Tastemaking: The Chef Swap

Why local pros are showing up in their buddies’ kitchens.

Tastemaking the Chef Swap

Illustration by Chris Pyle

In Boston, chefs have always had each other’s backs. Whether at charity events or cook-offs (Chefs in Shorts, held this year on June 25 at the Seaport World Trade Center, is a perennial favorite), it’s not uncommon to see 10 toques piled into one kitchen or toasting one another as they grill.

But lately they’re not content to just pal around at galas: Many chefs are working one-on-one with their friends. This winter, Il Casale’s Dante de Magistris plated meatballs at Stella during the latter restaurant’s Monday Night Supper Club; during this spring’s Chefploitation series at Bambara, Ginger Park’s Patricia Yeo sautéed dumplings alongside chef Jay Silva.

It’s hardly a new trend, says Stella’s Evan Deluty, but guest-chef nights are certainly experiencing a revival. “Back in the day, I’d see Jasper [White] and Lydia [Shire] drop by each other’s kitchens to cook,” he explains. For his own supper-club series, which ran every Monday for 12 weeks, Deluty invited one of his friends, like La Morra’s Josh Ziskin or Michael Schlow of Radius, to cook a four-course, $40 menu in his kitchen.

Considering the Hub’s tight-knit restaurant crowd, the musical-chefs game makes sense. Unlike in more-transient cooking communities like New York or L.A., Boston chefs — especially those born and raised here — tend to stick around and develop deep friendships. “We’re all local guys,” Deluty says. “I grew up in Newton. [Pigalle’s Marc] Orfaly grew up here. Louis [DiBicarri of Sel de la Terre] did, too.” Bambara’s Silva agrees: “It’s like a high school clique.”

So what about the kids who are new to town? Ginger Park’s Yeo, a New York transplant, says that all this local love is strictly a Boston thing. “New York chefs don’t invite other New York chefs to cook in their kitchens,” she admits. But when Orfaly asked her to cook at a recent dinner, she says, “it was a great opportunity to get to know people better, especially over beers at the end of the night.”

For La Morra’s Ziskin, one-night stints are also a teaching tool. “In our own kitchens, we keep our heads down,” he says. “Getting into a new kitchen, I can see different techniques.” Adds Yeo, “There’s cross-pollination. We borrow things — sometimes even line cooks.”

Buddy-buddy time in the kitchen can boost business, too. “Bringing in someone else on a slow Monday night brightened things up,” says Deluty. When Schlow was behind the line, he says, the dining room was packed. (Deluty plans to reprise the supper club this fall.) It also keeps things interesting for diners, though admittedly, some are surprised to find their favorite chef isn’t behind the stove. “I’ve had guests tell me, ‘Don’t worry, I like your food best,’” Silva says. “The loyalty is still there.”