Meet the New, Highly Pedigreed Chef Behind Tres Gatos

Nevin Taylor talks about the perils of working with friends, 'mythical' foragers, and his plans to make Jamaica Plain a dining destination.

tres gatos

Tres Gatos’ new executive chef Nevin Taylor. Photo provided

Since opening in 2011, Tres Gatos has captured the bohemian essence of Jamaica Plain. A converted vinyl shop (Rhythm & Muse) turned tapas bar that has maintained an eccentric three-pronged focus: Spanish small plates in the front, a wine bar with an emphasis on sherry, and a curated selection of records and paperbacks in back. But after three years, owner David Doyle, has decided to move beyond the pinchos and empanadas that remained a fixture on chef Marcos Sanchez’s longstanding menu.

Enter new executive chef Nevin Taylor. A protégé of Frank McClelland at L’Espalier and Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer at Toro and Coppa, Taylor was drawn to cooking at an early age. The 27-old chef fondly recalls washing dishes in the back of the house at age 14 and working the Fryolator at his father’s restaurant, Taylor Family Restaurant in Mashpee. Now, after a stint at Alex Crabb’s celebrated Back Bay spot, Asta, Taylor has been given the reigns to implement his own brand of innovative locavorism. We caught up with the chef to discuss his new menu, his ‘nerdy’ obsession with obscure food quarterlies, and why you should never get into business with your friends.

What drew you to the kitchen in the first place?
I guess you could point to my dad. He certainly gave me my first job by hiring me as a busboy at the restaurant he was working at in Plymouth. Then I got a job close to home when I was 15 so I could walk to work. When I saved up enough money to buy a car it afforded me the opportunity to work somewhere better. So when I was 16 I went to work in Sandwich at the Belfry Inn, which was one of the nicest places in town. That was all during high school, so when it was time to go to college I made up my mind to stick with cooking. I knew I really liked it, plus I didn’t get into my other college choices for journalism.

Prior to joining Tres Gatos, you helped Alex Crabb open Asta in Back Bay. How long have you two known each other?
Alex was at L’Espalier when I was there and was certainly one of my early mentors. He’s very creative in the kitchen. He was the first guy where I really thought, “Holy shit, what is this guy doing!” His food is so original. We stayed in touch from those early days, but opening a restaurant with him was pretty tough. It was really hard to be a friend to him and to go through all the stress that went with working at Asta. Alex just goes about things in a very different way than most people. It was so mentally taxing, that I was just spent by the time that I left.

What was the most exhausting aspect? Was it the creative output poured into the menu?
It wasn’t just the food. It was every aspect of building that restaurant. I’ve had firsthand experience with opening a restaurant and I’ve seen one fail too, which is a really hard thing to go through. At Asta, we literally looked at every aspect of how a restaurant runs or why restaurants work they way that they work. It takes a huge amount of time and brain power. There was no computers and we were handwriting everything. We were breaking down the food and then building it back up from nothing. To do that for every single dish is very, very hard.

Did it ever get easier?
We certainly found a groove, and they’re still finding there groove there. But no, it never got easier. For the first three months, before we even opened, none of us worked. Me, Alex, and our sous chef Martine just developed ideas. We opened with the three-, five-, and seven-course menus. That encompassed 17 menu items that were all really unique and different. Then you open and the reality of running a restaurant sets in. How do you think up your next dish when there’s only three of you and you don’t have time to do anything besides get ready for the night. This is why you see places like Noma, The Fat Duck, and Momofuku with test kitchens.

How did the opportunity with Tres Gatos come about?
I remained friends with Courtney Hennessey, Jamie Bissonnette’s ex-wife, after I left Toro. She’s been bartending a few days a week at Tres Gatos and knew that I was super stressed out at Asta. So when she heard they were looking for somebody she recommended me to the owner Dave [Doyle].

How has the menu changed in the four months that you’ve been there?
The menu has changed quite a bit. Things weren’t as fluid before as they are now. We’re trying to build a whole new style where everything is fresh, light, and seasonal. I love cooking vegetables and seafood and I’ve certainly developed a style based on all the places I came from. I stripped down every dish to figure out its function and took all the superfluous things away, making the flavors much more clean and vibrant. Another thing I’ve done is switch all of our purveyors around. We’re only buying fish from Snappy Lobster. That’s a big change because it’s more expensive and labor-intensive. None of it comes scaled or gutted, so we do a lot more hands-on work. That wasn’t the case before. It’s a pain in the ass, but totally worth it for the quality of seafood we’re getting.

Out of all the new dishes you’ve introduced, what are some things you’re most excited about?
Ben “The Mushroom Man” [Maleson] issued out this challenge to make a faux meat dish with king oyster mushrooms. After deliberating with my sous chef, we roasted a king oyster mushroom, hollowed it out to make it look like a bone, and then filled it with mushroom aioli and parsley salad. It’s a riff on Fergus Henderson’s bone marrow with parsley salad. It’s totally delicious, even it’s this totally goofy thing.

Who is this mushroom man?
Ben “The Mushroom Man” is this iconic purveyor in the Boston area. He’s been around forever. We used to buy from him at L’Espalier. He lives just down the street from us in JP, so he just wanders in from time to time. He’s like a myth. Most people don’t know about him, but he’s definitely a character.

Are there any other plans for the space?
We’re launching a cookbook collection that I’ve curated. I’m a super nerd when it comes to food and cookbook writing. I’ve got hundreds of cookbooks at my house and I subscribe to all these weird quarterly publications. So, we’re going to be carrying a bunch of magazines and we’ll have a section of cookbooks to go along with the records in back. No one else is going to have the selection of magazines and periodicals we’re going to carry.

How are you liking Jamaica Plain?
I love it! I live right around the corner from the restaurant. There’s a great sense of community here. Once you settle in JP, you never leave.

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