Most entry-level gigs aren’t glamorous. But thanks to persistence, Andrew Iacono’s first job after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America was at Alinea in Chicago, often hailed as one of the best restaurants in the world. Then he moved on to SingleThread in Northern California’s wine country. But the 32-year-old Weston native always planned to return East, and he recently accepted the executive chef position at Brookline’s Prairie Fire, serving wood-fired pizza and, soon, drinks in a beer garden.
What made you come back here?
I grew up outside of Boston, in Weston. I always wanted to come back. It was where I always wanted to end up, so I love it here. I grew up here. It’s home. Most of my family’s here.
I was Northern California, in Sonoma County, at SingleThread. And then my partner and I moved back to the Boston area in December 2019. We were thinking about really starting our own restaurant; that was our long-term plan here. We actually moved into our apartment in the South End in February 2020 and, two weeks later, everything kind of crashed. We were looking at doing pop-ups this summer, as things were opening back up, and then this opening at Prairie Fire came around. My plan is to be here; I’m excited about the opportunity here and what we’re building and doing.
How did how did COVID-19 affect you?
Restaurants are my life. I’ve always worked in restaurants. So when COVID hit, I was working for Formaggio Kitchen in the South End as a catering manager. It was casual, fewer hours than a restaurant, so I could focus on pop-ups. I worked the whole pandemic pretty much because the store was really busy. We were basically acting like a grocery store. It was just a weird time not being in restaurant.
What’s it like to be back in restaurants, working at Prairie Fire? How will restaurant dining change?
Prairie Fire is definitely new to me. I never worked here previously. I didn’t really know it previously. So I’m sort of growing with the reopening, but I feel like definitely people are very much ready to come back out to eat, to really sit at a bar again and have an interaction that people miss with takeout — but I feel like takeout is still very popular.
Speaking of takeout, what were people buying a lot of at Formaggio?
As soon as the pandemic started, we immediately switched to selling way more groceries: raw vegetables, dairy, gallons of milk at a time, celery, cucumbers. Cheese was never not popular for people.
What’s their most popular cheese?
Definitely all the Jasper Hill cheeses and Cabot Creamery. Comté, gruyère.
Tell me a little bit about working at Alinea. I’m sure a lot of people would be curious to know: What’s it like to work in a restaurant like that? How did you land it?
Alinea was my first job out of culinary school. When I was at the CIA, right around the time I was graduating with my bachelor’s degree, chef [Grant] Achatz’s second book was coming out, his memoir. He did a talk at the school, and I’d been e-mailing the restaurant trying to get a [job]. So he did a talk at the school and did a book-signing after. I went up and handed him my cover letter and resume. Then, a couple of weeks later, he was doing another talk in New York City, so I went down and did the same thing — went up with my cover letter and resume, and told him I was e-mailing the restaurant every day.
I think my persistence paid off, and they finally got me a staging job. I was in the kitchen within three days. I’ll never forget it; I got an e-mail. There’s no kitchen in the world like it. I had done some fine dining but nothing like that. I was an intern at Radius here in Boston, but nothing prepares you for walking through the back door of that restaurant.
Describe a typical night. What makes it so unique?
It is very intense, especially as a young cook. You’re running all day. Once you’re through those back doors, it’s a sprint. There are so many little details and rules that you don’t think about. It’s an extremely quiet kitchen. Just dropping a spoon or making the littlest noise — it really echoes there.
Any rules or parameters?
One of the big things there for me that I’d never seen before is cutting your tape [label]. Every container is the same way, and it’s something the chef got from French Laundry. Very quiet, no slamming cooler doors. Everything was really neat and precise.
You talked about working at Radius. What do you think all high-quality kitchens have in common? What makes a good restaurant great?
It’s definitely the little things, the details. A big one for me that goes all the way back to Radius is cutting chives. It’s the first thing you do when you stage there. We had this very certain way of cutting chives, very thin, and we had this certain way of doing it, called the back slice. It gets you out of your comfort zone right away. You want to slice chives, or any herb, very gently so you don’t bruise them, to preserve the flavor. Every time I cut chives, I think of that restaurant.
Who are your culinary heroes here?
Michael Schlow was huge for me coming up. When I was in high school still, 15 or 16, my parents met him. They went to an anniversary dinner celebration at Radius. They were talking to him and said, ‘Our son’s interested in being a chef.’ And he was like, ‘Well, he should come in and check it out.’ And so I was 16, I think, in high school, and I went in one night and sat at the pass. They gave me the full tasting menu. It was the first time I had foie gras. Just being in that environment that young really stuck with me. Then I had an opportunity when I was at the end of high school to do an internship. I’d been working weekends at a casual steakhouse, but Alta Strada in Wellesley Center had just opened so I did my high school internship there. Then I interned at Radius in culinary school. He’s been huge for me. Radius was an incredibly influential restaurant for me, and I still carry lessons from that restaurant everywhere I’ve been.
Where do you go when you’re not working now?
We definitely stick in the [South End] neighborhood a lot. We love Mida, SRV, all the Ink Block places are great — Bar Mezzana, Shore Leave. We live right down the street from Anchovies. I love all their appetizers: fried mozzarella, clams in garlic butter, fried calamari.
There’s such a staffing shortage in restaurants now. How are you coping with that? Is it affecting you, and what are your opinions on how to get people back working?
We’re lucky. I wouldn’t say we’re fully staffed, but we have an amazing, really young, really eager crew willing to learn. It’s on us to make sure people are coming into a great environment and that we’re really providing the resources they need to be successful. They’re less experienced people, but they’re willing to learn. It’s on us to teach.
What’s your piece of advice to places that are struggling to hire?
Just be accommodating. People have all different levels of comfort right now. Really working with people with a flexible schedule and times and really just providing what people need. It’s way different than when I was coming up in a kitchen: ‘This is when we’re open; you’re going to be here.’
It’s a different world.
Is that leading to more of a more welcoming environment in kitchens? This is not an industry always known for its sensitivity and kindness in terms of accommodation. Is the tide changing?
Absolutely. You know, I’ve seen it in the past few years for sure. It was one of the really like eye-opening things while I was SingleThread, being able to run a kitchen at that level without having all those fear tactics and yelling and screaming and all the things that sometimes get associated with high-end dining.
Favorite pandemic snack?
So my girlfriend was furloughed, and she’s in the industry as well. She’s a bartender, now manager [at Peregrine]. I’d get home from work at three or four; we have a little patio garden area in our apartment — cheese, charcuterie, a couple Negronis. That was amazing last summer.
And I like ice cream with stuff in it. I always go for Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food.