Chez Henri: Cambridge, Massachusetts | Paul O’Connell

from Gastronomica 3:4

I opened Chez Henri eight years ago in a historic storefront outside Harvard Square. For thirty-five years the space had been occupied by a French restaurant run by a husband and wife who served only classic French food with no frills, twists, or innovations. Having promised their son that I would keep the French food intact, I was looking for a way to personalize the restaurant, to break away from the freestyle “New American” mold and create a more distinctive place. I decided that serving purely Latin food in the cozy bar area would help attract a younger crowd to what would ordinarily be thought of as an expensive French restaurant. Even before we opened the doors, the Latin flavors drifted over to the dining room menu, and my new restaurant was born.

My wife, Lisa, designed the interior and all the graphics. We created a retro bistro feel with hand-blown glass lights in the dining room and a purposely dark bar to attract a Harvard-Square-type crowd. Our customers tend to be an over-educated and well-traveled lot who are adventurous eaters and fun to cook for.

I first became enamored of Latin techniques when I took a class with Rick Bayless in 1987. He made tamales, nothing else, but that was all the ammunition I needed to start cooking Latin food at the East Coast Grill, where I was a young sous chef. Chris Schlesinger encouraged me to experiment and gave me the opportunity to put what I liked on the menu. I spent a lot of time reading and trying new techniques, from Colombian arepas to El Salvadorian papusas made with the help of native immigrants who worked with me in the kitchen. Marie from Haiti taught me the quickest way to peel plantains and how to put hot sauce on everything; Fernando from Brazil informed me that most South Americans aren’t too fond of hot spices. At Chez Henri I fused my new appreciation of traditional Latin dishes with classic French techniques, coming up with dishes like a duck tamale served with spinach salad and a warm bacon-mustard vinaigrette.

In the kitchen with the chef, Nancy, at Havana’s La Fontana Paladar. Photograph courtesy of Paul O’Connell

At Chez Henri I balance the need to wow the customers with new ingredients and flavors with a respect for the French techniques at the foundation of my cooking. We use some purely Latin cooking methods when making dishes like tamales and arepas, but to my mind the French method of sautéing a filet of fish is still superior to frying the fish in vegetable oil until it is well done. Then again, steaming the fish in banana leaf instead of parchment paper works beautifully. In combining French and Latin on the same menu, I try to be thoughtful and always to use as many local and seasonal ingredients as possible. During the summer almost 80 percent of our produce is from local organic and other farms.

Last March I traveled to Cuba with a group that included Gus Schumacher, former Undersecretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration. Our agendas converged nicely: I was intent on absorbing Cuban food culture and visiting as many paladares as possible, while Gus wanted to visit organic farms and “free” markets. Paladares are small, twelve-seat restaurants that Castro has recently allowed to operate in private homes; “free” markets are non-governmental farmers’ markets. We also stopped at many organic farms in the countryside—the Cubans have come to organic farming out of necessity because the us embargo makes the cost of pesticides prohibitive. Government-run restaurants serve third-rate Continental fare with a nod here and there to Cuban classics such as Ropa Vieja and Moros y Christianos; eating at these establishments made me feel that Cuban cuisine is lost. But the paladares are a different story. Although they do not have as much access to ingredients as the government restaurants do, their creative spirit makes up for that lack, and a number of budding chefs are poised to remake Cuban cuisine in the coming years. Now I am trying to find a way to return to teach some seminars at a hospitality-training program in Havana, to give something back to this impoverished country. Unfortunately, the political climate has recently deteriorated, and few organizations are eager to sponsor this sort of program.

We tend to place cuisine in a box, to oversimplify—if it’s Latin, it must use mangos, rice, and beans. My trip to Cuba greatly expanded my understanding of Latin food and opened my eyes to many ingredients that are right here in Boston. It turns out that Cubans use tons of potatoes, Chinese long beans, and beets galore! I have always used these vegetables in French-style preparations, but now I incorporate them into my Latin style as well. One of the dishes I made at a paladar in Trinidad de Cuba was a salad of chilled beets, oranges, and long beans. All of the ingredients were from a farm less than two miles away. At home I would have added some jicama and perhaps some smoked chiles to the dressing, but these ingredients weren’t available at the paladar. One of the most amusing dishes I tasted was a Cuban version of Cordon Bleu. A piece of white fish was pounded flat and paired with some yellow Kraft-style cheese and some over-processed pressed pork product. The whole thing was breaded and served with a few slices of orange. It was surprisingly tasty, and I give the chef a lot of credit for working with limited ingredients and coming up with a pleasing retro dish. Although I’d never serve anything like that at Chez Henri, one dish that I have tried to replicate is the Lobster Criollo served at Havana’s La Fontana Paladar. The chef’s professional training was apparent when she prepared this dish. First she sautéed the lobster and flamed it with rum, then added some sofritto, cream, and lobster stock—a staple in any French kitchen but rarely used in Cuba. The addition of Creole (criollo) spices added a Cuban flair to an otherwise French-style preparation.

The food at Chez Henri continues to drift ever more toward Latin America. But I don’t think my journey ends there. I love the history of food and its connection to people, and although I will always cook with French style, I’m open to exploring new foods and new ways to present old foods. To my mind, Boston still has too many Irish pubs serving bad food. I’d like to open a casual pub and create some sort of New American-Irish menu that utilizes wonderful local American products alongside specialty products imported from Ireland. I’d bake great Irish-style breads with organic grains and serve Irish farmhouse cheeses, brined meats, and heirloom potatoes. I think Bostonians would go for that!