Reimagining the Palate
During a Monday morning menu-writing session in a rented Somerville kitchen, JJ Gonson is channeling a creamy chicken, mushroom and apple dish her mother used to make, inspiring the half-dozen chefs sitting before her in a circle to execute a freshly reinterpreted version.
“I want tons of mushrooms, all different kinds,” she says.
The dish, which indeed featured myriad mushrooms (portobello, shitake and white) and a Chardonnay-herb sauce but no apples (there were none available on this particular week), is among nine that were divided and packed up into 16 shares as part of Cuisine en Locale’s weekly omnivore ONCE a Week catered meals.
Gonson created Cuisine en Locale six years ago as a personal chef, cooking meals for clients in their homes. Eager to extend her culinary reach, she started ONCE (One Night Culinary Event) dinners—randomly occurring, elaborate, multi-course, locally sourced parties. And a year ago, Gonson took it a step further: Each week, she and a team of cooks imagine and create meals from local ingredients and then deliver them—essentially a catered CSA. For $125, one person will get enough food for eight meals, two people can enjoy four meals, and so on. Gonson and her team cook up to 24 shares on Mondays (omnivore) and Wednesdays (“vegevore”).
As the company has evolved, its name, Cuisine en Locale, has come to literally represent its mission. “When I first started, I wasn’t locavore. Cuisine en Locale does not mean local food. It means, in very bad French, “kitchen on location” because I was a personal chef,” says Gonson.
Now, everything is local (within 100 miles) or regional (within 300 miles). Well, almost everything. Occasionally, a distant spice like cardamom or cumin, or some chocolate, sneaks in. But there is nary a banana, trace of olive oil, sugar nor rice in this kitchen. This makes the ratio closer to 99.9% local and regional, according to Gonson, who at the end of this particular marathon cooking and packing session kicks up her kitchen-proof Wellies and offers some Taza Chocolate bits to snack on while we talk about her circuitous path to a career in the food business and the genesis of her locavorism.
“If there’s local, we use local. If we can, we do,” she says. “I would say more than half our food does come from within that area [within 100 miles]. Then we go to Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island for what we cannot find here.”
As a result, creative substitutions abound: mustard, sunflower and canola oils for olive oil; cranberry, rhubarb, apple cider vinegar and lemon verbena in various combinations for lemon; barley for rice; pepitas for pine nuts; honey and maple for sugar.
“If I identify a place where we can improve, it’s my responsibility as a community member to improve. If I can get two different kinds of wheat berry, barley, spelt and triticale then I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t eliminate rice.”
It’s all about reimagining the palate.
“When you cook like this it’s a whole other palate, a whole other school of cooking,” she says. “It’s exciting to me that we’re developing recipes around a specific set of ingredients. And we have an understanding of how to use these ingredients because they are different.”
She asks me if I’ve ever cooked a heritage turkey. “It cooks really fast, faster than a chicken,” she explains. “It’s really lean so you have to brine it. Just knowing this makes you a better cook.”
Prior to the Monday “omnivore” session, Gonson was already brainstorming possible meals based on what meat was coming in. Double-thick pork chops could be stuffed with grains like wheat berry and spelt, and 10 pounds of ground lamb would be perfect for shepherd’s pie.
Along with the chicken dish, the stuffed pork and the shepherd’s pie, there was a vichyssoise quiche, rutabaga chimichurri, creamed spinach and turnips, chipotle yam coins, Sunshine squash soup and barley plum pudding—all brimming with local ingredients.
“We sat and had this meeting and they got up and went to work. The result is maybe not what you saw in your head when I was talking but it’s phenomenal and influenced by these ideas,” Gonson says. “[The chefs] take their ideas and add them and I love that about how all this works.”
Gonson is admittedly very particular about her tastes. She doesn’t like a lot of salt. She loves the combination of cilantro, lemon verbena and mint with garlic and yogurt, and likes to stew meat in tomatillo.
“I think I cook like a composer composes. I think that I have a repertoire of combinations largely based on my childhood and then strongly influenced by my travels. And because I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t question it.”
“We use cookbooks for inspiration more than recipes. Though I prefer they use me,” she laughs.
Gonson’s professional stake in the food business took a circuitous path.
She grew up in Cambridge the daughter of foodies—she praises her mother as a phenomenal cook and her father as a phenomenal gourmet. “My dad would drive us all over the place going to restaurants and my mother would imitate [what we ate at those places]. She taught me how to recipe and menu develop.”
Gonson held various jobs in kitchens as a teenager but they were just jobs as a way to earn money, not a career path. She went to college with the aim to teach black and white photography to junior high students but budget cuts to the arts squelched that plan and she “ran away and joined a circus” as a spotlight operator and electrician. Then she headed out west and landed in Portland, Oregon, securing a gig as a pastry chef and other cooking jobs while honing a career in the music industry managing tours and eventually working for a major record label. “Food was always an afterthought,” she says.
Until it wasn’t.
Like a lot of turning points in Gonson’s life, Cuisine en Locale was a happy accident born out of passion.
As a new mother living on Martha’s Vineyard in the early 2000s, Gonson was making food (and a lot of it) while her husband was making music. They moved to the Vineyard after her husband had finished a project and Gonson had just wrapped up a career in the music industry. “I started cooking and having these dinner parties because I couldn’t go out because I had a baby. I was having people over all the time and cooking and cooking and cooking in a way that I really hadn’t ever before,” she said. “I started really haunting the farms, really getting to know the food. I was getting this beautiful food, talking to people about their farms, and talking to farmers.”
At the time, she had also started to pay closer attention to what was in her food. As the mother of a young child, she was particularly concerned about hormones in diary, and become more proactive about food choices.
So when Gonson moved backed to Cambridge in 2005, she threw her culinary energy into a new venture and capitalized on the quietly growing trend of personal chefs, planting the seeds for today’s iteration of the company. This also meant going back to her roots, where her taste for local cuisine and her food sensibilities were cultivated.
“I spent all my formative years in Cambridge and traveling in Europe and then 10 solid years on Martha’s Vineyard and I feel like I got an advanced degree in local food—by accident, just by virtue of geography,” says Gonson.
These days, everything convenes. What motivates Gonson to cook local is flavor, nutrition and community. “I’m a chef. I like things to taste good. I care a lot about flavor and I like my ingredients to be really good. And they are if I choose them,” she says. “As a mom, I know there is more nutrition in something I make that grew close by then there is in a frozen dinner off a supermarket shelf. And thirdly, I live here. The more I support my community, the better the community I live in. Sherman Market, Taza, City Feed and Supply, Harvest Cooperative Market.”
To that end, Gonson proudly wears the hat of food activist in her community, as president of Cambridge Community Kitchen, a nonprofit developing a food-security-based education center and incubator kitchen. She also teaches in the public schools upon request and serves on the Parents School Food Service Advisory Council.
I ask her whether reducing her carbon footprint is another motivator. Of course, she says. “My roots go back to that. It’s one of those things that’s so obvious I don’t really talk about it. It’s absolutely a part but for me it’s more about building local systems that have been damaged very deeply by a very flawed food system. And to do that, we need to put finances into those systems.”
For the home chef trying to do his or her part to support the local food movement, Gonson acknowledges it’s a difficult road. “Eating local without killing yourself is what we call this. It is not easy, nor is it really possible, but we are getting closer every year.” Reading labels is key, and shopping at small businesses rather than big chains is important, she says.
The more support that’s funneled into the movement, the more momentum it will have. In fact, the landscape has changed markedly since Gonson got involved. “When I started doing this, there was no local food distribution system. There was a little bit in stores, you had to run around a bit,” she says. “The more dedicated I’ve been to sourcing locally, fortunately at the same time the distribution system is improving, maybe partly because people like me are putting more demand on it.”
“I like to think I’ve helped. I hope I’ve helped,” she says. “It’s been a bit focus for the last five years—to support distribution systems to help grow them.”
Some Cuisine en Locale Sources