David Bazirgan, 47, is Boston’s culinary equivalent of Kevin Bacon: The guy has been everywhere, connected to just about every big name in the city. He began his culinary career with Barbara Lynch at Galleria Italiana in the 1990s, moving on to Olives with Todd English and Salamander with Stan Frankenthaler, ultimately becoming chef de cuisine at No. 9 Park with his old colleague Lynch.
Now he’s the executive chef at Bambara Kitchen & Bar at Cambridge’s Hotel Marlowe. It’s an unusual time to be a hotel chef — but also a creative one.
What’s it like to work in a hotel restaurant when tourism and travel is so different?
I was laid off the first couple of months. We shut down the operation, and there was nothing for me to do. I thought, ‘OK, cool, I can spend more time with my family.’ That was March, and then we decided when we got the green light again, we’d open the hotel and restaurant at the same time.
It’s been a whirlwind. Luckily, we had patio seating, so early on, we could seat outside and get this going. We’d never done takeout and delivery before that, or very minimal. It was a big challenge. Right away, I started thinking: What do we do here? The first thing I did was Captain Marlowe’s, which was a seafood, North Shore pop-up, in addition to our regular menu — fried clams, lobster rolls, chowder. It did OK.
We really tried to continue to generate weekly meal kits and stuff like that, which have been really successful, in particular for the holidays. We’re trying to provide meals that are really easy to reheat and comforting, plus lunch and breakfast items, French toast, and kid stuff too. With these working families, it’s hard for parents to do all this with remote learning and cooking and everything, and working from home. We do it now. My wife is working from home; we’re home-schooling. I just want to be able to pull something out of the fridge, reheat it, and have it be healthy and delicious.
In October, we started an Italian-American pop-up, almost a concept change. I changed the whole menu to Capalbo’s, which was red-sauce Italian, making all the pastas and breads in house. A lot of attention to detail, but super-simple and super-approachable. People have enjoyed it, but I’m ready to get back into my true cooking, which is seasonal and globally influenced Mediterranean.
Who are your customers these days?
Right now, it’s a mix of hyper-locals, first-timers, and the hotel. We’ve really pushed ‘knock and drop’ for hotel guests; we’ve seen occupancy range from 25 to 30 rooms to close to 200 over Valentine’s weekend. We anticipate the hotel will start picking up in late April, and once we launch our patio, we should see an uptick in business.
What’s the hardest part of running a restaurant during a pandemic?
Not being super busy. We’re a hotel restaurant. Our biggest drivers are business travel and the local businesses, and everyone’s working remotely, especially the tech spots. Business travel is gone. The hotel’s quiet. Valentine’s Day weekend was great, but the biggest challenge is keeping a positive outlook and keeping staff morale up, bringing a positive attitude every day. Bringing that energy. Being a leader. Getting everyone to be excited to be at work when you know you’re at risk — that’s the biggest challenge for me. How do I be a leader and also have compassion and empathy, but at the same time motivate?
Do you mean at risk for COVID? That must be scary.
You can’t keep doors open when it’s zero degrees outside, but we’ve been very vigilant about our processes, and we don’t have a lot of people inside at the same time. We have a big restaurant with high ceilings. The way we space out, I think we’ve been very conscious. But I’m in a kitchen; I’m on the line. I ask front of the house and staff: “How do you feel?” We’re making sure that we’re listening. Knock on wood, we haven’t had any issues yet.
You’ve been working in Boston restaurants since the mid-1990s. How has our dining scene changed over years?
I was young, green, a line cook just looking to learn back then. As far as a pulse on the overall scene back then, it was definitely larger plates. It wasn’t simple. Back then, it was layers and layers; Todd English’s food was steak that had, like, grilled sirloin with shiitake glaze and Roquefort cream and creamed spinach and grilled bread. And now, there are more world-class, countless chefs who are just pushing the envelope and just doing incredible food. The sheer talent pool of chefs has grown immensely. There are so many more diverse options for cuisine. We were limited to Italian, French, and Mediterranean back then.
Also, we’ve been really focused on health, and I have seen that as a trend, too, with chefs across the country. There’s more focus on self-care versus self-abuse, which is great to see. I’ve been cycling the past few years and really love it. It’s been good from a mental standpoint during the pandemic.
Where’s that change coming from?
I think you realize once you get into it that you’re able to work the hours with less burnout. You are ready for it and can do it. Instead of coming home and getting hammered or going to a bar, you wake up and work out. You’re ready to have a great day; it changes your attitude, your outlook, and your overall feeling. I think it comes from chefs inspiring other chefs. Once you get there, get to a point where it’s not a chore anymore to work out, you realize there’s so much benefit to that.
What makes the Boston dining scene unique and special, and what will sustain us in the years going forward?
I think there’s a tight-knit unit. Camaraderie here is really strong. My hope is that it will be easier for young chefs to open up. It has become such a challenge as far as the cost. It’s crazy. I think now with what the pandemic has done, I think it will be humbling for developers and landlords, in particular Boston itself. I think Cambridge and Somerville have become a bit easier over the years.
I think we have the best seafood; that makes it super special. I think the camaraderie helps, too. There is competition, but there’s a lot of love to go around, and we have a unified network of chefs here.
Fast-forward to March 2022. Are we back to normal?
I hope everyone makes it through, but I think that’s not realistic. I hope the majority of places make it through, and I hope to see places thriving and the outdoor dining scene really crushing it. I hope it’s really safe and that people feel comfortable to go out and mix it up, because I miss bars.
I think outdoor dining is definitely here to stay. I hope that the city will allow parklets to be a permanent thing, because I think that’s great and adds a European feel. I love it. I think the weekly meals and meal kits and providing a way for families to get great food from their favorite restaurants and reheat it is a huge thing, too. I think that people are anxious and excited for things to get back to normalcy soon.
What do you miss the most?
I miss going to see live music. I am extremely saddened by the recent closure of Eastern Standard. Garrett [Harker] and I worked together at No. 9 Park. I’ve known Garrett for 25 years. I was super sad about that, because whether it was going to a game or not, I used to love going there. I’m good friends with Jamie Bissonnette. He was the opening chef. I’ll miss that place a lot. I love Sarma, and who doesn’t? I miss the Middle East. I love going to see hard-core punk shows. I still dabble in the hard-core punk scene. I want to just go pony up to a bar. The time will come.