Earlier this year, we took a look at the fast evolving dining scene in Boston, where a potent mix of economic growth, emerging kitchen talent, and intellectual energy is turning the old land of the bean and the cod into a top tier food city. One of the characters that is out front leading the charge is Michael Scelfo, chef-owner of Alden & Harlow, which was named 2014 Restaurant of the Year by the Boston Globe and nominated for a 2015 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in America.
Scelfo’s award-winning bar program, his wild way with vegetables (raw sugar pumpkin salad), and his cult-classic secret burger have all helped make Alden & Harlow a star and build anticipation for the forthcoming sister restaurant, Waypoint, in Harvard Square. But he is more than just the man directing traffic at the pass.
Between 2009-2010, he lost nearly 100 pounds to turn his health around; he is a motorcycle enthusiast who also feasts on 90s hip hop and comic books (he hosts comic-themed dinners during Comic Con week in Boston); and he is a transparent and un-selfconscious lover of social media, where he has gained a large following thanks to his no holds barred approach. Case in point: The time when two young women came to A&H, sat themselves without reservations, berated staff, and openly threatened bad Yelp reviews if they weren’t satisfied. Scelfo’s resulting Instagram post of the duo, hashtagged #wedontnegotiatewithyelpers, went viral and even helped spawn a South Park episode.
“I had no idea that would be national news,” says Scelfo. “I do care about real criticism, but I also ate a ton of shit in this business for long enough to know not to respond to everything. In this instance, they abused my staff, so I had to throw down.”
It was a rare moment in which the wall between Internet forums and real life came down, and Scelfo helped spark a trend by pushing back. The incident raised his profile, but it also highlighted the authentic person he is.
“I do care about real criticism, but I also ate a ton of shit in this business for long enough to know not to respond to everything. In this instance, they abused my staff, so I had to throw down.”
“Michael is a guy’s guy and a chef’s chef,” said Corby Kummer, senior editor at The Atlantic and longtime food critic at Boston Magazine. “His food is brawny, but eclectic, and Alden & Harlow has been so wildly popular because he is both creative and restless.”
The Alden & Harlow menu speaks directly to those attributes. It changes constantly, although a few dishes have had staying power, like Pat Woodbury’s Clams with smoked pig’s tail, parsley, and chili toast, or the Pickled Verrill Farm Corn Pancakes with buttermilk, maple, and shishito peppers. That’s the eclecticism Kummer noted, with some noticeable New England anchors, and it all makes Scelfo a good leading light for a scene in transition. After all, Boston saw 210 restaurant openings in 2015.
“Things have changed dramatically,” said Scelfo. “I spent a lot of years here doing what I thought was great food without attention, so I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder. But [now] more and more people are paying attention to us and people like Matt Jennings (Townsman), Michael Serpa (Select Boston), and John daSilva (Spoke).”
Scelfo, says Kummer, is “one of a few chefs who are at the vanguard in Boston.”
From Kansas City barbecue, to whimsical pickled corn pancakes at Alden & Harlow, here are ten dishes that shaped Michael Scelfo’s career.
My Grandmother’s Sauce
The slow bubble of my grandmother’s sauce on the stove always fascinated me, the pools of EVOO shimmering on top of the tomatoes as they cooked down. My grandparents used to jar many of those tomatoes while they pickled others, and the basement was filled with bottles of wine (everything from wicker-wrapped Carl Rossi, to dusty old French bottles that must have been 100 years old to my young mind). This was the first recipe I was ever taught; I was probably ten or eleven. It was formative for me. When I make it now even, it’s a special thing, and always will be. (Photo: Flickr/Citymama)
Filet o’ Fish
That same grandmother would take me to McDonald’s as a lunch spot; we were hooked on fish sandwiches, and they are still probably one of two things I get there for the rare times I stop for it. It kind of covered all bases as a kid, the simple combination of creamy tartar that was always hot, crispy fish, acidic sweet pickles, and a slice of American cheese. I’m hoping someday I get to do my own version of that one. (Photo: McDonalds.com)
Chicken Fried Steak
When we moved to Kansas City, a big part of that was to move closer to those grandparents (see a pattern here?). In KC, it was a complete 180—a totally different food culture from what I had experienced growing up in Long Island. Midwestern hospitality is genuinely awesome and different from the Italian home vibe which is its own unrivaled brand of care. Chicken Fried Steak is what sticks with me most. I mean I was familiar with grandma’s paper thin slice of veal parm or scallopini, but this was a hammer of a dish. Incredible biscuits, and that gravy—creamy white with onions and chunks of sausage. It’s a comfort food classic, and sometimes I love to make it for fun and hand it off to someone else to enjoy. (Photo: crowscafe.com)
Kansas City BBQ
Gates, The Smoke Stack, Arthur Bryant’s, LC’s—this is where stuff got real. I was utterly addicted to smoke as a vehicle for flavor and execution. Ribs, burnt ends, pit beans, slaw, and corn pudding were some of my favorites. My first foray into experimentation was an attempt to recreate the flavor of Gates’ rub and sauce. I was in junior high and it took me a few summers, but I did it. The combination of rub and sauce at Gates comes together as more of a savory presentation than the slightly sweeter offerings of most other BBQ joints, and it’s really forward in celery seed. Gates is still to this day my favorite BBQ. (Photo: Yelp/Andrew C.)
Wood Roasted Mussels at Wildwood in PDX
This was one of, if not the signature dish of the restaurant in the early 1990’s. While in school I eventually was promoted to evening service, and eventually to brick oven. Managing a live fire while cooking is one of my favorite things to do. These mussels were such a treat—plump fatties from the northwest, lots of tarragon, saffron, and white wine vinegar paired with hot crusty bread to sop it up. I make it every Christmas Eve. (Photo: TripAdvisor/Syrahgirl)
Three Shakes of a Lamb’s Tail at Tea-tray in Arlington
In 2001, my first real chef’s job afforded me a lot of lessons, including the chance to express myself completely. The lamb loin was brined in Lapsang Souchong tea, paired with confit shank, a lamb sauce reduction and tea demi, and Anson Mills grits with pumpkin. It was a chance to marry a lot of my food perspectives, and a dish that was seminal to my development. Creatively, it was a pivotal moment for me, and while the restaurant received critical praise, I wasn’t ready. I was too young, too cocky, and inexperienced. It would ultimately be a lesson in humility for years to come, but it shaped who I would eventually become in Boston. I wear that whole first half of my career like a badge still. (Photo: pjmartinelli.co.uk)
Spaghetti with Clam Sauce
My kids were a huge moment for me, obviously. Raising them on my family’s food has been a treat, and watching their tastes and interest in food grow makes me love the progressive food family we have become even more. Ask any of them, any day, what they want me to make and it is this. It’s still one of my favorites from my mom’s vast repertoire. I’ve made it my own over the years and it’s one of my favorite dishes ever. Hate all you want, it involves a lot of Pecorino Romano. (Photo courtesy Michael Scelfo)
I never thought there was anything special about this dish. What blew my mind is the way people freaked out over it. I did it at a little place called the North End Grille, and I believe 10 years later it’s still on the menu. I viewed this place as a chance to do my take on neighborhood bar food in a sea of Italian food. I pretty much cooked by myself for over two years at night there, six days a week. It was a great experience overall, and this simple spicy tuna prep with wakame, kewpie, and hot fresh potato chips kind of exemplified that stint. (Photo: Flickr/cheeseslave)
Meat Cookery at Russell House Tavern
When I transitioned over to RHT from Temple Bar, we had been doing some interesting things with vegetable tastings, and it was hitting its stride with the neighborhood. The opportunity to cook for a larger audience in the center of Harvard Square really inspired me to push myself into new areas. From a full-blown house made charcuterie program, great wins at Cochon 555 and the Lamb Jam, and some really fun and interesting small plates, it became clear that what we were doing as a kitchen there was really resonating with guests. More and more I started to see chefs and industry dining in the restaurant, which was also pushed me to work harder. Social media was starting to take off and that really helped to spawn the secret burger. We were already getting lots of love for the English muffin version I did there, but the secret took on a life of its own. (Photo: tastetrekkers.com)
Pickled Corn Pancakes at Alden & Harlow
Alden & Harlow was the culmination of a lot of hard work to finally be able to express myself fully as a chef. I wanted to really get to more balanced plates, smaller portions, and focus more on vegetables. We have had a lot of fun vegetable preps from our broccoli, to raw pumpkin and kale salad. There is no better example of that whimsy and flavor forward fun than our Pickled Corn Pancakes. It’s basically an homage to my mom’s cooking, combined with a couple of my own ideas, and a real care for ingredients. This dish really exemplifies what Alden & Harlow is all about, and I’m sure it will continue to be impactful for me as I write menus for future projects. I still kind of gush internally when I see people’s reaction to it. (Photo courtesy Kristin Teig)