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GETTING SALTY

Jeff Cala, Serenitee Restaurant Group’s COO, dishes on the North Shore dining scene

Serenity now? His new Alchemy restaurant opens in Lynnfield this week.

Serenitee Restaurant Group's Jeff Cala.
Serenitee Restaurant Group's Jeff Cala.Courtesy photo

Razor clams, bone marrow dip, and cauliflower steak come to Lynnfield this week when Alchemy opens at MarketStreet in the old Gaslight space, with chef Mike Stark (Coppa, Ruckus, Shojo, Tiger Mama) in charge. It’s the latest from the Serenitee Restaurant Group, which runs North Shore restaurants like Opus in Salem and The Spot in Winchester — casual, people-pleasing restaurants that serve a mix of comfort food, seafood, and sushi. (An earlier iteration of Alchemy opened in Gloucester in 2002.) Jeff Cala, 50, is a chef and chief operating officer for the group, and he’s optimistic about the future of suburban dining.

Hopefully, the pandemic is on the wane. But what’s it like to open a restaurant at this moment in time?

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Before COVID, we had nine restaurants, give or take. We’ve been methodical about where we wanted to place our next restaurant or restaurants. As soon as COVID hit, my phone, e-mail, and texts just went berserk — landlords, restaurant owners, developers just blowing up my phone: ‘Jeff, I have a tenant that can’t pay the rent. I have a tenant that disappeared in the dark of the night. Please help us take this over, buy the equipment, buy the liquor license.’

So we kind of assembled. We have a board. We did an emergency board meeting and said, ‘What do we want to do? Do we want to go zero to 100 right now?’

We knew the demographics and wanted to be in Lynnfield.

Why?

WS [Development] called when they actually just started breaking ground. Truth be told, they were in the permitting process with the town. I met with them, and the rent projections and the lease stuff was just too big for us. Great people, kind people, forward-thinking people, we did our homework on them. We got nervous; it’s just big money.

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So then they called me back, at the height of COVID, and said Aquitaine Group had approached them. They had let them out of their lease and said, ‘Jeff, we really want you.’ It’s a crapshoot. We negotiated a lease in our favor, but we went back and forth for four months. We wanted to be there but couldn’t pay that kind of rent — we held the cards for the first time.

Is rent that much cheaper in the suburbs and in the city, and is that going to continue to trend that way?

Rent here was 25 to 40 percent cheaper in the last three years. It’s narrowed to 20 percent and honestly, I think it’s just going to keep getting worse. I’ve had three people try to buy my house in Essex — and I don’t have my house listed. People are knocking on my door.

How did you get into the culinary business?

I’m a chef by trade. I grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and got involved in bars at an early age there. I started out as a fry guy. Obviously, Rochester and Buffalo are known for their chicken wings. I was 13 or 14 years old. You didn’t have to be 15 back then to work. I got an opportunity to open up a country club. It was called Eagle Vale Country Club in Fairport, N.Y. They assembled a phenomenal team in the kitchen. I was taught how to use a knife properly. I worked under a French chef; his name was Keith Dom.

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In 10th grade, I knew that I couldn’t stand school. I had no interest in school. I was never in school. I played a lot of sports. It’s about the only thing that kept me going. End of first semester of my junior year, I took off for Southern California. I followed a whole bunch of older kids out there from my brother’s grade and took off.

What was that like?

I was at La Campanile in LA. They opened up in 1989. I wasn’t on the opening team. I got there about eight months after they opened, with Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel. I was a line cook there. That was awesome. It was on La Brea Avenue. I fed Barbra Streisand, Oprah, Robert Redford. A who’s-who ate in that place, and it was an exhibition kitchen. So we got to see all these people. And, you know, as an 18- or 19-year-old kid from nowhere in Rochester, N.Y., it was pretty cool.

How do you think the dining scene on the North Shore is unique or special? What is it about that part of the world that’s distinctive?

It’s catching up. It’s definitely catching up. When we opened up the original Alchemy 20 years ago, we were serving things that this area, especially Gloucester, had never, ever seen. We had the first woodfired pizza oven in this area. And I remember sitting in the front window for the first couple weeks, and we had a menu box outside, and we were sitting waiting for people to come in. You’d see these people looking at the menu box like, ‘What the hell? Charcuterie? Foie gras?’ Just the terminology. People made fun of us. They thought we were uppity.

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That was not the case at all. We were just trying to bring something different and unique and fun — and we had a hell of a run at Alchemy. Now, I’m seeing all the ethnic food, the Indian, the Moroccan, the Thai, Mexican. Obviously, seafood is more than taken care of. Frank McClelland opened up in Beverly. All these chefs who are getting older like myself are leaving the cities for their own little chef-owned bistros, trattorias, whatever you want to call them. It’s come a long way.

How do you feel about customer confidence in going out to restaurants again, especially with what we’re now hearing about Delta?

We never shut down all the way through COVID. We acted quick. We put up salvaged windows in between the booths, and we never skipped a beat. We actually held our own during COVID. We adjusted quick to the takeout. Even if you didn’t want to come into the restaurant, we’d walk it out to your car, we’d bring it to your house if, you know, Uber Eats was packed. I think we made people feel safe.

And even though the flood doors have opened, we have multiple managers who are still wearing masks. All the old windows and stuff are still up. Our numbers are as strong as is ever. But we’re still sending out messages of using hyper-strong disinfectants on the table. Our managers do have masks; all of our staff has been vaccinated by choice.

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I’ve noticed a lot of restaurants are like, ‘Oh, everything’s back to normal. Baker said it’s OK.’ We’ve stayed the course for the most part. I think we start music at Opus next week, but we haven’t gone into sixth gear yet. We’re slowly progressing, and I think people appreciate it.

Will this be like the old Alchemy in Gloucester?

We took the old bar that Gaslight had, and we’ve turned that into a sushi, sashimi, Kobe beef station. We’ll do omakase there as soon as we get our legs underneath us. We’ve taken one element that people really loved and switched it to another element.

There’s a lot of snacks. It’s eclectic. Razor clams casino, caramelized onion and bone marrow dip, truffled burrata cheese, Japanese grilled corn. There’s a really good balance of vegetarian. There’s an Indonesian, Thai, Japanese flair. A crying tiger salad with butter lettuce. Halibut saltimbocca. There’s a cast-iron cauliflower steak.

What’s your favorite Boston restaurant?

I love Coppa, because it’s small. It’s quaint. They’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. The food is very, very consistent. The servers are awesome. I don’t drink, but they’re always reinventing their bar program. They have a great mocktail program. There’s not a million people in there. I mean, you could sit on the street, if you get lucky. It’s just easy. And I’m a big sushi guy, so I love going to O Ya.

Favorite pandemic-era snack?

I ate a ton of Indian food. I go to Anmol in Beverly. They’re just phenomenal people. They really hunkered down during COVID; they shut down their entire dining room and just did takeout. They would give me my food at the back door.


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.