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Top Chefs: Gordon Hamersley

The bistro that helped put Boston on the culinary map

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What are the essential elements of a great chef? As this week’s snapshots of five great chefs illustrate, the answers run from soup to nuts, or when it comes to fields of study, from education to graphic arts. The common ingredient: Boston University, which has been cooking up culinary talent for decades, sometimes in unexpected corners. The culinary arts program, started with help from America’s first top chef, Julia Child (Hon.’76), has delivered many successes, and the School of Hospitality Administration has prepared many more for rewarding careers in the big leagues of the restaurant business.

How does it work? Every day this week, one of BU’s best-known chefs tells us about getting from here to there.

Gordon Hamersley knows that every bistro needs a chicken dish. But hours before the grand opening of Hamersley’s Bistro in Boston’s South End, he was still scrambling to concoct one. As the clock ticked toward opening hour, Hamersley did something he would do many times over his next 22 years in the restaurant business. He recalled the tastes of France — in this case, the taste of a particularly crispy chicken he had enjoyed at L’Ami Louis in Paris. Then he and sous-chef Jody Adams (who later launched Rialto in Cambridge) created a mixture of garlic, lemon, and parsley, put it in a food processor, added mustard, shallots, herbes de Provence, salt, pepper, and olive oil, and rubbed it on the chicken. They roasted it slowly to hold the juices and stuck it under the broiler just before serving to make it crisp.

A year later, Hamersley (CGS’71, SED’74) was named one of the Best New Chefs by Food & Wine magazine. He is still serving the chicken dish today.

People who lived in Boston in the 1980s know that Hamersley’s Bistro helped put Boston on the map for destination dining. And it all started when Hamersley was studying education at Boston University, working part-time washing dishes at the small but formidable French restaurant Autre Chose in Cambridge.

“I got out from behind the dishwasher one lucky night and kind of never looked back,” Hamersley says.

After Autre Chose, Hamersley went on to do “self-imposed apprenticeships” at several restaurants, including Wolfgang Puck’s Ma Maison in Los Angeles, where Julia Child wandered into the kitchen one night to chat with the cooks, thus beginning a decades-long friendship. Hamersley says it was Child who urged him to open a restaurant in Boston, because she thought the city needed a good bistro more than Los Angeles, his first choice. The equally powerful influences of Child and extended travel in France persuaded Hamersley that the recipe for a winning restaurant was good, simple food, reasonably priced, that celebrated local ingredients. Hamersley’s Bistro did that and did it in an unpretentious setting. Taking another cue from bistros in France, Hamersley opened a large window between his kitchen and dining room.

“Most people think our kitchen is open to put us on display,” he says. “It’s the opposite. I opened it up so I could see my customers. I want my cooks to see who they’re cooking for.”

Although Hamersley’s has been a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist for the best restaurant in the country, and local publications routinely deliver annual Best Of plaques, the chef insists that he’s not an awards guy.

“You won’t see any of that crap on our walls,” he says. “My James Beard Award is somewhere in my office, but it would take me 25 minutes to find it.”

A New York native who arrived at BU intending to become a teacher, Hamersley teaches every day now, he says, working with young chefs.

“We’ve been doing the same thing for 20 years,” he says. “The biggest challenge is trying to make this place better. It makes me sharpen my skills every night.”

Hamersley’s Roast Chicken with Garlic, Lemon, and Parsley

Reprinted from Bistro Cooking at Home, by Gordon Hamersley, with the permission of Broadway Books.

For the marinade
1 bunch Italian parsley (save 12-14 leaves for garnish)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
3 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon dried herbes de Provence
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons cracked black pepper
6 tablespoons olive oil

For the chicken
2 chickens, 3 pounds each
2 russet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into quarters the long way
1 large Spanish onion, skin on the root trimmed, cut into quarters through the root
3 teaspoons cooking oil
4 ounces rich chicken stock
1 head roasted garlic, cloves separated
1 lemon, half cut into slices and half juiced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all the ingredients for the marinade, except the lemon zest, in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process until smooth. Fold in the lemon zest.

Wash and dry the chickens. Rub them all over with the marinade, cover, and let them sit in the refrigerator for about 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Season the chickens with salt and pepper, and place them in a roasting pan fitted with a rack. Place in oven. Place a cookie sheet (with sides) in the oven and allow it to become hot. Add the cooking oil to the pan and carefully lay the potatoes and onions onto the sheet, cut sides down. Season with salt and pepper and roast. The chickens and the vegetables should take 1 hour and 10 minutes to cook. The vegetables are done when they are very tender and brown. The chicken is done when the leg bone separates easily from the thigh when twisted or when a thermometer registers 165F.

When cooked, transfer the chickens to another pan and let them rest for at least 20 minutes. Skim the juices from the roasting pan of fat and reserve the juices.

When the vegetables are done, remove the dry outer leaves of the onion and discard. Transfer the onions and potatoes to an ovenproof pan and keep warm.

Remove the breasts and legs from the bone, leaving on as much skin as possible. Remove the thigh bones by gently twisting and breaking the cartilage at the joint.

Note: The dish can be prepared to this point an hour in advance of serving.

Preheat the broth. Arrange the chicken pieces, skin side up, in a roasting pan that is shallow enough to fit underneath the broiler. Add the lemon slices, the cooking juices, and 2 ounces of the double chicken stock. Set the pan under the broiler and cook until the skin is crisp and the meat has thoroughly heated through. This will take about 8-10 minutes. If necessary, rotate the chicken pieces so they crisp evenly.

While the chickens are getting crisp, over moderate heat, reduce the remaining 3 ounces of double chicken stock with the juice of half of a lemon and the garlic cloves in a small saucepan.

Arrange the chicken, potatoes, and onions on a serving platter or on individual plates.

Pour the sauce from the roasting pan into the saucepan with the reducing chicken stock and continue reducing by about half. The sauce should be slightly thickened and lemony in taste. Add 1 tablespoon of butter to the sauce and stir until incorporated. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the sauce around the chicken and garnish with the parsley leaves.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2009 Bostonia.

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