Zaid Khan, 37, lived all over the world before settling with his wife and son in Eastie to work at OAK Long Bar + Kitchen at the Fairmont Copley Plaza. Many chefs gravitate toward hotel restaurant work for better hours and more stability, and the Oak is a mainstay. But he started the new position in November 2019, just four months before COVID-19 forced him to completely reimagine his career. The restaurant officially reopened on April 1. Fortunately, for this world traveler, adaptability comes naturally.
You started your job at an unusual time, right before the pandemic. How did that go?
Oh, my god. I started in November 2019, moving over from Seattle. I moved into Eastie, and I love our neighborhood. I was really just getting a feel for Boston’s food scene and trying to figure out what’s what — and then, bang, the lights went out, right? I love watching live sports. Everyone said that Boston is the best pub and sports town in the country, and I wasn’t not going to experience it, so I was a little bit upset on a personal level. I really wanted to get to Fenway; I really wanted to get to Foxborough, all this sort of stuff. It’ll come.
Beyond the sports, what brought you to this area?
I started my cooking career in Australia, in Brisbane, and I worked with various independent restaurants. There’s a really good independent restaurant scene out there. I worked in various restaurants in Brisbane and wanted to do a little bit more. I took a job in the Whitsunday Islands, up in Queensland. I worked at a resort called Qualia, a six-star resort at the time. People stayed in luxury villas; I worked for a chef called Jane-Therese Mulry, who was the executive chef at the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg.
That’s where I met my current wife — so a classic hospitality love story. I was working breakfast service and she came in to do a job share, because it’s an island with various resorts. She was food-running, and that was it.
From there, we decided to do some travel. We decided to move to Vancouver and landed with literally a backpack on our back, and that’s all we had. We found a little apartment down the West End, and I got an executive sous chef job at a standalone restaurant down in Yaletown. I was there for about a year and a bit before I decided to do a little bit more travel and took a job off the Alaskan panhandle there, a salmon fishing lodge. People come up on fishing packages, and you’re cooking all their meals for picnics on the boats, and they come in the evening and you cook for everyone in the galley. You’re on a floating barge, so it was a really unique experience. That was one of the highlights of my life, to be honest.
Then we did four months in South America and then spent four-and-a-half years in Bermuda. We planned our wedding from there. Bermuda has some super fond memories for me. But Bermuda can be a little bit of a bubble. It has a great little food scene there, but you’ve got to spread your wings. So I took a banquet chef position in Seattle at the Fairmont. I was there for almost two years, and then this opportunity came up.
We always loved Boston. We came here for a week from Bermuda. We were blown away with how clean, neat, and tidy it is. Great public transit. The schools are good. We went to Craigie on Main, we went to Deuxave, and we thought it was pretty solid. And, from a family perspective, we thought it’d be a good place to start raising the family. We love it to be honest; we feel safe. It’s a bit of a contrast to Seattle, in some ways.
You’ve been all over the world. How would you define Boston’s food scene?
Boston food has a strong identity. I bought a car during the pandemic and, like a lot of people do, I drove around. I went up to Marblehead, Rockport, down to Mystic, and it does have a strong, strong coastal New England identity.
But what I want to do is start extrapolating on that. You come to New England, if you’re in a luxury hotel, you want to have a lobster roll, right? You want to have a clam chowder. That’s New England and the classics, but then we also have the ability to take some items and funk them up. You can serve mussels in a different way. You can get funky with scallops or different things like that. That’s where I think the opportunity lies. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but you just want to show everything that’s good about the region, because there’s so much good in a small little area.
What style of restaurant are we missing — not even speaking as a professional chef, but as someone who lives and eats here?
Personally, this is just because I’m from Australia, and I’ve done a fair amount of travel in Asia, for me, it’s like finding a way to integrate Southeast Asian and Indian or East Asian cuisine into those New England products. How do we integrate that into delicate products such as scallops or halibut, so on and so forth?
Tell me a little bit about the past year. You arrived at an unusual time. How was it psychologically?
It was super tough. All of a sudden, the sky starts to fall, right? I have a little boy, 4 in May, who was 3 at the time. Day care shut. My wife’s furloughed, and all of a sudden, I’m furloughed. And what do you do?
You’re in a foreign country, and the borders are closed in Australia. Borders are closed all around the world, actually. Where do you go from here? And what’s the timeline? There was so much uncertainty. We didn’t know if it was going to be a month, two months, six months.
We got ourselves busy in the hotel. We managed to take a lot of things that were going to perish, and we started a program cooking meals for colleagues. Myself, my director of food and beverage, and another food and beverage manager, we got together every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and we cooked meals for our colleagues who were also dealing with the uncertainty. We thought one hot meal for a family could go a long way. So we started doing that. We did odd jobs around the hotel; we painted the back-of-house areas for the place to be a lot more welcoming. I worked overnight shifts in the security booth to get by.
And then, as we went to reopen, it was all hands on deck. It’s a new normal. Now, you have to wear a lot of different hats. You have to be willing to do slightly — I wouldn’t say more — but work in a different way. So that’s been an adjustment. But everyone here has been absolutely outstanding. The team is willing to jump in and do more.
Were you scared?
There were times when I was coming to work during the pandemic, going home from an overnight shift at like 5 in the morning or something. I could walk, because it was so beautiful. I actually walked down the middle of Boylston for two blocks at like six in the morning, and there was not a single car. This is the height of the pandemic. It was crazy. I’d jump on the T and be the only one there. I’ve walked through the Boston Common and the Public Garden. And I’ll always cherish these memories because it was so still. It felt like the end of the world. There was literally no one around downtown Boston for a four-week period. It was pretty insane.
My wife and I are pretty adaptable, because we’ve lived in quite a few different places. So we are used to picking up and moving. But it was scary knowing that the options of where to go weren’t there.
As a chef, the loss of routine was the most difficult thing. We’re not the greatest with hobbies, as a profession. We’re not playing a lot of racquetball on a Saturday afternoon or anything like that. Our lives are generally set by work. It’s just a rhythm, a gear, you got to do this, you got to do that. And that rhythm’s gone.
What do you think the future holds for hotels and tourism here in Boston going forward?
Strong. I see it coming back strong, and we see the demand coming back every single day. We’ve gotten so many leads for weddings. We anticipate being strong through June, through the end of the year with weddings, with people who want to celebrate. They want to get out; they want to be with people again. The future’s bright.
We do anticipate we’ll come back strong as well by 2022 in group business. I can’t reiterate how important vaccinating is for our industry. We need the vaccination, so people can go out with confidence again. We believe it’s around the corner.
Have you been able to get vaccinated yet?
My sleeves are rolled up and I’m ready to go. But I’ve not gotten the call yet. There’s a few various numbers you can try to get last-minute excess doses, but yeah, still waiting. I’ve been pretty lucky this whole time. I’ve gotten on the T a lot during the pandemic, and I feel quite safe. They did a pretty good job of keeping the mass transit clean.
What’s your favorite restaurant when you’re not working?
The first place we ever ate in Boston was Santarpio’s. My son goes to the YMCA near there. And anecdotally, one day my wife said, ‘We’re going to have pizza for dinner.’ She’d bought a pizza from the supermarket. My son got home, and he was 3 and a bit of the time, and he got really upset. The next time we said we’re going for pizza, he walked out of day care, took a left, and literally marched us to Santarpio’s. So he knows.
We also support a lot of little places in East Boston, like Angela’s and Cunard Tavern. It means a lot to them that we walk down there and have a meal and support them. So we’re trying to think global and act local.