Megan Vaughan, 41, just took a big gamble: She moved from Seattle to Boston to take over as executive chef at Encore Boston Harbor’s Rare Steakhouse and their soon-to-open lounge, Medium Rare. The Chesapeake, Va., native has cooked all over the country, working under luminaries such as Wolfgang Puck and Michael Mina. But now she and her wife are happily ensconced in Everett, with a late-night french fry habit and plans to visit the North End.
What attracted you to working at Encore? How did they find you, or how did you find them?
Everybody knows Encore. There’s a standard of excellence within the culinary world. I’ve been working with steakhouses for quite a bit, and I heard a lot of great things about Rare. I think it’s the only steakhouse in New England that has a wagyu program, which is awesome. And it’s Forbes’ highest-rated steakhouse in New England, so that attracted me right off the bat.
What were you doing before?
I was executive chef with Michael Mina at Bourbon in Seattle.
That’s a big shift. What made you feel ready to move across the country?
I honestly couldn’t say “no” to it. It’s just another opportunity for me to take that step up. Michael Mina and Bourbon were amazing and awesome. I learned so much with them, but there, the steakhouses are little bit smaller. I was definitely ready to take on a bigger operation and have a little bit more responsibility.
Did you always want to work in food?
It’s funny. Growing up, I was the pickiest eater. I wasn’t into food at all. I ate spaghetti, ketchup, and chicken nuggets. That was pretty much my diet. Even throughout high school, I worked in restaurants, but it was always front of the house.
I always knew I wanted to get into the restaurant industry. I went to James Madison University, where I was a business major. It just wasn’t connecting. I wasn’t inspired. And my mom said, “Well, you always wanted to go into restaurants: What about cooking?” That’s when I transferred to Johnson & Wales in Charleston, S.C.
I basically just fell in love with food while I was going to school and living in Charleston. It’s an amazing food city. After I graduated, I got a job with Wolfgang Puck at Spago Maui. And that’s sort of where my career started.
What are your earliest culinary memories?
Virginia isn’t exactly known for its culinary scene. But actually, my mom is a vet — a retired vet. She would be working all the time, and my dad would actually be taking care of my sister and myself. He’s the one who would be cooking for us all the time. He grew up pretty poor, and so he’s able to make pretty much anything in the pantry taste good. That’s my earliest culinary memory, my dad cooking and being the one to make these great meals for us. He did make a killer spaghetti. I love his spaghetti to this day.
Because you’ve lived all over, let’s play a game. I give you a city; you give me your quick impressions of the culinary scene. No wrong answers. Charlotte, N.C.
I lived there a while ago, but it was very rigid and banker-ish. The food was trendy, food that people wanted to have in the moment. You have all these yuppies running around who want to impress people.
Relaxed. Super-relaxed. People work on their own time out there. I was sort of shocked when you’d have line cooks who call off because the surf is good. The food is fresh, vibrant, no-frills. You don’t need to put 50 components on a plate for it to taste good.
Expensive. When I worked at CUT — I’ll be completely honest with you — we did not have a budget. If Wolfgang wanted something that cost $300 and we paid $500 shipping, we would get it for him. You have the clientele who’s willing to pay that money.
I don’t want to say anything too harsh, but honestly, I was disappointed. The seafood was amazing. There was definitely fresh seafood. But as far as creativity and different restaurants, I think they really could not recover from the pandemic. It really showed in the downtown area. That’s actually one of the reasons why I left, because of how unsafe downtown was. A lot of things would close around 8 or 9 because you couldn’t really stay open late down there.
What’s your favorite restaurant of all time, anywhere?
Dang. That’s a good question. I’ve definitely had favorite restaurants everywhere, but there is this one place in Los Angeles called Little Sister. It’s either Thai or Vietnamese. It’s probably the best food I’ve ever had. They do a salted crab fried rice. It’s amazing. And then they have this shaking beef entree that I get every single time. My mouth is watering just thinking of it now because I miss it so much.
What’s Boston feeling like to so far?
I’m really excited to try the food out here. I think it’s like Los Angeles in the fact that there are little pockets of different cuisines. I do miss that; in LA, you can get pretty much anything and everything. You just have to go to different areas. I’m super excited to try the North End. I think I’m actually going to try and do that this weekend on one of my days off.
Have you found any favorite places yet?
My wife and I have been ordering a lot of food because I don’t really cook on my days off. I love to go out to eat, and I love to just get food delivered to me. We just tried Dirty Water Dough pizza. I actually thought it was really good, and they have gluten-free options. My wife is gluten-free. And we went to the Aquarium the other day, and we went to Joe’s right next door. The food was OK, but the view was great. We sat outside by the water, which is super pretty. Then there’s Mike’s Roast Beef right up the street from work that I’ve definitely gone to super late on a Friday and Saturday. I like their fries.
Speaking of which: What’s your guilty pleasure food?
I feel like it’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, but I have a terrible sweet tooth now. I have to eat sweets all the time. I don’t know why. I can finish pretty much a whole box of graham crackers in one sitting if I really want to. I like graham crackers, Nutella, and marshmallows. I really don’t have those in my house because I will finish them.
On a different note: What’s it like to work at a casino? Is it high rollers or grandmas on a tour bus?
Honestly, we see both. Just the other day, we had somebody come in, and their bill was five grand, and they dropped a three-grand tip. They had just won a lot of money. But still, you have those guys who will come in and money is no object. But you also have people on a budget.
I think Rare can offer flexibility for both markets. On Thursdays, we have a prime rib special, where a princess cut is $45 and the king cut is, I think, $65 — a legit pound of prime roast beef. I’m telling you right now: We’re losing money on that! But I think it’s important to have people who normally couldn’t afford this menu to come in and try this food. I also think Medium Rare is going to be a great complement to Rare, because you’re going to get people who I think normally couldn’t afford Rare all the time. We’re going to have smaller bites, and you can share them with people, so you’re not feeling like you’re breaking the bank.
Tell me the secret of ordering well at a steakhouse — no pun intended.
When the menus are big and there’s a bunch of cuts, I definitely think it can be a little overwhelming. I honestly don’t go to a lot of steakhouses because I feel like I work in the best one. But I normally stick with the classics. I love to get an old-fashioned. Whiskey, bourbon — normally steakhouses have those drinks, and they do them so well. I personally like a little bit of fat on my meat. I love rib-eyes; the fat just helps the flavor. As far as sides, you can’t really go wrong with a loaded baked potato or mac and cheese. If you were to try something a little bit different but not break the bank, I would honestly try Snake River Farms: They have a great wagyu program. I think it’s just as good as Japanese wagyu.
Be honest: Do you get annoyed when people order their steak well done?
You know, I used to. I used to be like: “Dude, why do you want to ruin this piece of meat?” But if you’re paying $100 or $130 for a steak, you know, I’m going to cook it how you want it. My dad was a solid well-done steak man. That’s the only way he would have it. And I’ve actually gotten him to medium. I’d just cook it a little bit less each time. Finally, he was like, “Oh, this isn’t bad!” Now, I’m cooking my dad food.