Medford’s Neighborhood Kitchen is probably the only place in town to get chicken and waffles, plantain lasagna, and salmon wontons all at the same time. Haitian chef Eddie George, 27, launched the Haitian-Laotian-American takeout spot with Laotian partner Joy Phoubaykham in November 2019, with a formal opening on Martin Luther King Day. The Mattapan resident — also known as Chef Flexx — talks about how he’s kept his new business (and his spirits) alive in tough times.
Why did you open on Martin Luther King Day?
It was a Black-owned restaurant. We wanted to make sure that everybody knew that we’re trying to stand out exactly as that, to let people know that. Especially around my community, because I was raised in, to let them know that things like this are possible. You can come from Mattapan and come from any part of Boston and open up businesses as a Black minority and still be successful. I felt like it was really significant to do it on that day, to show everybody that dreams do come true. Especially when it comes to things like that.
Where were you before opening your own place?
So basically I’ve been cooking since 2012. I started up at local country clubs. So, the Country Club in Brookline. Dedham Country and Polo Club, Weston Golf Club. A lot of those places helped me really shape a lot of things that I do in the kitchen, because those are more learning kitchens. They have less expenses to worry about, less overhead to worry about, so they’re more lenient with the food that they let you create with. So that gave me a lot of variety to cook with. And from there I started my own private company, where I would go to other people’s houses, cook for them, try to do anniversaries, birthday parties, anything I could pick up, honestly, just so I could get my name out there.
I’m from Mattapan. Born and raised in Mattapan. My mother and father are from Haiti. They came here in the ’60s. I was born in ’93. Around that time in Boston, there weren’t a lot of after-school programs that I was allowed to go to because it was pretty expensive, especially for my mother and father. But there was an after-school program, I can’t remember exactly what it was called, but I went to a Catholic school called St Kevin’s. And they had a police officer come in, and he was actually a chef, too. That was my first introduction to thinking about professional cooking. I want to say that was fifth grade. And then from there I would be cooking at home, cooking for my siblings, cooking for my mother, and things like that. My mother would work a lot, so a lot of times if she didn’t cook. She never worried about me cooking, because she knew I loved it.
Let’s talk a little bit about being a Black-owned restaurant in Boston. What has your experience been?
I want to say it’s challenging for sure, because of just labels automatically put on you as a Black-owned restaurant or a Black-owned business. You have to be at a certain status to achieve certain successes, and you have to make sure that you’re really looking out for your demographic and make sure that they’re really well taken care of, while also being welcoming to everybody else. That’s why the ‘neighborhood’ is really a big part of that brand, to make sure that everybody knows that this is a collective for anybody to feel comfortable to come and sit and eat, including our demographic.
So that’s one of the struggles for sure. Another one is just staying creative and staying on top of the times. Especially during these times it’s hard to be creative and see what everybody’s into, because everybody’s more into trying to focus on the issues, the issues that are really important nowadays, which are the COVID-19 crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement. Those are the two big issues that everybody’s really worried about. So right now I’m more focused on just giving everybody the good vibes and good food that they really need to de-stress and decompress.
Why did you choose to open in Medford?
There was a lot of things going on around Medford at that time. As you know, I’m Haitian. So the demographic in Medford is actually a high population of Haitians. They have a lot of Haitians around that area. Malden, Somerville, Cambridge are all close in that area in proximity, too. So a lot of Haitians gravitate towards us because of that. … Our original plan for that place was to make it more takeout-dominant because of the casino, Tufts Medical Center, and all the surrounding apartment complexes. I felt like we were going to be good as a different type of food scene for that area, too.
What’s the philosophy behind the food?
So I run the restaurant with my partner, Joy. She’s a phenomenal cook. Her family is originally from Laos, so a lot of cuisine comes from them and their background. And also, we like to mix and match our Haitian and Laotian heritage and get some fusion dishes going — like the Asian scallions, sesame waffles, and Korean wings, things like that, red sauce that we put on our salmon, the Creole sauce that we put on our chicken. From the spices to the grains and rice, we always try to bring it back to our heritage and how we grew up, to see if we can make people really feel exactly what we’re trying to come from.
How has business been since COVID-19?
Originally, we had closed down for about two weeks, just because of the pandemic itself. And then when we learned that we were allowed to open for takeout again, we were opened up. We were welcomed with open arms. Everybody was so welcoming, so supportive. Everybody came out, I want to say, tenfold, even before COVID, I want to say. Because I felt like everybody really wanted to see our business do well. We had a lot of support from the community, from my community in Mattapan, from people from South Shore, North Shore. I had people coming from New Hampshire, Providence. So, a lot of love.
This is our first year in business, so those obstacles I thought were going to weigh us down have actually been pushing us towards success.
What are some of the good things about operating a restaurant in the Boston area, and how could the Boston food scene improve?
The good for sure is definitely the support. Like I said, because I’m from here and I grew up here, I know a lot of people from the Boston area. They all come out and show support. I’ve been really adamant about my demographic, the Black demographic, the Haitian demographic, and a lot of our ties have helped improve the restaurant and everything like that. So I feel like that part of Boston, I really love the connection, seeing the connections that I’ve made years in the past come to light right now.
And some of the cons — if you wanted to be a food truck in Boston, you know how it’s harder because you can’t really have a lot of parking? There’s not a lot of parking spaces like there are in LA or in Miami. The food truck scene is a little weaker than I would want it to be; I think we could have a stronger food truck scene for sure. Because there are a lot of other chefs that are still cooking out of their houses or cooking in other kitchens because they can’t afford a kitchen, but they would be able to afford a food truck. But at the same time, there’s not a lot of opportunities out here for food trucks to keep going, just with the parking structure that they have right now.
Other than that, it’s phenomenal, but it’s getting even more phenomenal because of all the new chefs and all the new restaurants that are coming out.
Where are you really excited about? Which new chefs are you watching?
So I’m really excited about a restaurant out in Hyde Park that’s about to open up called Gourmet Wings. It’s run by a man out there by the name of Mick the Mayor. That’s how everybody knows him in Boston. He’s a phenomenal businessman, and I know that his wing spot is going to be phenomenal, too. Also, Zaz restaurant. They just did a rebuild out in Hyde Park; now they have a little bit more open dining space and a bigger area. Not a better atmosphere but a newer atmosphere for the people to come in and eat after this whole COVID-19 is over. So I’m really excited for that. And I have a new chef that I actually just hired; he’s going to be phenomenal in the kitchen. He already came up with a lot of great specials that I know are going to go well with my patrons.
Can you give us an idea of some of your favorite dishes?
He has a lot of taco recipes that he’s been itching to try. So his jerk chicken taco, his Chilean bass taco. His crab mac and cheese is killer. We actually just finished coming out with a new summer menu that dropped today. So I introduced a jerk chicken sandwich with pineapple salsa, chipotle mayo. Also, I dropped a pineapple bowl. So we’re going to have pineapple bowls for the summer.
So we’re going to have your option between steak, shrimp, chicken, lobster, pineapple habanero salsa or ginger scallion sauce, white rice, asparagus, and pineapple salsa, too.
What could Medford or Massachusetts state do to further support small businesses?
I know my people are definitely itching for some more late-night spots. Not just late-night club scenes, but more late-night eateries. So maybe if they want to lift up a little bit more of a ban, the time frame for Medford right now is till 11 p.m. I know my people would definitely love a 12 a.m. or even a 1 a.m. joint that they could come to grab a late-night bite. Because a lot of people are night owls around that area, too, from the casinos and everything like that. So I’d love to see that happen.
Will businesses like Encore Boston Harbor be able to come back?
The casino is definitely something that is going to be there for a long time. People love to gamble. I know for sure that once that opens up and people get the chance to go back in there and see what that environment is like and see that they’re safe and everything like that, then things will get back to normal.
What have you missed during lockdown? What’s is the first thing that you wanted to do once restrictions began to lift?
Honestly, I just wanted to travel. I wanted to travel. I wanted to get back home to Haiti. I can’t wait to do that. I still have a lot of connections out in Atlanta, California, Houston, so those places. I usually fly out to try to get a little bit more on the food scene too out there. So I can’t wait to get back to that.
What have you been eating in quarantine? Any favorite snacks?
I’ve been doing a lot of grilling in quarantine, I’m not going to lie. I’ve been grilling my life. I feel like I’m a grill master now. So, some burgers, some dogs. I throw a couple of kebabs on the grill. Definitely get right.
Neighborhood Kitchen, 84 Spring St., Medford, 781-391-9000, www.nkboston.com
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.