Sam Olivari, 33, is executive chef at Traveler Street Hospitality. The group runs several of the South End’s hottest restaurants: Black Lamb, Bar Mezzana, No Relation, and Shore Leave (which are temporarily closed due to coronavirus). He originally attended Wentworth Institute of Technology for engineering, but he worked in catering on the side, cooking Indian food — and he loved it. So he dropped out of school and later enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He later interned at Wellesley’s Blue Ginger and then found work at No. 9 Park’s bar.
“I applied with no experience serving on a bar at all, and I just kept bugging them until they hired me,” he says. Next was Barbara Lynch’s sister establishment, Stir, and stints at Newton’s Little Big Diner and Cambridge’s Table at Season to Taste.
What’s the first restaurant that you ever ate at in Boston?
Well, as a kid, my family always parked by Alewife and took the train in when we came into the city, so I’m sure it was something random like Ground Round or Summer Shack. I was a pretty picky kid, so I probably ate something like chicken tenders or quesadilla or a burger. I grew up in Gardner.
Under normal circumstances, what’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here?
Barring what’s going on right now, I’d like people to be more thoughtful and responsible in a lot of ways, be aware of employees’ needs, learn how to respect them, listen to them, and teach them. I’d like to see more responsible cooking and purchasing, but the challenges there are still so great and the costs are really high. So, it’s not an easy fix necessarily, but I’d love to see steps toward that.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you first arrived in Boston?
I started in the city in restaurants around 2008, so a lot has changed since then. I feel like it was a smaller group of restaurants around the city. People were really pushing to stand out. There was a lot more community as well. I feel like you have that in small ways here, but there are just so many places opening; it’s so tough to visit them all. When I started here, when a restaurant opened, you went after a two-week window to give them room to breathe and introduced yourself. And I feel like a lot of industry still goes out a lot, but it’s more focused toward the bar and the beverage community. I don’t feel like I meet a lot of chefs, cooks, and the like. I think that we hide in the shadows at times, and I want to meet them all.
What restaurants do you visit when you’re not working?
Honestly, I don’t get out as much as I’d like to. I like trying places with unique identities with great fuel behind them. Outside of the city: Market Restaurant in Gloucester. And I love the Table at Season to Taste in Cambridge, and Chickadee, and not necessarily for food, but Rebel Rebel. Plus little places like Dakzen and Manoa Poke, and I definitely don’t sleep on a hot dog from Formaggio South End.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think that you wanted to work in restaurants someday?
I don’t think I knew I wanted to be in restaurants necessarily until I actually started working in them and seeing what life could be like at its best there. Food-wise, I was really into trying new ingredients when I started being a teenager — but very poor at preparing them. I was really, really into “Iron Chef Japan”!
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had?
I went to a very fine dining restaurant in San Francisco. I had a full tasting menu. I was having a great time. We had a wine pairing. The wine-pairing pourers got a little aggressive, and we asked to slow it down a little bit and said, ‘It’s a little much.’ I had to cool off because we were getting a little ahead of ourselves with the pacing. The sommelier who was taking care of us just decided, ‘You’ve offended me by saying you don’t want any more wine!’ and just ignored us for the rest of the evening, passed us off to someone else, and just walked by glaring at us the rest of the night.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners.
Cognizant, discerning, convivial.
What are you reading right now?
Everything possible about COVID-19: the science, the public reactions, governmental response. We want to be as hyper-aware as possible; take necessary precautions for our businesses; and keep people safe, happy, and employed.
How’s your commute?
Not too bad at the moment. I’m living in Everett, so I drive through construction daily like most people. But I’m looking for a house, so my commute’s going to change drastically. We’re looking out a little farther west, closer to places like Hudson, Marlborough, Westboro.
What’s one food that you never want to eat again?
I’ve decided nattō. It’s a fermented soybean product from Japan that I’ve tried and tried and tried again — and I just decided I’m done, it’s not for me.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant?
Easily Hungry Mother, hands down. My wife and I went there a lot, and it was the perfect combination of comfort food and hospitality. I really think about it a lot when people ask me what my favorite restaurant is currently. I really miss that spot.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now?
Simple, tradition-based, cultural places that are aren’t there for takeout and cheap eats. I think these places should be applauded and appreciated more. I think we’re getting there with some places like Tanám, for example, in Somerville, but the dining culture here really needs to find satisfaction in these and support them rather than make them change to satisfy the need for familiarity.
Who was your most memorable customer of all time?
I’ve had a lot of really wonderful relationships with guests over the years and friendships that have come out of them, working in places like No. 9 Park and Stir, but I always talk about waiting on Rush, the entire band. It was an interesting night. It was a lot of fun. They really worked the room, which I’d never really seen before, and had a blast and got everyone involved and everything. Geddy Lee really knows his wine, and he held that wine list right in front of him the whole night and just ordered incredible, incredible bottles.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, where would you go?
I’m a New Englander at heart, and I’m simple when it comes to things like that. Living outside the city already, I miss certain things. And the one thing in particular that I can’t get correctly anywhere else is a fried clam roll. I’d go to Yankee Lobster.