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GETTING SALTY

From Westborough State Hospital to Mistral, chef Tom Borgia knows how to stir the pot

After a suburban stint, he returns to a newly reopened Grafton Street in Harvard Square. But his first gig was cooking eggs on demand.

Grafton Street chef Tom Borgia.Studio Atticus

Weymouth’s Tom Borgia, 48, has a resume more diverse than many: He grew up cooking at his family’s Westborough church and making eggs as a short-order cook; his first real cooking job was at a psychiatric hospital. After graduating from Johnson & Wales, he joined the Back Bay Brewing Company, near the Boston Marathon finish line. After that, he helped to open Mistral.

“This was the 1990s. The elevated bistro craze was still going on. It was an awesome experience,” he says. Then he went to Aura at the original Seaport Hotel, long before the Seaport was a neighborhood. He commuted from his home in South Boston to the desolate area, which is pretty much unrecognizable today.

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“There was absolutely nothing there. Now you walk through there, and I can’t even believe the stuff they’ve built,” he says.

Stints at Harvard Square’s Harvest and the XV Beacon Hotel followed, as well as a tour of Italy and a job at celebrity favorite Little Nell in Aspen.

“Then my wife and I moved to San Diego. We were going to have a kid and didn’t think we could ever afford to own a place living in Aspen, because we don’t have $4.5 million to spend,” he says.

After California, the family — now with two sons — returned to Massachusetts. Borgia was cooking at Russell House Tavern and State Street before COVID. Now he’s back in the kitchen at Harvard Square’s newly reincarnated Grafton Street after a quick detour to his South Shore hometown for a stint at Grille 151.

The Cambridge standby, in business since 1996, just reopened in a new location after a two-year COVID hiatus. It replaces sister restaurant Park on JFK Street. (The Grafton Group also runs The Hourly, Russell House Tavern, and State Street Provisions.)

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“I realized pretty quickly that I’m a city chef,” Borgia says, with all the busy-ness and experimentation that entails, although he does still enjoy visiting Weymouth pub The Cottage Bar a few times a month.

Why did you return to Grafton Street?

The culture of this company is awesome. I love it. The ownership group, you can’t say enough good things about them. They’re super nice — probably to a fault sometimes, I think. Company-wide, and what I like to do in the kitchen, is bring people in: ‘Hey, I don’t have a ton of experience, but I want to learn.’ What I like to do in the kitchen is build a good bench. I rarely hire cooks. I usually only hire dishwashers and just keep promoting around the kitchen. It just makes it a lot easier, and that seems to be happening company-wide as well. It’s something that I’ve always really enjoyed about the company.

How is the new Grafton iteration different from before?

It’s very cocktail-driven, which I think is awesome. The menu is very small-plates-driven, with just a couple of entrees and some shareable stuff as well, which is a lot of fun for me. I’ve never had an opportunity to really do that too much, except when I was back in Los Angeles years ago, so that’s always fun. And I think it really stems mostly from the build-out: We did a lot of renovation in the dining room [with] low seating and couches. And, even though there’s not really a communal table, it’s sort of evolved into that already, even though it’s only been a couple of weeks, which is kind of fun — the vibe of the place, how you have all these couches. People end up mingling and sort of sharing a lot of stuff and dancing when we have a DJ.

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COVID isn’t going away as we hoped: I know three people who got it just this week! What’s your sense of dining in a quasi-COVID world?

I think we’re lucky in Massachusetts, where the immunization rate is much higher than, I think, a lot of states. So [there]’s a little bit more of a comfort level that way. I think the dining experience is almost back where it was. But, from a back-of-the-house and an operations perspective, I’m worried.

I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing, but it’s considerably harder than it used to be just getting supplies and getting the produce that we need. All of our vendors seem to be struggling getting drivers and employees as much as we are, although it’s getting easier for us to find cooks and good people. It used to be, even when there was a mistake on their end — for example, I ordered king oyster mushrooms but they sent button mushrooms by mistake — I could call them up and be like, ‘Hey, you know what, we got the wrong thing.’ ‘OK, we’ll send it out on a second truck.’ Well, now there is no second truck.

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When did you first know you wanted to work in the restaurant world? Was there a formative moment?

I have two sons now. The oldest one just turned 14. He’s not really sure what he wants to do yet. He’s thinking about cooking, which I’m trying to talk him out of. But I was in sixth grade when I was like, ‘I’m gonna be a chef.’

I remember all my friends graduating from college with a degree, and they still had no idea what they were going to do. So I felt very lucky that way. For me, it’s an entertainment thing. I come from a family of entertainers. My parents were both musicians. My dad will play just about any stringed instrument that he can get his hands on, even though now he has terrible arthritis. My mom was a singer. She used to do weddings when I was very young, but not so much anymore. My grandfather’s first job was playing piano for silent movies. There’s always been that sort of entertainment factor — probably too much when I was going through school. We used to do dinners for the Masonic Lodge in Westborough. I just always loved making stuff and being creative and saying, ‘Try this!’ and looking around the room and being like, ‘Oh, look at what a great time everybody’s having.’

What was your first cooking job?

I worked all through high school. My first cooking job, I think, was at the Westborough State Hospital, which was a psychiatric ward. Think “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” something like that. That industrial side of cooking was my first, but it didn’t deter me at all. I got a job in a local pizza shop. And that was kind of fun because it was very busy. I learned that I enjoyed the volume of the business and staying focused and making sure that, even though you were busy, to make it perfect every time. That sort of discipline was fun for me.

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I worked for a short-order place, famous around the area, called Harry’s. Breakfast was huge, but they were just busy all day. It was all scratch, so you had to be working all the time. Everybody should do breakfasts and short-order stuff early in their career, especially with eggs, because you learn immediately the effect of heat on food, and you can carry that for your whole career. It’s surprising when we get new cooks here. … They seem to think that all burners just have on and off, when there’s literally limitless settings. You learn that from doing eggs, and you learn that especially from doing short-order.

What’s your favorite Boston restaurant?

When I came back from Los Angeles I was pleasantly surprised by how much, I think, the food scene had changed. There are so many good restaurants now — not only in Boston but in the Cambridge area and Brookline. There are tons of great ramen places. Ramen is my new obsession. Every place I’ve been to is great. I never repeat because there are so many.

Which restaurant do you miss the most?

One I enjoyed in Central Square was The Blue Room, many years ago. That was kind of cool. I liked that place mainly because when you walk in, they had a wood-burning grill. As soon as you walked in, you knew it. They did so much with that grill, and it just smelled amazing.. … Really, they understood hospitality.

What does ‘hospitality’ mean now? Do you think we’re going to see a lot more casual places? Or do you think that people are going to want more fine-dining, because going out will be seen as a special occasion because customers are reluctant?

That’s why I say I’m worried, because it’s so much more difficult now. It’s so much different as a restaurant operator, because every single cost that we have — I mean, there have always been margins. That’s why, when I say my son wants to be a chef now, and he wants to get into this business, I’m like: ‘Look at how much time I have to spend away from home. Do you really want to do that?’ But I also know that he’s not somebody who’s going to hang out in a cubicle. But every thin line that we had 10 years ago is way worse now.

So I don’t know. … I hope it’s not like the trend that I kind of see going on in other industries, where these larger industries are just gobbling up everything, and all the little mom-and-pop restaurants are not going to be around anymore. I hope that’s not it. I know that we’re doing well. This company is doing very well. So that gives me a lot of a lot of optimism.

Why did Park leave? Why move Grafton Street?

I can speculate, and I think it’s because Grafton was the first restaurant. That name is very close to the heart of the owners. They didn’t want to give it up.

What’s your favorite thing on the menu?

We have this coconut shrimp, which is something I never thought I would do. It was something I did as a special at another restaurant. It’s a perfect small plate this year. It’s got everything: a little sweet, spicy, citrus-y, saucy.

Any cooking pet peeves or special requests that you can’t stand?

No, absolutely not. [Customers are] here to have a good time, and like I said, it’s hospitality. Maybe crème brûlée to go. You just can’t do that. Believe it or not, we get that request.

Favorite to-go spot in Weymouth?

There’s a new sushi place called Thai Bar Shi. It’s really good.

Favorite snack?

I’m not a snacker. I don’t know. I’m like the anti-chef, because I just don’t do that. And I don’t have any tattoos! A beer, I guess. I used to be very IPA-driven. I’m trying to diversify a little bit. In Weymouth, there’s the Barrel House Z. They have a couple really good breweries down there. My favorite summer beer is Sunny & 79 Degrees.


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