In the midst of COVID-19, Formaggio Kitchen’s Kate Smith becomes the big cheese at a Newton gastropub

Kate Smith, chef-owner of Newton's Thistle & Leek.
Kate Smith, chef-owner of Newton's Thistle & Leek.

You might wonder who would actually launch a restaurant in the midst of a pandemic, but if anyone can, it’s Kate Smith — an alum of New York City’s Le Bernardin and the South End’s Formaggio Kitchen and Toro. Smith, 36, will open Thistle & Leek gastropub in Newton Centre in August alongside her husband, Trevor. (He had been at Alcove in the West End; now he’s a stay-at-home-dad.)

It’s an unexpected twist for a one-time international relations and Spanish major at Boston University who took up cooking at Elephant Walk to help pay the bills.

Q. Talk to me about your plans for the restaurant. We’re hearing about all of these restaurants closing. You’re actually opening one.


A. Well, first off, I should say that this deal was in the works long before [COVID-19] started. We actually had some back and forth about whether it made sense to still move forward with it, just given everything going on. We ultimately decided that this has been our dream for years, and we’ve been working on it for so long, and we couldn’t walk away. So we checked in with everybody involved and had some serious conversations and decided that we were just going to find a way to make it work.

Our plan is to open in August, and we’ve been working a lot on getting a takeout menu together. We never thought that it would be an emphasis of our business, but here we are. We’ll do as much with outdoor dining as we can. And then, basically, we’re just going to do whatever we have to, to make it through this period.

Q. What are you nervous about? What do you think will work?

A. I think the hardest part is that no one really knows, and there are so many unknowns. Instead of planning for one scenario, like before, where we have to do this many seats, this much time, this much per guest to make it work, now we’re running eight different scenarios based on how much seating we’re allowed to have, based on how much takeout we might be able to do. Even staffing — we might be able to do it with a few people.


Q. What’s the appeal of Newton?

A. Actually, we initially had looked more in Cambridge. We’d lived in Cambridge for a long time, but we found this space. Everyone tells you not to fall in love with the space, but we went ahead and fell in love with the space. You walk around, and it’s so pleasant, there are all sorts of small businesses, people around, it’s just a really pleasant place. … It’s sort of a central point between the city and the suburbs. And, obviously, then you don’t have to deal with some of the costs of operating in Boston or Cambridge, just with licensing and property values.

Q. In terms of diversity and opportunities, what’s your take on the restaurant scene in Boston? What do you think our strengths are, and where can we do better?

A. I feel like there are people willing to do the work, and it’s clear that we all have a lot of work to do. My husband and I have both been, in light of everything going on, we’ve been looking at our whole career saying, “OK, where could we have done better? What could we have done better?”


There have been those graphs of who owns the restaurants in various neighborhoods, and there’s things like that, which are really troubling. And I think we definitely need to work on that, but I think the people who have restaurants, the chefs, the people running them, I think for the most part, everyone wants to do better.

Q. When you say ‘do better,’ what do you mean?

A. As far as not just saying the right things. And with all of the protests going on, and all of the racial issues that have come up, actively working toward a solution. Doing better than just saying, “We’re not discriminating.” Realizing that we actually have to look at how we’re sourcing, look at where money is coming from, look at some of the deeper factors in play, and really working against racism instead of just not being racist. Instead of just individually trying to be a good person, there’s a lot of hard work to be done.

Q. When you open your restaurant, what practices do you think you would put in place?

A. Well, one thing is, I think trying to reach out to more than just the conventional ways of hiring, the conventional ways of sourcing. At one restaurant I worked at, we worked through StarChefs, which works with high school kids who might not have as many opportunities. It puts them in restaurants to get exposure, start learning. There have been some great chefs who have come through those programs.


I think, aside from just race, just taking a chance on people who might not have this huge resume, who might not have had the same career path but [who] have that passion, who are going to work hard.

Q. You talk about taking a chance on people. Especially during COVID, can people afford to work in the restaurant industry in Boston? How do you actually make a living? I don’t mean that sarcastically — but, really, you hear from people who are unemployed right now. The margins are so thin, and the wages are not great. It’s a tough industry to be in. How does somebody make it work? You’ve made it work. What’s the secret?

A. I have to say, there have been a lot of times that it was really hard. I started out in the industry as a server. When I made the switch to start cooking, I had to move, because I couldn’t afford where I was living anymore. I couldn’t afford this and that. There were a lot of months of trying to decide what bills to pay.

I think that’s one area that needs a lot of work. I think that there are a lot of chefs and a lot of owners trying to solve the problem of how to provide a living wage for staff. I think it has to be a team effort between the diners and the restaurant, understanding the real costs go into the food — that it’s not just the ingredient that’s on the plate. If you want a restaurant that pays a living wage to staff, prices are going to be a little bit higher. I think the service-included model is a great model that would help some of that. But it’s also a big step for diners, and people aren’t necessarily as comfortable with it.


Q. Why?

A. It’s just change, and change is hard for everybody. People, I think, go to a restaurant because they want comfort. They want familiarity. It’s where you can relax and unwind. I think when you start trying to ask people to change how they dine, it’s a hard thing to ask.

Q. As a woman working in restaurants, what has your experience been? What can we do better? What has been good or bad?

A. It’s funny, because coming up through the ranks as a cook, I never felt like I was treated any differently because I was a woman. If I worked hard, if I put in the time, if I put in the effort, there was no difference. When I really started to feel some double standards was when I moved into management roles. I’ve definitely come across a lot of resistance toward people if I’m in a management role. You have to be really careful about how you ask people to do things, how you convey your emotions, how you carry yourself, because there are all sorts of labels that get thrown at women in power. That’s actually been harder to navigate than coming up the ranks as a cook.

Q. Give me an example.

A. It’s just, there are times that you’re in the moment, and you’re yelling — and I’ve actually heard other male chefs be praised for their leadership and for [being] no-nonsense or very strict. And then, if I’m doing that, it’s nagging. It’s being shrill. There are these negative connotations.

I have to say, in a way it’s almost been good for me because it’s forced me to just maintain my composure, no matter what is going on. One moment of losing it, and you’re done. I feel like it’s made me a stronger chef.

Q. Talk to me a little bit about the food and the role in the community for Thistle & Leek.

A. It’s going to be a gastropub. A London-style gastropub. While we were traveling around Europe, we fell in love with this style of restaurant, which is, first of all, cozy. It’s a pub, it’s that neighborhood restaurant, it’s relaxed, it’s casual. You can just sit down, take a load off, and really relax.

But it’s not traditional pub food. It’s not going to be shepherd’s pie and burgers and fish and chips. It’s more New England seasonal cuisine driven by the best of what we can get, the local meat, fish, produce, all of that, but done in that nice, casual neighborhood setting. We really want to be a neighborhood restaurant. Newton Center is wonderful, and we really want to be a part of that community.

Q. A lighter question: What have you been eating during the pandemic? Have you been stress-snacking?

A. Always. Actually, I eat more chips than I would care to admit. It’s definitely a guilty pleasure. I like just a plain old potato chip in any sort of dip. I’ll sit there with a bowl of chips and a dip and just eat the whole bag if I’m left alone to it.

Q. Fair enough. Last thing: As restrictions potentially ease, where are you going to go? What have you missed during lockdown?

A. Cafe Sushi is a standard for me. I crave it when I don’t go there. It’s definitely one of my favorites. After our daughter was born, my husband went to get takeout from Cafe Sushi, so it was my first meal. And the Table at Season to Taste was probably my favorite restaurant in the city, and I was really devastated they closed. I’m really going to miss that restaurant.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.