Chris Himmel is the Owner of Grill 23 and Post 390, in Boston, and Harvest, in Cambridge. We wanted to meet the man behind these three distinct eateries and chat about his upcoming FishPig event on Nantucket.
How did you get started in this business?
“I grew up in the restaurant business and started behind the Grill 23 Bar at 18 years old – that’s on the record. Since I was young, I started working in kitchen roles and pretty much every position having to do with Grill 23.”
Himmel is a 2000 graduate from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and promptly went to work as the manager of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, respectively.
“I was doing front of the house and learned about management but I wanted to get back into the culinary side. Through hard work and connections I was able to work in the kitchen at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, in California.”
In late 2001 Himmel started working in a managerial role for Harvest in Cambridge and continued there for “3 to 4 years,” until he took a position overseeing daily operations at all of the restaurants in 2005. “I stepped up into more of the corporate role that I have now,” Himmel said.
While he spends most of his time at the restaurants in Boston, he is also helping his father Ken Himmel to develop Hudson Yards in New York with anchor dining spots from Chefs Thomas Keller, José Andrés, and Costas Spiliadis.
What’s one thing you took away from working with Danny Meyer and Thomas Keller?
“The biggest thing I took away is the importance of sourcing produce and meats. It’s all about respect for ingredients: beef, lamb, pork, fish; I learned how to break down all those animals and that carries into everything I do today. For FishPig we are bringing in the best seafood, a whole Mulefoot pig and 2, 70-pound wild boars from Broken Arrow Ranch (Texas). It’s all about getting ingredients from well respected sources that you have good relationships with.”
Wait a minute. What is a Mulefoot pig?
“The Mulefoot pig is a very rare heritage breed of pig that thrives in cooler climates. Otherwise they would have to go inside.”
Himmel explained that these pigs meander through an enclosed section of wooded land and, “are really docile”.
“We were on this farm and she just started calling out names – all of them had names. All of a sudden they started picking up their heads from different parts of the farm. They came over, like dogs, and you could pet them and scratch their bellies.
“These pigs have really happy, well adjusted, healthy lives and I think that’s why they taste better.”
Recently you went on a cross-country culinary RV trip. How did that come about and will there be a TV show?
Sadly there will not be a television show about these gallivanting gourmands.
“People always said how funny it would be to send us out in an RV,” Himmel said of his friendship with colleague Carl Carriero. “He’s very unique – from Cambridge – and about as Cambridge as they come. I started thinking, that might not be a bad idea given the sourcing we do. Wouldn’t it be great to visit them? When you show your face and show that commitment, you’re gonna get the best product.”
Along the way, Himmel and his team of culinary travellers executed a pop-up restaurant with Jose Andres in Washington, D.C. “His team is amazing and they were incredibly gracious to us,” Himmel said.
Next they binged on bourbon for two days in Louisville, Kentucky, at the Buffalo Trace distillery, (where Pappy Van Winkle is made), visited and tasted Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Tennessee, hit up Charleston, South Carolina, cruised through New Orleans down to Florida’s pan handle for some commercial fishing in Panama City, and hunted for wild boar and game at the Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas. After all of that, these guys still had the energy to participate in a special collaborative dinner with Chef Mark Purdy at the Michelin-starred restaurant Alize, in the Palms, Las Vegas. Himmel and his road warriors contributed ingredients from every location they visited: red snapper, a hog, a ham, etc.
Last but not least, the team arrived on the west coast and spent time at Brandt Cattle Company in Brawley, California.
“The whole (Brandt) family met us. For us the whole point of the trip was getting to connect with our sources; It’s about respect for ingredients and what you do with them when you get it. It’s really a partnership.”
Chris Himmel and longtime friend Mike Geraty, owner of Wulf’s Fish, host the 3rd annual FishPig event tomorrow on Nantucket, during the island’s annual Wine Festival.
How did FishPig start?
“We’ve done the wine festival for 10 or 11 years and all three restaurants participate in it. It’s a really well put on event and it’s one of the few times a year that I can get together with my peers. You know, we don’t really get a chance to get together in a social setting that often and here everyone is not stressed about their restaurant because they’re on an island and can’t get to it.”
When Geraty purchased Wulf’s Fish 3 years ago, Himmel and he decided to collaborate and, “what better way to do that, than with a party,” Himmel said. “Mike and I had always come here to fish when were younger. The light went off and we both thought what can you bring? I can bring fish. I can bring pig. That night Mike drew our logo and once we had the logo it was off and running. We sort of had a cult following asking about our next event.”
“I felt that with it (FishPig) not being a part of the festival, they (industry people) could come and really enjoy themselves.”
FishPig’s guest list shrunk to 150 people, from 350 spots at last year’s event, but the slightly more exclusive party at Slip 14 allows for a more intimate atmosphere and plenty of food to go ‘round.
“We couldn’t do the level of food that we wanted to do,” Himmel said of last year’s large crowd. “At that point it was more about getting the food out. We decided to bring it to Slip 14. It’s much smaller and it’s a bummer that people can’t get in, but now I can bring in two wild boars and Mike’s doing a whole bunch of crudos – three or four types. We will have more food than people will know what to do with.”
On top of that, Larry Trowbridge of Snappy Lobster is bringing 150 lobsters for made-to-order lobster rolls, Harvest’s Executive Pastry Chef Brian Mercury will provide desserts, and Nantucket Oysters is providing, um, oysters. A cash bar will feature Champy sparkling wine, beer from Cisco Brewers and a wine selection from Nantucket Vineyard. There will also be charcuterie and wine tastings next door at Table No. 1.
“Now everyone wants to be a part of it. When people ask me who’s involved it takes me like five minutes to list them.”
What’s your favorite part of the pig?
“Definitely the legs; the shoulders. Certainly the part people might get a little squeamish about, but I encourage them to try, are the parts up around the head: the cheeks, the tongue, the neck.”
Do you have a favorite fish to cook/eat?
“I love red snapper but it isn’t exactly a local fish. If I had to stay local I’d have to say striped bass.”
Why do you think pork and seafood go so well together?
“I think that probably, the natural thing to do is put some fat with it (seafood). Pairing fish with something really fatty, it’s such a perfect compliment. From my standpoint they are two of my favorite things. Between surf and turf and pork and fish, I’ll take pork and fish.”