Vicki Lee Boyajian, 66, got her start cooking while a student at Watertown’s progressive Palfrey Street School, where she created her first commissioned meal on a class field trip and struck up a friendship with classmate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
“All the rest of us were sort of from lower-income families, we had no money, and we wanted a chance. But Kennedy came from big buckaroos,” she says, laughing.
Palfrey headmaster Ned Ryerson encouraged Boyajian’s culinary talents, and she proceeded to work for restaurateur Leo Romero (Casa Romero) and at other beloved restaurants of yore: Le Bocage, The Hermitage, Ciro & Sal’s, The Coffee Connection. Ultimately, she struck out on her own, selling pastries to top restaurants throughout the area. She’s been at her sun-drenched Cushing Square bakery, Vicki Lee’s, for 16 years, concocting lovingly made lemon squares and egg sandwiches with tomato jam, and will stay on for at least another year before handing the reins to chef-partner Jason Reed. After that, the Watertown resident will work on a cookbook: part recipes, part memoir.
Take me back: What was your first foray into the world of food?
I was 16 years old, and I went to a school called Palfrey Street School. We had a retreat in Cummington, Massachusetts, with all 80 of the students. The director, Ed Ryerson, asked if I would do the cooking. And I was just speechless. I couldn’t even believe he had that much trust in me at 16. I was sort of like a wayward teenager, like borderline not happy, until I went to Palfrey Street School. So, to me, it was a great honor.
I got this whole meal together. He gave me the van. I bought the food. We got the menu planned. We got to this old, beautiful farmhouse. We cooked this whole meal all under my direction, at 16 years old. And we all sat down — students, teachers, headmaster, everybody. And Ed Ryerson raised his glass, and he said, ‘I propose a toast that this is the industry that Vicki will get into.’ From that day on, I never looked back.
Shortly after that, I found Leo Romero, and that’s where I started my first apprenticeship, working for Leo at his Café L’Ananas on the corner of Newbury and Gloucester. And that was my first venture into the food world.
You grew up in Watertown in the 1960s and 1070s. What’s different about restaurants now? What’s the same?
You know, there was a whole different league of restaurants; they were all very fancy and very special. But they were far and few between; not like it is today.
I read some of these books like “Kitchen Confidential” and all these things; people talk about how they did drugs and they did this and they sold crap. I think: ‘I never had that experience!’ I always worked for really professional kitchens. I never got treated weird or different because I was a woman. I never got belittled. I was just one of the team, you know? So I feel like I actually have nothing to complain about. Every place I ever went, I was welcomed, loved, and treated with respect.
Tell me about starting your own business: What inspired you to go out on your own?
It was a great experience, and I’m so lucky, because I had the greatest mother on the face of the earth. And she was, like, my biggest fan. So anything that I thought I could do, she told me I could do. And I was working at Ciro & Sal’s. It must have been in the early ‘80s. And I was an 11-to-7 pastry chef. And I said, ‘Well, the only way I’ll take the job is if you let me bring my dogs.’ I couldn’t believe I even did that!
And they said, ‘You can take your dogs; you can leave them in the alley tied to your Jeep or whatnot.’ And so I did, and I’d go in at 11 o’clock at night. Every time I’d go in there, my pastry bag was missing. My whisk was missing. So, one day, I just got fed up and I said, ‘Guys, I’m gone. You guys ruined all my stuff. You don’t have anything here when I come. If you want to get pastries, you’re going to have to buy them from me.’ And I thought they’d say, ‘Take a hike, lady.’ Instead they said, ‘OK, what do you need? You need some pots? You need some pans?’ And that’s how I started.
I had a friend named Paul Abdalian, and Paul was Armenian also. He was in the food business as well. And he owned a little, tiny store in Arlington on Broadway. And he used to make torshi, an Armenian, or Turkish, pickled vegetable. And somehow he knew I was maybe looking for a place. He said, ‘Oh, you want to rent half my shop?’ I remember vividly because I paid $262 a month, and I moved into his little space, bought an oven, and I stayed there for two years before I outgrew it.
So I went from that Arlington store, which was wholesale — at that time, I was doing all wholesale pastry; all the top restaurants in Boston at that point were buying dessert from me. Then my mother said to my uncle, ‘Will you come out and help this kid? She doesn’t know what the heck she’s doing. She can’t keep it together.’ And my uncle came out and said he’d thought I was running a junky place and was keeping the books on the back of matches.
He said, ‘Are you kidding me? This kid is doing like $250,000 a year!’ And this was 1983. So he found me my first retail shop in Westwood, because he lived in Medfield. I moved to Westwood and a 3,500-square-foot shop. I stayed there for 10 years until they decided to tear the building down.
I had to move to a new location, so I moved to Needham in 1990. I stayed there for 10 years. And then I sold my business because my husband had just passed away. I had a young child, three years old. I sold my business and ended up opening up a restaurant for George Howell called the Copa Café in Lexington. I did that for about probably less than six months. That went really sour fast with all three of our partners. Three months after I left, the whole place went out of business. That’s when I decided to say, ‘Well, I better do what I know how to do well and open another place.’ And I came back here to Belmont, and so I’ve been here for 16 years.
How has the clientele changed over the years? Are people more demanding, less demanding, more into gluten-free?
I think it’s very different. I think people are definitely into ‘me, me, me. I need this; I need that.’ We are pretty confident with what we do. We say what we can do, and we say what we don’t do. But we do sort of all those things that people need: vegan, gluten-free. And, yes, all those things have evolved much more so nowadays than it was years ago. Like, I’m preparing an email to go out shortly. And in my email, it shows a table full of Danish and croissants. And, I mean, I used to sell hundreds of those things. Nowadays, people don’t eat the same. They’re looking for low-fat, all of that stuff. So it has changed and evolved.
I want to follow up on something you said earlier: You lost your husband, you had a young child, and you were running your own business. What got you through? How did you do it? I guess you do things that you have to do.
It was really scary, and that’s why I sold the business. I got so scared that I thought, ‘What if I die and then my kid has no one?’ You know, and that’s the point behind why I decided to sell. Like I said earlier, I had the best mother on the face of the earth. Her name was Sonia Boyajian. She was an innovator. She was an entrepreneur. She was just incredible. And I think having a family that believes in you and having a family that you get along with is everything. So when you’re feeling like you’re down and you can’t go any further, they’re the ones that pull you up.
Speaking of nostalgia: Tell me a little bit about coming of age here and what your favorite hangouts were.
I loved St. Cloud. That was a place in the South End. That was awesome.
How did COVID affect the business?
Really scary. We used to have over 26 full-time people that work for me here. Two months after COVID hit, we closed for a couple of months. And then, when we decided to reopen and try a whole different strategy of no inside dining, we went down to nine staff. And the nine of us are still here today, every one of us. And I’ll tell you, my business has gotten stronger. My customers are unbelievable. They have done everything. They tip this crew; they take care of them. They’re appreciated. I have the best customer base in the world. So I feel I was able to pivot, because I know this business well, and I didn’t count on a dining room to support me.
And I think also my customers feel very confident because I’ve been so strict. We have never taken off the mask mandate. We sanitize every hour; you see my staff going out front sanitizing all the surfaces. My staff has made my customers feel super confident, getting foods to go from us. I’ll tell you, my sales have been phenomenal.
Next will be that I stay on here with Jason, because I have so many catering events booked for 2022. I’ve got six really big weddings going on next year. I’m going to stay through 2022; I’m going to see through all those events. And, during the next year, I’ll pull myself together and figure out what the hell I’m doing for the next stage of my life. I’m going to try to get my cookbook together.
What’s the focus of the cookbook?
It’s almost like a … what’s the right word? It’s more like a history of me and how I’ve done it. It’s not just, ‘Here’s my strawberry Charlotte recipe, and here’s my croissant recipe.’ It’s more sort of a memoir, and a story of how-to when you don’t ever think it’s possible you can. So it’s more memoir, and a cookbook.
I have a couple of friends who are writers, and they’ve told me: ‘Just keep writing, Vicki, and we’ll edit it. We’ll get it together.’
What’s your biggest piece of advice for home bakers? What’s the biggest mistake that amateurs make?
I think they overthink things. Think about pie dough. Everybody freaks out about making pie dough. It’s like the easiest thing on the face of the earth. They overthink and they overwork. They don’t know when something is done. A lot of times, people, they just they overthink, therefore they’re putting one stroke too many into it.
That’s a metaphor for life.
Interview has been edited and condensed.