Zach Watkins is Clio’s Next Great Chef
Tony Maws (Craigie on Main), Sam Gelman (Momofuku Toronto), Chris Chung (AKA Bistro), Alex Stupak and Lauren Resler (Empellon and Empellon Cocina), and Todd MacDonald (Willow Road in New York). The amount of distinguished names that have emerged from Ken Oringer’s kitchen at Clio is staggering. For over 17 years, Oringer’s signature restaurant has not only remained one of Boston’s leading dining experiences, but has consistently contributed to an uninterrupted flow of gastronomic talent. It’s one breach in the lineage? The stabbing incident involving Douglas Rodrigues, who is now heading up the ambitious overhaul going on at Brian Poe’s Tip Tap Room.
Waiting in line behind Rodrigues and Kevin Walsh, the two parties involved in that notorious event, was sous chef Zach Watkins. A Dallas native who trained under Kent Rathbun, Watkins spent almost five years working his way up Oringer’s culinary hierarchy. Three months ago, when the dust had finally settled, Watkins was given his big break. We caught up with Clio’s new chef de cuisine to discuss his unsavory beginnings under Daniel Boulud, the aftermath of the Rodrigues fallout, and how he’s contributed to Oringer’s original molecular vision.
Where were you before you joined Clio?
I’m originally from Dallas, so that’s where I was before I came to Clio. After high school I went to culinary school in San Francisco [at the California Culinary Academy] and worked at a restaurant called Aqua. After that I moved back to Dallas and worked at Abacus with Tre Wilcox. When I started at Abacus, they had just started to air the Top Chef season [season 3] Tre was on. But the chef and owner was Kent Rathbun. I don’t want to say Kent wasn’t there, because nobody ever loves to hear that, but he had several restaurants to run. But I really enjoyed working with Tre, who was chef de cuisine at the time. We all fed off his energy and creativity.
How did you end up in Boston?
I felt myself getting complacent and I wanted to be in a place where the food scene was more happening. Dallas has some good restaurants, but it’s still three to five years behind the trends that are happening on the East Coast. I went to New York first and staged at Daniel for a couple of days. I really didn’t enjoy the experience. My roommate from culinary school had been living in Boston and really loved it, so I moved here almost immediately afterward.
What didn’t you like about Daniel?
Once you’ve been cooking on a line and doing the day-to-day grind, you don’t want to go backwards. At a restaurant like Daniel you work as a prep cook for several months before you even get a chance to start cooking on the line. It wasn’t that I was unwilling to do that, but the kitchen was huge. You were working for 40 to 50 chefs. It wasn’t something I was interested in. I’m really into small kitchens, not necessarily low volume, but a place where you can work closely with the entire team.
Why choose Clio to stage at? Were you already familiar with its reputation?
One of the guys I worked with at Abacus had lived and worked in Boston and told me three restaurants to put on my checklist: L’Espalier, No. 9, and Clio. I didn’t know that much about the restaurants or the chefs, but I did a little research and just took a chance.
What was your first position at Clio?
I started as a garde manger cook, basically the very bottom. A week or two in, the guy that the lead on my station was let go, so I got thrown into the fire almost immediately. It’s rare to step into a restaurant of this caliber and get thrown into that kind of a position. That’s how you succeed, though.
Since you started at Clio, who have worked most closely with?
Kevin Walsh and I worked as co-sous chefs for a while. That being said, every time Ken [Oringer] is in the restaurant, we end up bouncing ideas off each other. Obviously he has a more extensive knowledge of food and a better palate than I do, so having his input is huge. I even bounce ideas off of Tony Messina at Uni. A lot of our creative output really comes down to communicating with each other. I like to have more than one perspective on a dish.
Clio has this reputation for turning out successful chefs who go on to really big things. Is that intimidating for someone in your position?
I’ve really embraced the whole idea. I talk to my cooks all the time about that same thing. Clio creates great chefs. It’s the mentality of not just being a piece to the puzzle. A lot of people come out of good restaurants, and yeah, they may take some good recipes along with them, but they don’t know how to run a kitchen or manage people. This kitchen trains you to think about efficiency, how to better utilize products, and how to create something new, even though we have a million other things going on. It’s pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. It’s interesting to look back at who I was when I first started and who I am now. That’s all because of Clio.
You talked about how closely you worked with Kevin Walsh, and I know you also spent time under Douglas Rodrigues when he was chef de cuisine. Obviously, both of those chefs were involved in a much publicized stabbing, which resulted in Doug being let go. What was you and your crew’s reaction to that dramatic turn of events?
It was shocking. I worked for Doug for several years. He really helped me get to the position I’m in now. He was the one who looked out for me and was always vocal about getting me promotions or more money. He also trained me to be a really great line cook. It’s something that was unfortunate, but when those things happen—and in this instance, when Ken comes up to you and says, “I need for you to step up and pick up a lot more responsibility”—that’s not a yes or no question. I was intimidated about fulfilling Doug’s role, but it was for the best. I do better under pressure.
Clio has been open for 17 years, which is a long time in the restaurant industry. How do you think Clio has remained fresh and innovative?
Ken doesn’t get stuck in his ways. That’s why I’ve been working for him as long as I have. He’s constantly evolving. Two or three years ago, we did that whole remodel where we got rid of the white tablecloths and introduced the late-night service at Uni. On top of that, Ken is constantly traveling around the world, trying new food, and educating himself. You can look at Clio’s food from six years ago, and it was completely different than it is now. A lot of people think Clio is just about molecular gastronomy. I don’t think our food is that way at all. It’s very understandable.
Are there any ingredients you’re particularly excited about working with right now?
The yellow tail, which, prior to changing it over, was the only dish that had been on the menu since Clio opened. We’re also working with these fresh hearts of palm that come from Hawaii. Most people are familiar with the tiny little ones you can buy in the grocery store, but these are the real, three-feet-long hearts of palm. The umeboshi on the swordfish dish is also one of my favorite ingredients. It’s basically a salted, pickled plum.
You’ve been in this new position for four months now. Do you think the menu is representative of you and what you like to cook?
I definitely think so. It’s been a road of developments. I remember trying to make my first dish and how difficult that was. I’ve started to think about what I want to eat, like the skate wing dish I put on the menu a couple of months ago. It was based around the idea of eating pho. With a bowl of pho you always get a dish on the side with Thai basil and mung beans and sliced jalapeños. So I took roasted skate wing and paired it with a Calamansi barbecue sauce, kai-lan, and all these herbs. Ken has trained us to think like chefs and he’s always open to letting us try things out. At this point, the menu is not only a representation of Ken, but all his chefs coming together.