Allston’s Nelson Whittingham, 33, moved to the United States from Jamaica as a 10-year-old.
“I remember the first time it snowed. I ran outside in my underwear. It was my first time seeing snow, that winter. I got a terrible cold,” he says.
He grew up in Belmont, playing Pop Warner football and working part-time at Conley’s Pub, down the street in Watertown. With a Jamaican dad and a Hungarian mom, a global worldview served him well: After a couple of stints at college didn’t pan out, he moved to Hungary to enroll in culinary school. He returned to Massachusetts, where he landed a job as a line cook at Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer’s Toro.
Today, he oversees a creative menu at Moon Bar, the casual downstairs sibling of Carl Dooley’s Mooncusser downtown. The bar used to be called Cusser’s, serving roast beef. (Cusser’s is now at Hub Hall and Time Out Market.) With Whittingham in charge, the new menu spans genres: There’s milk bread with chorizo curry butter, sweet potato samosas, ceviche, and coconut rice pudding.
What got you involved in the restaurant business? How did you know you wanted to work in food?
Essentially, my first job was working at a sports bar in Watertown called Conley’s. In high school, all of my friends were getting jobs there — and I needed a job. We were working probably too much for high-schoolers, but we were making money. I sort of realized that I was good at it. I loved being in that environment. I loved the camaraderie, the diverse group of people. My chef was from Tanzania, which is really super random, believe it or not.
You were in high school, so obviously, you weren’t serving drinks.
I actually got started on the salad station. Believe it or not, three months later, I got demoted. I was 17 years old and coming in late, not doing a good job. I was on dishes two or three months. Then, I learned how to make the pizzas. I learned how to work the grill. By the following summer, I could work all the stations in the kitchen.
What happened after high school?
I went to UMass Dartmouth. Everyone at my high school went to college. And so I just thought, ‘That’s what I have to do.’ I wasn’t the best student, even though I thought I was smart. I was still on a student visa at the time. I didn’t have a green card or my citizenship yet. Through trial and error with my family, everyone helped out, and I got into college. It became apparent after the third year that I had to drop out because I couldn’t handle it.
I moved back home, which was obviously deflating, but I kept working at Conley’s, sort of full-time. Then I headed out to Amherst, and I enrolled in Greenfield Community College. I attended there for about a year-and-a-half, kind of making the same mistakes as I did at UMD. That didn’t work out. So now I’m 22 or 23 years old, back home again.
This is the point in my life where I started to realize everyone else has graduated from school, they’re getting real jobs. I had to refocus my mind if I was going to actually make it. We came [to this country] for a better life. I have to do that; it’s going to happen. I’d saved up 10 grand, and I had this idea of moving to Hungary to go to culinary school. It’s much more affordable there. I had uncles over there. My cousins; a few childhood friends. Every summer, we went for at least a month. I had connections there, so I enrolled in a certificate program for continuing education for adults.
I came back at the end of 2016, because my plan was to eventually get my citizenship here. I applied to a bunch of jobs online and began working at Toro in the South End as a line cook. And that was a big adjustment, obviously. I had cooked before at Conley’s and at other smaller spots. But this was an organized almost scratch kitchen, with volume. And there were some characters there, and some really talented people. … I was in the real world right now. I was determined to be a chef. … You dig deep and just kind of do what you do.
What’s it like to be a line cook?
It’s awesome! It’s like a competition; you’re always competing with the people next to you. At least, that’s how I looked at it. And there are some underhanded tactics that are used. But I think, in general, at Toro, it was very much about teaching the cooks. I think Ken [Oringer] and Jamie [Bissonnette] really instilled that education is your way to advancement. The more you can learn, and the more you can teach other people, the better off you’re going to be, and the better off your team’s going to be.
When you say underhanded tactics, give me a little glimpse.
For example, I remember one time, salt ended up in the sugar bin. And I know who did it! But it’s like, you don’t have evidence of it. But overall, working at Toro was a very positive formative experience, because I got the whole range of experiences in those two-and-a-half years. It was cool. We did events; we traveled. I got promoted. I learned every station. I learned how to do inventory. I learned how to become a sous chef, essentially.
It’s physically taxing, and it sounds like it’s mentally taxing. It seems grueling, but there must be something fun about it or people wouldn’t do it. So what’s the appeal? And how do you decompress afterward?
The appeal for me is the high-energy environment and working with other high-energy people, feeding off them. I put the BBC News on and just listen to it on my way home. It really takes my mind away from whatever I’m doing that day. Typically at midnight, going home, BBC Africa is on BBC News, because it’s six hours ahead there. My mind goes to a completely other place. By the time I get home, I’m good.
How did you find a job at Mooncusser?
I actually saw a post from Carl [Dooley] on Instagram: ‘I’m opening a new spot. Please send your resume.’ I had never met Carl before; I know him by reputation. And I was like, ‘Listen, I’ve got to try to work with this guy. This is going to be awesome, if I can land this job.’ I actually sent him my resume right then and there. He called me the next day.
Carl had this concept, obviously a tasting-menu restaurant. When I got there, I didn’t realize how broad the range of flavors and inspirations would be. We changed the menu every month, which was, for me, kind of mind-blowing. It was like being back at Toro as a line cook; the learning curve was massive again. In the beginning, it was me, Carl, and one cook. There were three of us doing nine covers, or 14 covers. It was like: Am I going to have a job? We needed to be busier. But it did get busier. The word got out. We were able to hire another guy. We got up to 30 covers, and we got the 40 covers, and we’ve hired another guy. And you know, it became what it is now — they’re packed every night.
So it’s more casual now?
No, it’ s still a tasting-menu restaurant. They don’t have a la carte …. I think the food, the execution, and the approach is obviously top-notch. But I think the variety on the menu is very atypical of what you’d find at a tasting menu restaurant. Carl has all these ideas; he’s trying to put Mexican, Vietnamese, Italian, Japanese, all these influences into one monthly menu.
It really excited my international brain. You’re never bored. You’re never comfortable. You’re always working on new food. Carl works at 100 miles an hour. And you’ve got to keep up. For the four of us, the five of us, when it really did get busy, we were really humming; it’s really an awesome place to go into work every day.
Fun, quick questions: What’s the best and worst thing about the Boston dining scene?
I think the best thing about the Boston dining scene is that we have a huge, very diverse city. People come here for school, and they come here from all over the world to work. We have all the universities, all these beautiful companies, and because of that, the city has to cater to that. There’s a large variety of restaurants, and we have a lot to lean on. We have our Italian heritage, our Irish heritage, we have chowder … but then also we have to cater to our diverse population.
And the worst thing?
The worst thing for me is the commute to work. I live in Allston. That’s not really about the dining scene. But I think downtown Boston isn’t as walkable as it should be. … We just need more restaurants, because a restaurant is the liveliest thing on a street. You know, if your street has a restaurant on it, you have a main street. You have life; you have activity.
Where do you eat when you’re not working? What are some of your favorite hangouts?
My favorite hangout is Felipe’s in Harvard Square. I’ve been going there since I was probably 12. I get a super burrito with carnitas, extra jalapenos, the works. But if I’m going to go out to dinner with my wife, we’ve been really into Mahaniyom in Brookline. That place is awesome. We met the chefs the other day; they came in to eat, and they’re so nice. Those guys are making some really tasty food, and it’s right up the street from me, so for date night, I go there.
Describe your clientele in a word.
Discerning. And adventurous.
Best career advice for people who are considering getting into the food business right now?
Just stay positive. Always have your goals in mind. Remember you’re going to work, and you’re working next to people. And in the end, you’re just making people dinner. You just need to really keep yourself and your mind in a positive direction, and you’ll succeed.
What’s your favorite snack?
Plantain chips, or tostones.
Where do you get them?
Right now, I get them from Trader Joe’s. They have this packet. I think it comes from Ecuador. They’re super crispy. I ate a bag yesterday watching football.
Also, Buffalo wings. I have a whole process. I stopped ordering wings out because the value has gone way down. So I make, once a month, 40 of them here. I bake them in the morning, season them, then fry them and toss them with butter and hot sauce in the afternoon.
What’s your favorite hot sauce?
My favorite hot sauce would be Grace, which is a Jamaican hot sauce. But my favorite hot sauce right now is the one we make at Moon Bar, which is a Calypso-style hot sauce, an Eastern Caribbean hot sauce.
What’s your favorite thing on the Moon Bar menu?
Probably the banana-leaf-wrapped black bass; you know, it’s a local fish. It’s one of the best fish, honestly, in the world. But then we kind of take it in a South Indian direction, and it’s wrapped in a lovely banana leaf, served with roti and pineapple sambal. It’s just a really awesome, spicy dish. It kind of takes you to the edge, but it doesn’t take you over the edge.
Interview has been edited and condensed.