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GETTING SALTY

David Welch started out at Formaggio Kitchen. Now he’s the big cheese at his own restaurant in Chestnut Hill

Chef David Welch recently opened an eponymous restaurant in Chestnut Hill.Lindsay Ahern

For shoppers of a certain age, David Welch, 52, is a legend. He drew fans at Formaggio Kitchen, where he staged weekend barbecues, dispensed coveted advice on fresh produce, and meticulously tended the cheese cases. After a detour into high-end private catering (more on that later), he opened Chef Dave’s at The Street Chestnut Hill earlier this year, not far from his home in Jamaica Plain.

Why Chestnut Hill? Why this restaurant? Why now?

Why Chestnut Hill: I’ve been in this community for a long time. It’s even surprising to me how I ended up back there after going to school at Angier in Waban, and junior high at Meadowbrook, and Newton South. It’s been spectacular.

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I went to all Newton schools. I was part of the METCO program. I had a great education. In fact, some people I went to school with recognize me in the neighborhood. It’s been a long road to this, and it feels great. It really has been extremely supportive, and I love it.

Take me back to the beginning. Where are you from?

I was born here in Boston. My parents are from the British West Indies, in Montserrat. They came here many years ago. I got a free ride in my mother’s stomach to Boston. I was born in Beth Israel Hospital. I was one of seven.

Did you always want to be a chef?

Actually, no. If I had to think about doing this, this would not be something I would have picked. I would probably be a police officer, a state cop, because I took the test. But I ended up here.

I was in the banking business many years ago. . . . Just before the stock market crash, I was supposed to move into the global department. I quit. I took my severance, and I started working at a little place in Cambridge called Cremaldi’s. My brother was working there. He says, “You want to come over and work?” And I did. I started at the cash register, working with Italian women in the kitchen. I started making sandwiches, which I became good at. I started making the pizzas and the fresh pasta. From there, I went to Formaggio Kitchen. I did 12 years there.

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Tell me about your experiences there.

Well, I worked very closely with [owner] Ishan [Gurdal]. He was a worker, too. He’s very good at the cheeses, and I worked alongside him. I wanted to be the best. A lot of guys were like, “Oh, he’s kissing Ishan’s butt.” But no. I stood over his shoulder, watched everything he did. And, when Sunday came when he was not around, and everyone wanted that cheese case to look the way it should look when he comes in on Monday, who do they call? “Oh, David, can you do the cheese case?”

It just became a great relationship with Ishan and Valerie, his wife, and we worked very well together. He knew I was growing really fast, and I wouldn’t be there that much longer.

I started a barbecue stand out there. I opened up the produce section. … He asked if that would be something I would be interested in participating in, and I said sure. And he said, “Do you have any experience?” And I said, “Well, not really, but we can get it done.” And soon after that, he gave me the checkbook to Formaggio, and he says, “Make it happen.”

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I did. I went to the Chelsea Market every morning at 2:30 picking out produce. I came up with the slogan: “Dave’s fruit. Always sweet.”

I guaranteed, no matter what fruit you picked up or bought, it would be guaranteed to be sweet — whether it’s raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, melons, whatever.

The only problem with that was, when I wasn’t there, people started bringing back their melons and saying, “David, can you just touch it and see if it’s really sweet?” And I said, “Are you serious?”

I still have the jacket that I had made with berries and the fruit on the back: “Dave’s fruit. Always sweet.” There was one woman who sent one of her people: “Make sure you see David, because he knows how to pick my bananas, so talk to him.” Because the way I picked out her bananas, they’d last her all through the week without being overripe.

Where do you shop?

I got to Kennealey Meats. I go to Dole & Bailey. I go to Specialty. I go to Formaggio.

When I was doing my private catering, if I had to drive 5 miles to get one product, it was worth it to me because I knew the customer would be satisfied with the extra effort I took. I didn’t cut corners on anything. I didn’t cut corners on my spices.

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One time a guy told me, “Well, David, do you think you’re really going to keep this up when you open your place?” And I said, “Why wouldn’t I?” … This is why I opened the restaurant. This is how I was able to open this restaurant, by using top-quality products. And, when you use top-quality products, you have to stay that way. I truly put the time into what I do. My thing is, if I can’t eat it, you’re not going to eat it.

How did you start your catering business?

At Cremaldi’s, I’d deliver pizzas. And one of the places I delivered to was a lawyer. … I did one of her office parties, and that’s how I got into the catering business. I started with her. She took me under her wing. And she said, “You know, I could introduce you to a lot of people, but I want to see how serious you are about doing this. You could cook anything for me you want. I’ll pay for it. But I will not turn you on to any of these people until I see how serious you are about what you’re doing.” I stayed with her. And she did exactly that — and that’s how I met a lot of people, a lot of famous people, a lot of stars.

Who are your favorite celebrities to cater for?

Some that I cannot say, because I signed NDA, but I will tell you, Barack [Obama] was one of them. I met him when he was running for senator of Illinois. I did a fund-raiser, the inauguration was another, and then his 60th birthday party last year.

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What did Barack Obama like to eat?

He likes to eat what he likes to eat! I know that Michelle loves her martinis a certain way. They have to be crystal clear and ice cold. Perfect. That’s the way I like things: perfect. I’m not perfect, but when you’re paying me to be perfect, I have to. Have I burned a steak before? Yeah. But I’ve burned a steak for me, not for you.

A lot of people who work with me, they appreciate that. They’ll say, “Wow, how does he make everything taste so damn good? I’ve never worked with a person where everything he puts out is delicious.” Well, I take the time to make sure that everything I put out is delicious, because you’re only as good as your last meal.

Boston is often criticized for not being diverse. What do you think about that? Have you encountered racism?

I’ve never been one to focus on obstacles. Racism and prejudice are unfortunately frustrating factors to reckon with from time to time. But I should point out that this, incidentally, is a plague seen not only in Boston, but across the United States as we now all know.

Positivity and possibilities rule the day, in my opinion. The vibe of Chef Dave’s hopefully signals inclusivity and affirmation of the good in people irrespective of race, creed, or sexual orientation.

That said, quality, service, and experience are collectively, in my industry, the real differentiators. If we meet or supersede expectations, factors around prejudice and hatred are neutralized and rendered pointless. That’s the Chef Dave’s ethos.

I was raised in Boston by immigrant parents from the British West Indies and attended school in Newton during critical formation years. My experiences taken together have given me a clear sense of the range of the of human attitudes. People are people and the wide scope of differences in attitudes and prejudices are regrettably common to all races and ethnic backgrounds. My purpose is to foster and promote the finding of common ground, admirable human qualities, and fraternity among all.

Speaking of where you want to go: How is the restaurant doing?

It’s great. Like I said, the support of the community that I’ve been in for all these years and meeting new people, and the way they have embraced it, is tremendous. The love they have shown is tremendous. And I’m very appreciative of it and grateful.

What’s your favorite thing on your menu?

Everything. If you can eat it all, have it all.

How would you describe the restaurant?

Not too masculine; nice warm colors. … You feel like you could be in a European bistro somewhere. The bar is very welcoming and cozy. There’s times that I’ve thought everyone knew each other, but they didn’t. They just met for the first time at the bar! ... People are very happy here.

How would you describe your cooking style?

My style is my style. Some guy asked me, “Well, is it Memphis?” Is it? No, it’s my style. … Everything I do is unique. The salts that I use, they come from Greece, harvested off the stones. And then I marinate the salt with my spices to create a unique flavor that you will not get anywhere else, I can guarantee you that, unless you took the salt and the spice I use and did it. It’s a unique experience all the way around.

Growing up, what was your favorite restaurant?

Well, when I was growing up, my mother did the cooking. She raised seven of us, and she did a fabulous job cooking. One thing I do remember is on Sundays, when she didn’t want to cook or we came back from church, and it was little late, we would stop at Kentucky Fried Chicken. At that time, that’s when the place was rocking. It had the fresh herbs. It had the spices. It had a crispy skin. It had the flavor — the aroma that came off that thing was excellent. But you can’t get that now.

I love Mistral. I love Sorrelina. I love Bar Lyon. For the years that Mistral has been open, they’re consistent. I haven’t had a bad meal there. I go to Sorrelina. Food is consistent. I haven’t had a bad meal there.

Radius restaurant — Michael Schlow. Chris Myers was the GM. You would go there and the bright smile that Chris had when you came in and welcoming you, it’s almost like what you get here. Same thing, you know? It’s nice to be welcomed. It’s nice to know people’s names. It’s nice to see someone greet you with a smile and make you feel special once you actually came to their place, and that’s what he did. Radius is no longer there, that’s long gone, but when it was available, it was delicious.

Any cheap and easy takeout favorites?

My brother owns a pizza shop in Cambridge called Oggi Gourmet, and he makes delicious pizzas. Some of them are very unique.

Is there any food that you just cannot resist?

I got these chips from Formaggio. I stopped buying them because I couldn’t stop eating them. Everyone I’ve given them to, they’re like, “David, don’t bring these back! I can’t stop eating these things.” They cost $25, and they’re fantastic. They’re excellent with caviar. If you love caviar, this is an excellent chip. They’re from Spain or wherever, and only Formaggio has them. No one else. I’m trying to get some for me. Hopefully Formaggio will let me have some.

You didn’t tell me what Barack Obama’s favorite food is. You told me Michelle’s.

We’ll leave that one to be a secret.



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