The Kitchen Spy: Michael Scelfo of Russell House Tavern
All photos by Charlotte Wilder for Boston magazine.
Russell House Tavern chef Michael Scelfo’s kitchen wasn’t always this gorgeous. Up until two years ago, his home cooking hub was a mere fraction of its expansive size; when Scelfo and his wife Ellen added an addition to their Holliston house, though, the kitchen was a top priority. “The kitchen is where we spend most of our time. With three kids, it’s just the center of our place,” Scelfo says. It’s unusually open, which was intentional. “When we were [designing] it, we were talking to architects and they were all saying, ‘it’s too open.’ But that’s exactly what we wanted,” says Ellen. Ahead, check out the chef’s work station, near-and-dear culinary tools, and major comic book obsession.
The restaurant-quality Blue Star range is the centerpiece of the kitchen (“that’s my baby,” Scelfo says). It’s flanked by large cutting board surfaces on either side. “Everybody in my family cooks, so this way four people can cut right on the counter and just hang out,” he says.
Clockwise from top left: 1. Everyday dishes (plus a swanky gray Staub braiser and the obligatory bottles of Fernet Branca) line the shelves, which are made from wood reclaimed from the old part of the house. 2. Scelfo’s trusty KitchenAid mixer, which he’s owned since for 18 years. “When I told my parents I was going to culinary school, they got this for me,” Scelfo says. “It’s beat up, but it still runs like a champ.” 3. “My son [Josh] is a big Lego freak, and he made this from scratch. I was totally impressed by it,” Scelfo says. 4. “The kids [Josh and Mae, 9, and Andrew, 5] made that for me,” Scelfo says. “There’s a lot of little French things all over; my kids are in French immersion school, so they’ll be learning in French until high school.”
On the counter is an old cheese greater that’s been in Scelfo’s family for decades. “This was my great-grandparents’, and it was in my grandfather’s house when he passed away this time last year. Everyone was taking little sentimental things, and this was what I wanted,” Scelfo says. “It’s been in our family for over 60, 70 years. And we eat a lot of pasta—I use it every weekend. We are a Pecorino Romano house.”
From left: 1. “This has been my fish spat since I was like 18 or 19,” Scelfo says. “I got it in Portland, Oregon, years ago. The dog tried to chew it up.” On the bottom left, is a knife steel that Scelfo found under his house when he moved in. “I found this in the ground, and it’s the best steel I have ever worked with. It’s hilarious,” he says. 2. The culprit, a lab named Georgie. “Georgie loves to find what’s most important to you and then destroy it,” Scelfo says.
The fridge contains a mix of kid-friendly fare, condiment staples of hot sauce and kimchee, and lots of Jello and yogurt for Scelfo, who has been on a diet for the past couple of months. There’s also a couple Hoegaarden brews on hand, his go-to post-shift drink.
Clockwise from top left: 1. In the freezer there’s a variety of frozen meats like smoked turkey wings, ribs, and smoked salmon. 2. “We always freeze the kids’ leftover birthday cake, so we chop it up and make birthday cake ice cream,” Scelfo says. 3. “The kids’ favorite dinner is clam sauce, so I am always making them linguine with clam sauce.” 4. Steamed pork buns from Super 88, where Scelfo says he stops in to pick up frozen goodies about once a month.
Clockwise from top left: 1. “This is my everyday go-to stuff. Salt, pepper, olive oil, spices, and hot sauce,” Scelfo says. 2. Scelfo holds a bottle of Tajin, a spice containing ground chili peppers, dehydrated lime juice, and salt. “I got this at a Spanish market when I was in California on vacation,” he says. “It’s just this really good, tangy lime and pepper spice that’s really good sprinkled on cucumbers or on chicken before you put it on the grill.” 3. When it comes to salt, he falls into the Maldon camp. “I have converted to using that and only that, even in the restaurant,” he says. “It’s just a delicate salt flavor, and I love the flakiness, and that you can almost just grind it in your fingertips.” 4. Cholula, Tapatio salsa picante, and sriracha are Scelfo’s three go-to hot sauces.
Clockwise, from top left: 1. A peek into Scelfo’s spice cabinet, which contains essentials like curry and fish sauce, as well as quirkier finds like chestnut paste and African biryani spice. 2. Scelfo swears by Gates BBQ sauce. “I grew up in Kansas City, and I think this is the best bbq sauce, ever,” he says. “It’s just the flavor of it — it’s not sweet at all, and it’s got hints of cumin and coriander in it.” 3. “I’m obsessed with fish in a can, so there’s all kinds of tuna and smoked mussels,” Scelfo says. 4. “We bought these canned pates on our honeymoon [in Paris], and we have never opened them up. At this point it’s like 15 years old,” Scelfo says.
Clockwise from left: 1. In the corner of the kitchen, Scelfo has a work station for menu and recipe development. 2. On the desk is a framed signed Russell House Tavern post card from graphic novelist Neil Gaiman, who recently visited the restaurant. “I am a huge comic book geek,” Scelfo says (more on that later). 3. A stack of Scelfo’s current must-read books (not including the Calvin and Hobbes book on top of the pile, which is his son’s), including Joan Roca’s guide to sous-vide cookery, On the Menu by James Mackenzie, and Le Charcutier Anglais by Marc Frederic. 4. Scelfo stores all of the recipes he uses at his restaurant on Dropbox, so that he can access them both at work and at home. “At Russell House we do recipes for everything. I am really huge on recipes, so I will do all my own recipes so that we can always send people in the right direction and not leave things up to interpretation,” Scelfo says.
Upstairs, there’s a room Scelfo dubs “the geek room,” which houses his obsessive comic book collection, as well as some mementos like framed opening menus and restaurant reviews for his first two executive chef gigs, at Blond in New York, and the now-defunct Arlington restaurant Tea Tray in the Sky. As for his favorite comic book heroes? “I’m an Avengers guy, so I am all psyched about the Avengers movie that’s coming out. That has always been my favorite, because it has the best of all the Marvel characters in it,” Scelfo says. And yes, he’s planning on attending the Boston Comic Convention this year.