PULL UP A CHAIR
If the sign of a successful dinner party is the quality of the conversation, then Robert Harris knows how to throw one killer dinner party. On a recent fall night, the chef stood in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on a beet risotto while his seven dinner guests, mostly strangers, chewed thoughtfully on fresh juniper berries and discussed the imagery associated with a purple, leafy green called “ruby streaks.” There was talk of how to properly winter a garden alongside a discussion of how social media can be a meeting ground for cancer patients. In short: one of the most dynamic dinner parties I’ve attended recently.
Harris is the chef and founder of Season To Taste, one of the few caterers in town dedicated to using local, seasonal ingredients. And this wasn’t an ordinary dinner party: It was the first in a new series called At The Table With… which takes place inside the catering company’s Cambridge storefront and brings people from across the food world (farmers, brewers, bakers, ice cream makers) to the table for a sit-down dinner with paying guests.
The space itself—a former taco shop now outfitted with a massive range, hood and plenty of prep space—is where Harris and his staff stage more than 400 catering gigs throughout the year. To one side of the room is a small dining area with a long wooden table, custom built by Medford carpenter John Brown, which seats 10 (a mirror on one wall allows a view into the kitchen from every seat). Since moving into the space in 2008, Harris has used it regularly for private events but those, he says, “are mostly special occasions—we offer this very extravagant, eight-course meal—and they mostly happen on Friday and Saturday nights. So we wanted to do something that would fill the space Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.”
Thus, At The Table With… was born. Imagine dining at a tiny, family-style restaurant with the added perk that each meal is themed around a featured guest. The night I attended, Eva Sommaripa, farmer and owner of Eva’s Garden in Dartmouth, and Didi Emmons, chef and founder of Haley House and cookbook author, were on hand celebrating Emmons’s new book, Wild Flavors. Harris’s menu incorporated many of Sommaripa’s ingredients.
That night, the room was not only brimming with food-focused conversation but the guests were mesmerized by what was on the plate. Harris and his executive chef, Sam D’Avignon, had created an elegant six-course vegetarian feast to honor Emmons’s book. There was a starter of pumpkin purée topped with nasturtiums, followed by a feathery-light chickpea crepe filled with a local feta cheese and olive tapenade alongside sun-dried tomato pesto. (Olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar and olives were the furthest Harris ventured away from New England ingredients—a dedication he applies to his catering business as well.)
At a dinner hosted a few weeks later, Harris called on Toscanini’s Gus and Mimi Rancatore for inspiration: He cooked a six-course savory meal with various flavors of their ice cream. There, he used a mint-and-pine-nut-pesto ice cream in a lamb dish and paired Tosci’s famous burnt caramel sauce with quail, Delicata squash and fennel. Mimi Rancatore, who along with chief ice cream maker Andy Dubyoski helped Harris craft the menu, says, “It was a unique and fun idea, taking this one component, which is usually sweet, and applying it to a whole savory meal.” For Harris, the real fun was breaking out of his catering box.
“I remember being in culinary school and had to take this catering class and was like, ‘Why do I have to do this? I’m not going to cater. I’m going to be a chef,’” he says. Over time, he realized that catering requires the same (if not more) precision and technique as working in a restaurant. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Harris got his start in high-end kitchens like Commander’s Palace in New Orleans as well as Olives and Rialto before running the catering kitchen at East Coast Grill. Eventually, he realized that no one else was running a local, seasonal catering operation in town so he launched Season To Taste six years ago. With this new dinner series, he and his staff can dip their toes back into fine dining.
“As a chef, [cooking] is like an art and a craft. When you start, it’s 90 percent craft: discipline, hard work, work ethic. You’re doing all this stuff that isn’t really artistic. But if you play your cards right, you transition so that it’s the other way around, 10 percent craft, 90 percent art,” says Harris. “That’s what this is built for. For us, doing At The Table With… is the pure joy of what we do.”
Along with the At the Table series, Harris will offer cooking classes throughout the winter, giving guests firsthand lessons on topics like the lost art of braising or cooking slow “fast” food for two.
“This is a great avenue to do something that restaurants can’t do,” says Harris. “The idea is to get 10 people in here who don’t know each other, in this very intimate setting, to explore things that are unusual or different.”
Erin Byers Murray is a Boston-area freelance writer who focuses on food and sustainability. Her memoir, Shucked, about the year-and-a-half she spent working on the flats with the team at Island Creek Oysters, was released in October. Erin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org