Tastemaking: The Specialty Suppliers

Who the chefs turn to for true delicacies.

Illustration by Cristóbal Schmal

Illustration by Cristóbal Schmal

Every local chef, it seems, has a story about Ben Maleson, a.k.a. the “Mushroom Guy.” James Hackney of L’Espalier will tell you how Maleson just showed up at the restaurant’s door, his car overflowing with the most exquisite mushrooms Hackney had ever seen. As all of his customers affirm, the guy knows his ‘shrooms. “Ben can talk your ear off [about mushrooms],” says Hackney. A former leather worker, Maleson now spends his days and nights hunting for wine caps, morels, and fumizukis. “He’s introduced me to so many varieties that I’ve never seen before,” says Tim Wiechmann, chef-owner of Cambridge’s T. W. Food. (What Maleson won’t disclose – and what no one dares to ask – is where he makes his amazing scores.)

But Maleson is just one member of an unconventional cast of characters that Boston chefs have increasingly come to rely on. At a time when even chain restaurants are claiming to serve artisanal fare, being able to present truly handcrafted or locally grown ingredients gives dedicated cooks a serious leg up. And when those specialty purveyors have a laser focus on only a few foodstuffs, it yields quality you just won’t get from Sysco.

Lourdes Smith of Fiore di Nonno is another singular-product sensation. Working out of her Somerville kitchen, Smith – who comes from a family of Italian cheesemakers – makes small-batch cheeses like mozzarella, and that’s about it. Jody Adams of Rialto is particularly taken with Smith’s mascarpone burrata. “It’s so fresh,” Adams raves. “You can tell it hasn’t been sitting in brine. The firm texture on the outside gives way to this creamy mascarpone mixture in the center.”

On the sweet side, Eduardo Kreindel is the Argentinean force behind the locally based Giovanna Gelato. While his pints can be found in some of the area’s top gourmet markets, his custom creations – everything from olive oil gelato to gazpacho sorbet – are what get chefs’ attention. Tavolo’s Chris Douglass and Max Thompson are always brainstorming flavors with Kreindel, such as the champagne-strawberry combo they served on Valentine’s Day.

But while most discerning chefs seek out artisans to deliver their delicacies, Tremont 647’s Andy Husbands took it a step further: He hired one. Having fallen in love with traditional Tibetan momos (filled dumplings) while working at East Coast Grill, Husbands knew he’d serve them at his own restaurant. Tsering Dongshi is now, among other things, 647’s momo expert. “Tsering grew up in Tibet, so they’re as authentic as you can get,” Husbands says. Thirteen years later, momos remain the most popular menu item – owing, no doubt, to the artisan’s skills. “Watching him fold the dough is phenomenal,” his boss says. “They’re little purses of love.”