The Kitchen Spy: Kevin O’Donnell of The Salty Pig
Take a tour through Italy via the chef’s East Cambridge apartment.
In The Kitchen Spy, we visit local restaurant insiders’ home kitchens and force them to open up their fridge, drawers, and cabinets.
If you’ve visited the Back Bay’s The Salty Pig recently, then you’ve undoubtedly noticed a subtle shift from the restaurant’s original “pig parts and pizza” ethos: more delicate, nuanced Italian dishes, like airy ricotta gnudi, or soft, stretchy buratta served with strawberries, rhubarb, and Calabrian chilies now share menu real estate with the crispy, thin-crusted pies and mix-and-match charcuterie boards. This change comes thanks to the arrival of chef Kevin O’Donnell, a North Kingstown, Rhode Island native who wanted to return to New England after cooking his way through New York (at four-star Italian restaurant Del Posto), Paris, and Italy.
O’Donnell’s East Cambridge apartment, which he shares with his girlfriend, reflects his worldly past, with totems to his time spent in Europe. Cooking-wise, the chef mostly keeps it simple at home, but his kitchen will allow more heavy-duty work if he wishes. “It’s open, and there’s a lot of sunlight so you can see what you’re doing,” O’Donnell says. From designer olive oil to pints of Ben & Jerry’s, here’s what he keeps on hand.
Here, some of the food books that O’Donnell relies upon for inspiration.
Clockwise, from left:
1. O’Donnell’s copy of Heat by Marco Pierre White. “He was one of the first chefs in England to get 3 Michelin stars. He has a family, and realized how much of his life he had given up for those stars, and he gave them back to Michelin,” O’Donnell says. “It’s all about balance—that’s the moral of the story. I definitely dedicated a good part of my younger 20′s to cooking, and the same thing happened—I lost friends, lost lovers, lost touch with my family. That balance is necessary.”
2. The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller.
3. Frenchie by Greg Marchand. “On the first day that I moved to Paris, I didn’t know anyone there, and we went to dinner at Frenchie—and Greg Marchand, the chef and owner, came out and talked to me. He was very kind and filled me in on all of his purveyors and which markets to go to, and what other restaurants I should try out. He became a good friend and someone I could count on, and introduced me to lots of people in the industry around Paris.”
Clockwise, from top left: 1. O’Donnell loves making pesto with a mortar and pestle. “The basil tastes different when you cut it a certain way. It’s more work, and more rustic than in a blender,” he says. This particular set was purchased in the Cinque Terre. “It’s a series of towns in Liguria, which is where pesto is famous.” 2. Rolling pins specifically designed to make ravioli (one rolls the pasta dough flat, the other cuts out the shapes), which the chef picked up in Pienza, a town in Tuscany. 3. A duck-skinning knife, which a friend bought back from China as a gift. 4. At the base of this stack is an olive wood cutting board. Next up, a grooved board for hand-rolling gnocchi or cavatelli. On top, a puncher for creating circular ravioli.
Clockwise, from top left: 1.The booze cabinet of sorts. “I am never really home to drink—when I’m drinking, I go out to a bar,” O’Donnell says. When he does imbibe at home, he’s not drinking the Kahlua in the back, but rather craft beer, “nice red wine,” and Scotch. 2. A Belgian-style IPA crafted by The Salty Pig’s GM, Erin Murtagh. “She is a rock star when it comes to infusions of bitters and making beers,” he says. 3. Bacon-maple bourbon, another Murtagh special. 4. Local apple blossom honey, a gift from a chef that O’Donnell worked with at Castle Hill Inn and The Mooring in Rhode Island.
The contents of the freezer: frozen turkey sausage ragu made by O’Donell’s girlfriend (“she does more cooking than I do at home”), slabs of bacon (the chef also freezes rendered bacon fat), and, perhaps most importantly, his and hers Ben & Jerrys (“peanut butter cup is my jam”).
Next up, of course, is the fridge. O’Donnell relies upon spicy French mustard, Sriracha, and pickles as workhorse condiments, while a Sodastream provides endless bottles of sparkling water. In the crock pot is minestrone soup.
Clockwise, from top left: 1. Chourico (or chorizo) sausage, which O’Donnell grew up eating in Rhode Island, thanks to the large Portuguese population there. “At any local sandwich shop, you could get chourico and peppers,” he says. 2. Parmesan cheese. “Usually when I’m cooking at home, it’s ramen or spaghetti of some sort, loaded with parm.” 3. Burro soresina. “It’s this really awesome butter from Parma, and it’s made from the same milk that’s used to make Parmesan cheese. It’s got a really awesome flavor.” 4. Duck sauce packets leftover from frequent Chinese takeout. “There’s a little divey, dingy place I go to. I don’t know the name, but it’s in Union Square near the Target. I get the sichuan beef, general gaos chicken, white rice, and wonton soup.”
Left: On top of the fridge sits a meat grinder. “I love making sausages and pate, anything that is homemade,” O’Donnell says. Right: A photo of the chef’s grandparents. “My grandmother was the master at whipping something up from nothing. She was definitely a good cook,” he says.
O’Donnell tracks where he’s traveled and lived on maps hung in the kitchen. His favorite place? You have one guess. “I love Italy a lot. I have traveled all over the country, and I speak the language,” he says.
Clockwise, from top left: 1. The Rolls Royce of olive oil, Capezzana. “It’s really grassy and fresh, just a high-quality single-orchard olive oil. It’s worth the price [ed's note: about 40 bucks] for the connoisseur. I usually use it to finish a pasta, salad, or perfect piece of fish.” 2. O’Donnell’s four-burner range, with spices stored on the top shelf. 3. Italian copper pots, a gift from a chef in Italy that O’Donnell worked for. 4. A wooden sculpture, a gift from O’Donnell’s brother (who also works at The Salty Pig), sits atop the stove. “It’s originally a Buddhist statue, and I have a lot of respect for the Buddhist religion,” he says. “It’s just a little something that makes me think of being peaceful, and calm, and respectful, and harmonious.”