Dave Becker’s Needham restaurant, Sweet Basil, quickly developed a loyal following when he opened in 2000. Even now, he can’t change things up without hearing from customers. “A lot of the dishes that were on the menu within the first few years kind of became like a pantheon for the people that went there all the time, so like I still can’t even take things off the menu or change the colors in the bathroom without people getting angry,” he says, and laughs. “They treat me kind of like I’m the night watchman until they come back again, which I don’t care. I’m into that.” When he wrote his first cookbook four years ago, with photography by his longtime girlfriend, Nina Gallant, “Thrown Out of an Italian Kitchen: Recipes From Sweet Basil,” he tried to appease the crowds by including his most popular dishes. This time around, Becker and Gallant focus on the restaurant’s one-pot dishes in “Stewed: A Collection of Soups, Braises, and Stews From Sweet Basil,” out this month.
Q. How did your first book inspire this one?
A. It seemed like the soups and stews and braises and one-pot dishes were the most well received of all the dishes that were in the first book, and so it seemed like if we’re going to pick a theme, might as well do that one. So it’s like take all the soups that we have on the menu or have done as a special at the restaurant and just compile them into a book. A lot of the recipes in the “Stewed” book are approachable, which to the foodie crowd might make them kind of boring. With the first book, there are some dishes in there that people have used and adapted, and now I think they probably have a dog-eared recipe card. That book was kind of like a scrapbook, a moment in time for what we were thinking then and for what the crowd was eating.
Q. Which staples from Sweet Basil’s menu will customers recognize in “Stewed”?
A. The seafood chowder, definitely. I grew up in Newburyport, so it’s been sort of my way of life since I was 15. I’d also say the watermelon gazpacho. That was a slow, sleeper dish. I had to give it out to a ton of people before they loved it, and then this past summer we didn’t even take it off the menu until it was like October because there were still people ordering it like crazy. It starts to get kind of hard at that point because it’s like, this is not even remotely an autumn soup.
Q. What was it like working so closely with Nina for the second time?
A. It was really great. If she came up with a great idea, we’d run with it, or if I came up with a great idea, we’d run with it. It was just like a really fun collaboration. It’s like when you spend that much time, people always warn you not to work with your spouse or significant other because it just gets tense, and there are obviously moments where we’d been in the same room too long and it’s time to get lunch. But I thought it was really great and we both have something to bring to the party.
Q. What photographic challenges did you encounter?
A. Within the first couple days of doing it, we realized that if you have everything served in a bowl or a pot, it’s really boring photography. It’s like, “Oh great, another bowl of food. Oh wait, another bowl with soup in it!” So we started pulling out the ingredients and treating them like family portraits.
Q. You’re a potter and you serve food in your own bowls. Is the pottery in the book yours?
A. I became kind of obsessed with pottery, kind of by accident. I’ve been in the restaurant business so long I’m afraid my brain is starting to atrophy, like you get so focused on one thing that all your other focuses fall off. So I said, I’m going to get a hobby that has nothing to do with food. But I instantly fell in love with making plates, and within a few sessions I was like, I should be making stuff for the restaurant. I was on a mission to make all the plateware for the restaurant. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but pretty much all the plateware in the cookbook is homemade. I thought that’d be a nice touch, give a rustic look to it.
Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.