In November 2019, South Boston’s Stephen Marcaurelle, 35, left his job as chef at Jamaica Plain’s Tres Gatos to open Nautilus Pier 4, an Asian-inflected seafood restaurant in the Seaport. It already had plenty of pre-opening buzz, thanks to a busy outpost on Nantucket. COVID-19 interfered with those plans, though, delaying the debut by a year. At last, the restaurant launched on April 1. It’s a relief for the Dracut native — but also a juggle as he balances kitchen life with his 4-year-old son and 7-month-old daughter.
How did COVID-19 affect the opening of Nautilus?
Originally, it was supposed to open in March 2020, and it got delayed by at least an entire year. It’s just been a lot to deal with. I left Tres Gatos in November 2019, thinking that I was going to start January 2020 for Nautilus — take two months off, spend time with my family, get my personal life situated. All of a sudden, it was delayed, and then COVID really struck in February and March. Next thing you know, it was 16 months between one chef job and another.
What did you do in those months of limbo?
I would go to Nantucket and work at the Nautilus there and learn the systems, learn the recipes, essentially see their style and see the way they think so we could make sure to complement everything down there up here, so it would be seamless. This is still Nautilus, even though it’s not in Nantucket, with the same exact crab fried rice and pork buns.
How did the pandemic affect you mentally?
There were points where I was ready to go work, and it just kept being delayed. I was going back and forth to Nantucket in the summer three to four days a week, and every other week my family would come down with me and stay with our chef-owner Liam [Mackey]. We’re pretty much family at this point, and we share a house in Boston together. When he’s up, his whole brood is up as well. He has a 4-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl as well. But this gave us, mentally, a lot of runway to make sure we got off on the best foot possible.
How would you describe the restaurant’s style?
It’s an Asian, seafood-driven, tapas-style restaurant. The food is broken up into small plates, large plates, and feasts. There’s a lot of Asian influences. Liam spent a lot of time throughout Asia; I have spent a majority of the last five years doing tapas. It’s a mash-up of influences from Spain and Asia, but we’ll do Middle Eastern, too. We do whatever we want. As long as we know we’d want to eat it and it’s tasty, then it’s going on the menu.
The Seaport is a long way from Jamaica Plain. How does it differ?
It’s gorgeous. It’s night and day between JP and the Seaport, that’s for sure. It’s got more energy. No matter what time of day you’re going to work or leaving work, there’s a lot of people out. A lot of families. A lot of Porsches being driven around. People want to go out and have a good time and spend money, and they want to try things.
We’re a little bit off the beaten path, but as the Boston World Trade Center gets going, in five years, the Seaport will look different than it does now, with all the new buildings being constructed.
When I get an Uber down there, [the driver] will tell me how he used to be a cab driver and go down to Anthony’s Pier 4. The only way to get cabs down there was to offer free tuna fish sandwiches. They’d get free tuna fish sandwiches to pick people up and take them back to the city! It was a dead zone.
What prompted you to leave Jamaica Plain and Tres Gatos for a new job?
Liam and I have been friends for 15 years now. He had been contacting me about potentially opening up a Nautilus Boston. We were ready to go years ago. We’re friends. He said, ‘We’re going to make you a partner here, and we want you to feel ownership and continue the Nautilus brand.’ When someone presents an opportunity like that, especially your best friend, you’ll say yes. I worked for Liam when I was 20 at The Pearl [on Nantucket]. That’s where we met. Then we worked together at Toro. He’s like a big brother to me. I knew he’d make sure that this restaurant would spare no expense.
What will the restaurant scene be like in a year?
We’re hoping to get back to normal, really. It’s been extremely difficult. We’re at six days a week and trying to get back to seven. We were able to hire people initially, but it’s been really tough all of a sudden to get all of the cooks we need and to get back to up to running seven days a week.
A year from now, we’ll be talking about private dining rooms and functions. I think we’ll be back to how it used to be with people feeling good. We’re getting used to not wearing a mask at this point, which is great. Our whole staff is fully vaccinated. We want to get back to the new normal of enjoying and spending time with family and friends, sitting at the bar. That’s what we want from customers and guests. We want them to have good time with us. We’ll supply the food, drink, and atmosphere.
What would you like guests to know right now?
We want guests to know that we’re all short-staffed and doing the best we can. Delivery drivers are short-staffed, fisherman are short-staffed, meat and fish is more expensive than ever. Everyone is just trying to survive and trying to pretend that things are going back. We’re trying to pretend like it’s a year ago and that we can pick up where we left off. But the truth is, the world isn’t fully ready to go back to normal yet. Hopefully they can be patient with how long it takes to find the talent needed to bring them a top-tier restaurant like the Nautilus.
How do you balance a new job with a young family?
Me and my wife talk about that a lot. We have two kids now. I drop off my son at school at 8 a.m.. Then it’s, ‘OK, buddy, I’ll see you tomorrow for a half hour.’ It’s really tough in that regard. Going forward, I need the bodies. It’s a struggle.
My wife works days. She sells wine. We have a nanny who takes care of our little girl. Then [my wife] relieves her, makes dinner, does bedtime, bath time, and then picks up where she left off. She’s treading water. I’m treading water. We just opened. That’s what I assure her: It’s not going to be like this forever. I hope someday we open for lunch, and I can work in the middle.
Most people in this industry who don’t have kids don’t mind the life of working nights. They like sleeping later and going to work later and working into the night and going to the bar after work. It’s all pretty cool for them, as it was for myself. It’s a good time. You have the coolest job in the world: a free meal every day, free drinks at the end of the night, hanging out with your buddies all day, a lot of energy.
Once you have kids, it’s: ‘Whoa. I need to focus!’ I have this whole other job I need to do. I need to re-engage with being a dad. It’s a huge struggle. You expend so much energy at work. Then you have the high stress of kids not sleeping through the night, the high stress of your kids wanting to essentially play all the time. That doesn’t seem stressful, but can I just sit on the couch and drink my coffee? Give dad 30 minutes to get going! My solution is, when we open for lunch, I can help lead lunch and dinner and be home by 7 p.m. to read them books and tuck them in at night. That would be the best of both worlds for me.
What’s your earliest food memory?
My dad liked cooking a lot. He would buy a bunch of food, his buddies would come over, and he’d cook everything all at once and we’d eat leftovers for the rest of the week. He’d make chicken “Marcaurelle,” which is essentially chicken tenders with ginger. At that age, you’re like, ‘Wow, what’s ginger?’ He’d teach me about ripping the chicken apart so that you get all those nooks and crannies, so it’s super crispy — fried chicken tenders. He’d make chicken cordon bleu when I was a kid, and stuff it with ham and cheese and, for who knows what reason, top it with béarnaise sauce.
Where do you eat with your family now?
We love Gray’s Hall. It’s next to our house. We can walk up there. They’re great to us. They send us cookies with the bill for the kids, and it’s a great little wine bar with awesome food. You can’t beat it in South Boston. We also love Hojoko over in Fenway, or Chickadee. [Chef-owner] John [daSilva] does a great job. Everyone has been great with our kids, being as nice as possible, being patient with the children. They seat us on the patio.
What did you binge-watch with your kids during quarantine? Anything?
We would watch a lot of movies in the morning, whether it was “Homeward Bound” or old movies from when I was a kid — “101 Dalmations,” “Peter Pan.” We’re talking movies from the 1940s. They’re timeless.
It’s been a hard transition, explaining life before quarantine. ‘Dad used to go work, and Dad is going back to work now.’ Those were special times. Hopefully we don’t have to do it again, but I’ll cherish it for what it was.