay the ideal location for your first restaurant? Were you targeting something in that area all along?
Back Bay is one of the coolest spots in Boston. How many streets in the country can compare to Comm Ave. between the Common and Mass Ave.? There is so much history in the area, amazing architecture, great shopping, tons of residents in and near Back Bay. There’s just a lot going on. I just like hanging in the area and walking around. But I’ve also always felt the area has been underserved in terms of neighborhood restaurants— a quality place you can pop in any night of the week on your way home from work, just to have a bite and a glass of wine.

When do you expect to open?
Late 2014.

What will be your last day at Neptune?
I will be there for the next few weeks. There’s no solid date yet because I’ve been focusing on making sure we have a super smooth transition for Jeff and Kelli. They have been really great to Lina and I, so I want to make sure they are taken care of.

50 Gloucester St., Boston; selectboston.com.


Christopher Hughes Chris Hughes, Food Editor at Boston Magazine chughes@bostonmagazine.com