The first word that comes to mind when sampling the food at 50Kitchen, chef Anthony Caldwell’s Fields Corner restaurant, is “flavorful.”
There is nothing timid here. Not in the sneaky heat of the gumbo dipping sauce that accompanies jambalaya egg rolls, which look like standard Chinese takeout fare, and at first taste like it, too — until you start chewing, and then there you are, transported to New Orleans by the spices in the rice-and-sausage filling. Not in the thyme-infused maple syrup or intense house-made apple butter served with the chicken and waffles. Not in the bang bang cauliflower, fried nuggets sticky and glistening with sauce, concealing a virtuous vegetable heart. And not even remotely in a sandwich called The 50K, a brioche bun piled with smoked pork rubbed generously in five-spice powder and sauced to the point where it could best be called juicy — yet somehow still isn’t soggy.
But there is subtlety, too. What makes the 50K so good is the Asian pear slaw tucked into the bun, delicate shreds of crisp fruit sweet and refreshing against the smoky spiced meat, fronds of cilantro laid on top. Caldwell’s dishes merge savory with sweet, sweet with spicy, spicy with rich, adding up to one satisfying whole.
“I don’t believe you need 15 ingredients to make something taste good. And I don’t believe you need 15 components to make it look good. Simplicity still exists,” Caldwell says. “There are a lot of things in my restaurant where it’s just three ingredients and people are like, ‘What is this?’ I think that a chef is one who is highly skilled in flavor profiles. You just have to know how to marry things.”
Combining ingredients and techniques from Asia and the American South — a smoked brisket banh mi that pays tribute to the neighborhood’s Vietnamese community, a side of collard greens simmered with kimchi — he creates fusion fare that isn’t just a gimmick. Everything tastes right together.
It is a difficult thing to pull off, but Caldwell is accustomed to doing difficult things.
Like keeping his brand-new restaurant going through a pandemic. After years of hard work, Caldwell finally realized his dream, opening 50Kitchen in Dorchester, where he grew up. It was February of 2020. When he had to fight for emergency funds; when staffers have been impossible to find, limiting the hours he can open; when a car hit his outdoor patio late one recent night and insurance didn’t cover the damage — through it all, he keeps it going.
Like making it through 4 years and 7 months in state prison. “I made some bad decisions,” he says. “You mind your business and you make it home.” There, he took a kitchen job to earn good time and fell in love with cooking. It was a sprinkle of parsley that started it. “I saw a plate that had no life to it whatsoever, and chopped parsley gave it a name, an address, and a Social Security number. It gave it character. I was blown away. You’ve got to be kidding me. Chopped parsley did all of that?”
He landed a job at Legal Sea Foods — the meticulous labeling of allergens on 50Kitchen’s menu is one holdover from those days — then went on to cook at the Sheraton hotel, the John Hancock building, and Harvard; start his own catering company; and win a neighborhood competition that earned him his retail space. In May, he appeared on the Food Network’s “Chopped: Martha Rules,” with Martha Stewart.
“We have people coming in, ‘We’re so glad you’re here, thank you so much for being here,’ sometimes I just have to go downstairs and have a moment. I shed a tear or two because it’s so overwhelming. I used to be the person they would run from,” he says.
And like putting down the bottle, trading it in for a sustaining faith. He had struggled with alcohol addiction, considered suicide. Then God came to him with a deal. “What God said to me was that if I did stop drinking and lived my life for him that he would give me my own kitchen by age 50,” says Caldwell. He is now 52. “That was his promise. My promise to him was that every time someone asks me ‘What does 50Kitchen mean?,’ I promise to glorify his name. To date, I haven’t stopped doing that.”
It’s written right on the latte-colored walls of the little restaurant. Around the orange 50Kitchen logo, and the motto “beautiful food for beautiful people,” are painted the words joy, peace, happiness, love, faith. And at the top: “My story, his glory.”
“I tell the truth about my story because my story is my testimony, and my testimony is my journey, and my journey is my future,” Caldwell says. “I believe that the restaurant is saved by God’s grace, because we are still open. So many restaurants have closed due to the pandemic.”
On a recent evening, a young couple comes in for date night, settling in at one of the few indoor tables. A mother and son arrive to pick up takeout. Caldwell is in the back, cooking in the open kitchen. The sweet smell of waffles wafts into the room. I take a bite of my shrimp and grits — rich, buttery, spicy. The shellfish are perfectly cooked, still with a bit of snap. “Time and temperature,” the chef says. “That’s all cooking is. Once you master those two, everything else is easy.”
50Kitchen is about food, and flavor, and bringing together the cultures of Fields Corner on one menu, in one space. For Caldwell, it’s also a chance to help others by sharing his own experience. Maybe they have a relative or friend going through what he has been through. Maybe they are going through something like it themselves.
When people hear from him, he says, “they’re like, ‘Your story gives me so much hope and inspiration.’ I want them to hear my story so they know that if they don’t give up, they can make it. I’ve been there.”
50Kitchen, 1450 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester, 617-474-2433, www.50kitchen.com.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.