Xochitl Bielma-Bolton, 45, grew up in a big Mexican family in Southern California, where she made tortillas next to her grandmother — but her restaurant first job was as a pasta-maker for Olive Garden, where she earned raves from the chef. She worked her way up to management positions at Loews Hotels before coming to Haverhill, where she lives with her husband. This spring, she opened North Andover’s Bird & Wolf, a steakhouse-style café and restaurant that brings the outdoors inside, a concept known as biophilia: plant-lined walls, hydroponic garden towers, and a produce-focused menu with a section for pickled veggies and vegetarian mains (asparagus vichyssoise, cauliflower with couscous, and za’atar).
What was it like to open a restaurant during a pandemic?
Opening a restaurant regardless of the time is always just kind of a crazy person’s idea. Opening it during the pandemic just makes it even more so. When I decided to do this, it was before the pandemic. We were in construction during it, and because construction was considered essential, we actually didn’t miss a beat.
The silver lining was the fact that we had a lot of attention, because a lot of people were afraid to start a new business, especially new construction. A lot of contracts that were set had been put on hold. We had a lot of contractors bidding out for the jobs, and we were able to do this for much less than we originally thought we would. It’s weird to say that, but it’s true.
Why did you open in North Andover? I’ve interviewed people lately who have been really enthusiastic about opening suburban restaurants. Was it a purposeful choice, as opposed to Boston?
We looked at the surrounding areas, the people who live here and the lifestyle of people who are here. A lot of people in this area travel. They’ll summer here, they’ll winter there, and it’s kind of here and there. And the idea was: Why should they have to travel even into Boston — which is still a good 45 minutes to an hour away, depending on traffic — for an evening? If we can give them something similar to that in their backyard, would they come? Knowing the people in the area, I truly believed that they would, and frankly, they deserve it.
North Andover specifically hasn’t really had a new restaurant for quite a long time. So we wanted to give something beautiful and different to the area where we live. And, obviously, it was 100 percent a risk to do the level of what we’re doing outside of the city — but I had that old adage in my head: Build it, and they will come. I knew many people were hungry for something different.
What sparked your interest in a culinary career? Did that start in childhood?
It absolutely started in childhood. I grew up partially in San Diego and partially in the Imperial Valley, on a ranch. My grandmother was the driving force of the family, and food was love. I come from a very big, traditional Mexican family, cousins everywhere. On the ranch, we had chickens and goats and horses. In Imperial Valley, it’s all agriculture. Understanding those kinds of things was always embedded in me; understanding the importance of farmers and those kinds of things. My grandmother lived in San Diego. We would spend half our time with her, and it was learning how to cook and being with her in the kitchen, knowing that she put her love into the food that she fed the family. You feed the people that you love, and you give them the best that you can.
It’s funny because, you know, when growing up, my aunts and uncles were getting into little diet things here and there, feeling like they gained five pounds and understanding that they had to change their food, their eating habits, and how my grandmother would adapt to those things. I picked up on that really young. Food was our life, so I understood dietary restrictions — the weird things that little kids pick up on, being aware of aunts who were having babies and how they immediately changed their diet. I [remember] thinking, “Well, if that’s the best way to eat, you should probably eat like that all the time.”
What was your first restaurant job?
I haven’t really said this to anybody, but my very first job in the restaurant industry was, oddly enough, at the Olive Garden. Remember back when the Olive Garden used to have pasta-makers in every store when you walked through the front door? That was the first thing you saw. You saw a pasta-maker and a host stand that was off to the side. I was the first female pasta-maker for the Olive Garden.
I was a bit of a firecracker when I was a kid. So they thought, “OK, little smarty pants, let’s see you do this.” And they wanted to teach me to make pasta. The funny thing is, within the first week of making pasta, I went to the prep chef in the very back of the restaurant. She called for me and said, “I have to tell you, this is the best pasta we’ve ever had. Keep it going, whatever you’re doing.” And she just wanted to pat me on the back because she was a woman in culinary and the only woman in that kitchen at that point. So I just loved it. I looked at her and I’m like, “We got this.”
As I moved on in management. I went over to Loews. This really opened up my eyes to culinary. I wanted to understand the kitchen. Being in management, especially a woman in management, you can’t really control a kitchen if you don’t have an idea of what they’re doing. So I just told myself, “I need to go to school.”
My ex-husband was working at Loews at the time and asked the executive chef, “Where should she go to school if she’s going to do this?” He said, “Let me speak with her.” So I had a good two-hour meeting with him. He asked me to stage that night, which I did. The next day, he invited my husband and myself in for dinner, 12-course meal, all paired wines, amazing French cuisine. The next day, I went in to speak with him, and I looked at him, and I said, “Chef, you know, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize that what I was asking was probably ignorant on my part, because what you do was amazing.” He looked at me, and he kind of smiled. And he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what. That’s why I’m going to offer you a job.” And I kind of looked at him, “Excuse me?” He said, “I could send you to school, but then I would have to deprogram all of the bad habits.” He says, “You do this the right way. It’s the French way. And you learn as you go, and you work your way up. The fact that you have so much respect for the kitchen is why you will go far.”
That’s what changed my career, because it was somebody taking a chance on me to dive into a world that I had so much love and respect for and now it was opening its arms to me. I ran with it at that point.
I’ve tried to always hold on to that and open those doors for other people with those passions whether it be for culinary, whether it be for management, or any field, to be quite honest, because I feel like passion should be supported. And so that’s how I got into this — understanding how food works and how you can change the same handful of ingredients 100 different ways and have a multitude of responses from beautiful food. What that does to people and seeing the smile and getting people to say, “Wow, this is amazing” — you make them feel good for a while. That’s what I wanted to hold on to my whole life. I’ve known that the world is so hard outside, but the few minutes that they sit and dine with me, I want them to let the world go away and take them to another place.
On that note, let’s talk a little bit about the philosophy behind Bird & Wolf. Where did the name come from?
This is actually a fun story. Originally, it was inspired by a photo of a wolf and a bird in Siena, where there’s a statue of wolves that guard the town, and birds now have made it their home. So it was actually a simple photo that was taken by my business partner, and he showed it to me, and I started thinking about it.
It resonated in me. As it turns out, in the wild, the raven, who is our bird, hunts alongside the wolf. The raven scouts out, finds the prey, sends a signal down to the wolf, and the wolf will go and do the kill. Once the wolf is satisfied, then the raven will come down and do the cleanup and have its meal. So, once I read this, I put my computer down and I laughed, and I said, “This, to me, is the most primal form of hospitality.” And I loved it.
Talk to me about the design.
The whole theory is based upon biophilia. Simply put, biophilia is: How do we incorporate natural growth with living indoors and human society? We have seven living walls in the restaurant, and it was all built in by design, in very specific places. A natural air filtration happens with these plants; the air is actually sweet.
It’s funny, when we open the doors every morning, you have the small sense of the sweetness in the air, and it feels crisp and clean inside. And when you’re in a kitchen — and we have, by the way, a French style open kitchen, you can 100 percent see and hear everything — so you would think that those scents permeate throughout the restaurant. They simply do not. You can be here at any time, and it doesn’t matter if we’re grilling onions or we’re making bacon. You’re not going to have that sense throughout the kitchen, because of the filtration of these plants. There’s so many studies even done by Harvard Business School about plants and our connection with human society. It’s uplifting. So you take that, coupled with air filtration, and it’s cleaning your air in a fast, beautiful way.
The farm stands that we use are behind glass; we want to show how simple it really can be. So the way that the farm stands are now — I love this because when I was a kid, these things didn’t exist — they are plug and play. We want to break the stigma of people who say, “I don’t have a green thumb.” You really don’t have to have a green thumb. You just have to be able to test water. So the systems are so beautiful. They are freestanding; they can go as tall as you need them to be. They have light surrounding them, and they’re all on timers so that the plants get exactly the right amount of UV light.
You’ll see flowers inside of our cocktails, and some of the herbs mixed in to make those cocktails are also in our desserts. You see them in the salads. We grow lettuces and things like this. And the beautiful part about that is you realize that you can taste it. There are no chemicals, no pesticides. When you have a salad that was literally picked this morning, you taste it. You can feel it. The light in the people’s eyes when they see that is amazing.
What’s best your biggest lesson from running your own restaurant so far?
The biggest takeaway is probably just staffing. We’re all struggling with staffing. We had to open small because of COVID. We opened the cafe first with minimal hours because of COVID. We were limited to that. Not being able to bring in and have the full staff right off the bat was difficult, because we wanted to have that big-bang sense.
What are your favorite restaurants?
I have two favorites in the city. I adore Chris Coombs’s Deuxave. Anytime that I possibly can go, I do. The other is the Tasting Counter. If I can dine there on my nights off, I really do. But I will say one restaurant in Andover that I love is Thai, it’s a small little place called Gati. I love this place. It’s maybe five tables at the most, but what they do is amazing. It’s just good food. Sometimes, if I can get away for a little bit and spend some time with my husband, we’ll try to have a drink there and have lunch if we can. I always like to support the mom and pops.
Who has the best Mexican food in the area? Coming from California, you probably have opinions.
That’s hard to say. There are some good people coming up. I see that. There are some people who are really trying and doing well, and I support that 100 percent, because I would rather people try and make small adaptions in order to fit the palates of the people here than to not try at all. In Boston, El Pelón is really good. They do tacos. When I first moved here, the first thing I sought out was Mexican food in East Boston at [Taqueria] Jalisco. It’s funny because they’re from Los Angeles. I felt comfortable when I walked in there. That was my comfort food, trying to connect to the area. That’s where I went to for menudo, which is one of my favorite dishes. They carry that on the weekend.
Favorite pandemic snack?
Whether it’s pandemic or not, popcorn is my kryptonite. I’ll eat it for dinner, to be honest.
Bird & Wolf, 1268 Osgood St., North Andover, 978-208-1877, www.birdnwolf.com
Interview has been edited and condensed.