Sustaining the Local Flavors

Persephone (Περσεφόνη in Greek) is the name of the Ionic Greek maiden who was the embodiment of the Earth’s fertility at the same time that she was the Queen of the Underworld.

The figure of Persephone is well-known today. Her story has great emotional power: an innocent maiden, a mother’s grief over her abduction, and subsequent joy after the return of her daughter. It is also cited frequently as a paradigm of myths that explain natural processes, with the descent and return of the goddess bringing about the change of seasons.

In Greek art, Persephone is invariably portrayed robed. She may be carrying a sheaf of grain and smiling demurely with the “Archaic smile” or in this case, holding a pomegranate.

Perhaps it’s this reference to the change of seasonsspecifically eating what’s in season — and focusing on the natural processes of agriculture that inspired Michael Leviton to name his new restaurant Persephone.

I had the pleasure of talking to Michael a few weeks ago — nominee for the James Beard Best Chef Northeast 2008 award and Food & Wine’s America’s Best New Chef 2000. He graciously gave up an hour of his time to satiate a hungry blogger who wanted to know what he’s all about and how his new venture differs from his highly-acclaimed French bistro Lumiere.

Me: “When did Persephone open?”
ML: “February 11, 2008”

Me: “Why the whole Greek God thing?”
ML: “The founders of the Achilles Project, Michael Krupp & Shanka Ramsay, came up with the concept. Originally, they planned to have a small boutique with a sake bar in the back. They were fortunate enough to get one of the initial restaurant licenses for the area, so they needed to change the business plan. I knew one of their parents and another project of mine had just fallen through, so my name came up in a conversation.” The rest is history

Me: “So what is Persephone all about? What’s the concept?”
ML: “Local, sustainable food, but more simple than Lumiere. {which is also a green restaurant} I wanted something more casual, more fun. All the dishes are designed to be shared in the middle of the table. We wanted to create a fun place, where people were interacting and getting off on the pleasures of the table. I wanted to create a sense of community, let folks taste new foods and beverages and get excited about it.”

Me: “So are most of the plates smaller then? Like Tapas?”
ML: “Some are smaller and some are much larger… designed to be shared by 3 or 4 people. They are a lot of fun to eat. Everyone gets involved… everyone gets a piece. Family style starts a conversation.”

Me: “Do you buy all your produce locally? And if so, where?”
ML: “I buy as much as I can locally. Mostly from local farms such as Verrill Farm, Blue Herron and Siena Farms. It’s a mix of both organic and non-organic. Some of these farms don’t have the official ‘Organic Certificate’ because it’s too expensive to get certified. But they are still practicing sustainable measures. Agribusiness has perverted the idea of organic. It can cost between $5K and $10K to get certified.”

Me: “What about your meats and seafood?”
ML: “A lot of my meat comes from North East family farms. Most beef is coming from as far as upstate New York. The same thing with the pork. My chickens are from Quebec. I try to serve American, grass fed animals whenever I can. There’s not enough local production to be commercially available though; you can’t get grass fed animals from here year round. The furthest my fish comes from is the Chesapeake Bay. You won’t find Japanese Himachi on my menu.”

Michael and I then want on to discuss sushi for a bit (which happens to be a favorite of his). He talked about how there are no longer old-school Japanese sushi chefs in Boston (like he had the pleasure of meeting and working with on the West Coast). Michael feels that the genius of sushi is in it’s purity. It’s so clean, minimal, copacetic. He feels sushi gets perverted in most of the US.

Me: “How may days a week are you at the restaurants?”
ML: “Six days. I split my time between both places; often spending time at each place on Fridays and Saturdays.”

Me: “Is there anything you won’t eat?”
ML: “I’m not a fan of green peppers, but I will eat them.”
Me: “Me either.”

Me: “Do you have a chef’s blog and if not, do you plan to start one?”
ML: “No… I just don’t have the time.”

ML: “Have you heard of the Chef’s Collaborative? It’s a fantastic organization . It bridges the relationship between chefs and producers. You should check them out.”
Me: “No, but I will check them out. Thanks!”

Me: “So what are the must try menu items at Persephone?”
ML: “For the meat eater, the double cut rib eye from Niman Ranch. People say it’s the best piece of meat they have ever had. It’s because we get a better animal. More care is taken in the execution of the dish than at the average steak house. We choose a better piece of beef, but we are not a steak house.”

Me: “What about for the non-meat eater… like me?”
ML: “The grilled squid salad with parsley, chickpeas, preserved lemons and black olives.”
Me: “Mmmm… sounds right up my alley!”

Me: “What is Lumiere’s signature dish? I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never been.”
ML: “What, do you live under a rock or something?! Our Scallops and our soups — which are rotated based on the time of year. The mushroom and the corn soup are both favorites.”

Me: “When did you get into sustainable living?”
ML: “When I started cooking. I graduated college in 1988 and went to San Francisco. From the day you get there, you cannot help but be absorbed by the culture — it’s all about the ingredients and raising foods the right way. We went to a summer produce tasting… there were 35 varieties of raspberries, 80 varieties of tomatoes. My eyes were immediately opened to how things ought to be. New England will never be where San Fran is, but we are getting closer every day. You learn that beef doesn’t just come in a bag (like it did at chef’s school). There’s an entire cow that needs to be used. You don’t learn that in cooking school. I was very fortunate to see that from the beginning. I worked at Le Cirque next in NYC. They had high end ingredients; in many ways, it’s the highest priced bistro. They served traditional bistro foods like pig’s feet, head cheese and tripe. It these are prepared with the proper techniques and with great ingredients to go with them, they taste delicious. People need to see beyond the tips of their noses.”

Me: “So how do we do that?”
ML: “We will give the next generation a disservice by not preaching enough about this. All the ads you see on TV are for chains; McDonald’s. Let’s face it, 3-courses at a TGIF for $9.99 cannot be anything more than shit. It’s this crap that people associate ‘food’ with — cheap and plentiful. We’re killing this country — the fact that we are so removed from the means of producing the food. If you look cross culturally, the only thing that is different is that those diets don’t contain processed foods. When I was younger, my mom wrote a low cholesterol Kosher cookbook. It talked about how ‘animal fat is bad for you’. That was the science of the times in the 1970’s and 80’s. It’s different now.”

Me: “I guess I can assume you are a Michael Pollan fan then?”
ML: “I love Michael Pollan. Eating closer to the start…”

Me: “Okay, I know you’re busy so let’s wrap this up. What’s your favorite dish?”
ML: “Sushi. I love the purity.
Me: “Boston’s best sushi?”
ML: “Oga’s in Natick.”

Me: “Any final words?”
ML: “These big ‘organic’ companies are still the same farm conglomerates. It’s the same soil… left to sit for a few years and then turned over. Vegetables grown in this soil just don’t have the same nutrients. And cows were made to eat grass… so let them eat good grass. They were not meant to eat corn and grain; this type of diet creates health problems in these animals. Even if they are not showing signs of being ‘sick’, they are still not healthy. Why would you want to eat something that’s not healthy???”

Good point.

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