Vanessa Rea-Marcel, 32, is the wine director at perennial Fenway favorite Eastern Standard, which turns 15 this year. But the professional dancer and Everett native began her restaurant career in less sleek surroundings: scooping ice cream at Richardson’s in Middleton.
She went on to become a server at Legal Sea Foods.
“That’s where I got the spark for hospitality. I wanted to know more and more, to nail the menu, to know the wine pairings,” she says.
She continued to work in restaurants in Boston and in New York City while pursuing a career as a dancer, earning her sommelier certificate at Manhattan’s International Culinary Center, where she was the valedictorian. She and her husband returned to Boston two years ago for a job at Harvard Square’s short-lived, upscale French restaurant Les Sablons.
Happily, sister establishment Eastern Standard soon scooped her up, and Wine & Spirits Magazine recognized her one as one of the best new sommeliers of 2019.
What’s the first restaurant you remember eating at in Boston?
Great question. This is probably not my first, but a favorite during my childhood was Jeveli’s in East Boston. It’s a red-sauce, Italian-style restaurant. With our family, dining out was more of a special occasion when I was younger. It was a big deal for us. It was the ultimate comfort food: Chicken parmesan was the go-to, and it was a nice time to spend with my family. I’ve lived in Boston my whole life, and that’s the one I remember the best — I was 5, 6, 7. I grew up just north of Boston in Everett.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here?
Balance and sustainability for sure. As a career, it’s so dynamic to work in the restaurant industry. There are many positives — the opportunity for constant growth, educational seminars, and an inspiring community and culture. But there’s a few negatives that go along with it: longer hours, shifting schedules that aren’t set, and an emotional and physical output that we give to our guests. We have to keep it buttoned-up and put on a good face and make sure we’re giving them everything they might need. But my career is rewarding and [Eastern Standard] honors the balance that I need with my family. We’re lucky here, for sure.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you started working in Boston?
It’s super different. I stayed in Boston until about 2009; I worked in a few restaurants, Legal Sea Foods especially. That was my first real-life server job, where we were responsible for knowing everything on the menu and having a good rapport with guests. Seeing how Boston was then compared with now, it’s just worlds apart. There are more family-owned restaurants and smaller ventures; it’s nice to see a little bit more variety in cuisines we’re offering and the styles of dining we provide.
What restaurants do you visit when you’re not working?
I’m kind of a homebody, admittedly. My husband is an amazing cook, so I’m really spoiled there. We love Haley.Henry for hunks of bread and delicious natural-leaning wines; it’s a super go-to for us. Café du Pays is another place I checked out within the last few months that blew me away with simple, delicious pates; charred vegetables; simple preparations delivering a lot of flavor. And everyone loves Toro, including me. They have a small, concise wine list I can really get into.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think you might work in restaurants someday?
That’s an awesome question. I grew up as a dancer and as a performer, which I definitely think relates to tableside manner and presence. I had a really incredible server who was emotive, and had great poise and posture, so feeling I could relate what I was doing artistically to something that could be tableside made a difference for me. The way the server moved around the dining room, it was amazing. This girl was floating through the dining room; she had amazing posture. This might be so dorky, but it was at Bertucci’s or something in that line! I was probably in my early teens.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had?
Oh, man. OK. No names here. My husband and I love … to cozy up at a bar or counter and take our time through a few courses, share things, and drink a bottle together. We had been traveling and went to a restaurant that had amazing accolades. It was suggested by a couple of our friends; we picked out a couple dishes off the menu, noticed some specials that didn’t have prices attached, quickly inquired, and made some decisions. We received the dishes we ordered, and then food just kept coming from the kitchen — which was awesome. It feels so nice to be showered with that kind of hospitality. But, when it came down to the bill, everything that came to us was on it. We asked the server, and that was it. It was a little bit of bummer. The food was so good, but I wouldn’t go back. It made me feel uncomfortable.
How could the Boston food scene improve?
It’s changed so much and is going in a good direction for sure. … I lived in New York, and there was so much variety. You could dine out every evening no matter what your budget. I’d love to see a smaller version, where we could grab hold of more variety.
Describe your customers in three words.
Knowledgeable, curious, and direct.
What’s the most overdone food or drink trend right now?
Boutique food delivery! I spent a minute thinking about it, because delivery is the best of all worlds. You don’t have to move from your couch and pajamas. But you can get Café du Monde beignets sent to you next day! Something about that makes me cry a little. Sometimes the food is meant to be enjoyed wherever it is; sometimes a beignet tastes better when it’s balmy and humid with your chicory coffee, at least for me. I don’t want to take the magic out of visiting the space.
What are you reading?
A book called “Flawless: Understanding Faults in Wine” by Jamie Goode. It’s very interesting and incredibly scientific; it’s a fun read for sure.
What’s one food you never want to eat again?
Large, honkin’ oysters. I love a small, briny, delicate little thing, but there’s a certain size and texture I can’t get past, personally.
And a drink?
I don’t know if I can do that. I remember I visited Napa a few months ago, which was an incredible trip. I had the best time, but we tasted a whole lot of newly oaked Cabernets. After the 13th or 15th or 30th one, we were getting a little fatigued there. Let’s drink some champagne!
How’s your commute?
I live in Everett, and I take a bus and two trains to get here; if you hit it just right, it’s perfect. There’s just enough time to read a chapter in your book or catch up on your e-mails. But if you don’t, it can turn into a really tricky commute, for sure.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing?
Mexican restaurants that honor nixtamal — the process that happens when you grind down the corn. They have a beautiful stone grinding tool in Oaxaca that makes it really fine; you form it into your masa, you grill out your tortillas on a stone comal that makes it smoky and imparts more flavor. It’s so delish.
What Boston restaurant do you miss the most?
I didn’t do a heck of a lot of eating out when I was younger in Boston, but one place my husband and I visited was for pho in Chinatown, called New Dong Khanh. They closed this summer and have not reopened. We miss it, especially this time of year, when you want a delicious, hot bowl of ramen noodles.
Who has been your most memorable customer?
We have so many guests, but there’s this couple Miriam and Barton who have been with us since day one. They’re super supporters of the wine program, really delightful and knowledgeable, and some of the kindest, thoughtful humans. Everyone goes to their table to say hello. They also have the best grandchildren, two younger girls who come in. Our old GM used to take them to the back; they make crepes and all kinds of neat things. On special occasions, they bring in their grandchildren to come in and cook with us. It’s really sweet.
If you were to eat your last meal in Boston, where would you go?
I’d have to make it a daylong event for sure! Ideally it would be in the summer. I’d have to walk from place to place. I’d start at Island Creek and get a mess of oysters, shrimp cocktail, and champagne, I’d walk that off and get a lobster roll at Neptune with a lot of Chablis, and then do a little stroll to Mike’s Pastry for pistachio cannoli.