Neighbors clash over Cambridge restaurant’s smoke
In just two years, Shepard Restaurant & Bar in Cambridge has won a devoted following and accolades among culinary connoisseurs for dishes such as savoy cabbage and roasted chicken that are smoked, seared, or charred in its signature wood-fired oven and on an open-flame grill.
But all that wood smoke is an unwelcome taste to Anne Watkins, a neighbor who says it can be overbearing.
“If we’re outside, it produces coughing and my throat is sore,” said Watkins, who lives across from Shepard and said the smoke is unhealthy for her 10-year-old daughter, who was born with respiratory problems. “On a nice spring day we had these lounge chairs and our daughter would be on the deck in the evening — that’s all gone.”
Watkins is among a small group of neighbors who say they have endured a constant harsh haze that hangs in the air, seeps into their homes, and makes breathing uncomfortable. While the restaurant’s owners have taken numerous steps to reduce the smoke, the neighbors said the air remains unhealthy, and they have asked Cambridge health authorities to forbid Shepard from cooking with wood or charcoal.
Shepard’s owners are frustrated, too — at the neighbors — and complain that city health officials are coming down too hard on the restaurant. Owners Rene Becker and Susan Regis said they have changed the type of wood they burn, substituted charcoal more often, and spent more than $100,000 on equipment to reduce the smoke from its vents.
“We’ve done a ton of things and it’s just gone on, and on, and on, and on,” Becker said. “I think their complaints have been exaggerated. If they smell anything they will call and complain to the city.”
Cambridge’s public health commissioner, Patrick Wardell, held a hearing on the neighbors’ request in April and is expected to rule in June. Becker has said that if the city prohibits the restaurant from cooking with wood, the restaurant would likely close.
Shepard’s principals are stars of the local food scene. Becker is founder of the popular Hi-Rise Bread Co. in Cambridge, while Regis came up in the industry working with famed chef Lydia Shire and was a regional semifinalist this year for a coveted Best Chef award from the James Beard Foundation.
Shepard opened in June 2015, in the space long occupied by Chez Henri, a beloved Cambridge institution that its neighbors said was never a problem because it cooked with gas. In the early days at Shepard, the smoke from the wood fires was much stronger. A Boston Globe review described the chef over the fire with “eyes red and tearing,” while seats by the cooking station were “unpleasantly hot and smoky.”
Neighbors, meanwhile, speak of those first months as nightmarish.
“The kids were literally coughing themselves to sleep,” said Kerry Tanwar, who with her husband and two small children lived in a third-floor apartment in the building next to Shepard. “If I didn’t race home before 4 p.m. to shut our skylights, windows, sliding doors, the place would be filled with smoke.”
The couple had been considering buying a bigger home for their growing family, and Tanwar said the smoke hastened their decision to move, three months after Shepard opened, to the other side of Cambridge.
Becker and Regis acknowledge that at first they used too much red oak, which emitted more smoke than anticipated. Shepard has since switched to white oak, which is a drier wood that burns hotter and produces less smoke, Becker said. The restaurant also uses less wood overall and mixes in more charcoal. They have also added more menu items that don’t require use of the grill.
Shepard underwent a series of trial-and-error fixes, including installing fans to redirect smoke toward Massachusetts Avenue and filters to capture particulates and grease. At the city’s recommendation, Becker spent $65,000 on a scrubber for the vent system that captures particles. The scrubber worked well for a bit, but Becker had to call in an engineer after its performance began slipping.
The neighbors credit Becker and Regis for doing much to mitigate the smoke, which they said is much less pervasive now. Still, some said the smoke remains enough of a constant to be a nuisance, and they are worried the particles are dangerous to breathe.
“This is still a problem, but you can’t see it easily anymore — but it’s bad even when you can’t,” said Kevin Lee, who also lives in the building next to Shepard with his pregnant wife and 3-year-old daughter. “If the wind blows west I’m screwed, so I prefer not to open my windows.”
His upstairs neighbor, Deborah Zucker, looks out onto the roof of Shepard — and its vent stacks emitting smoke. Some of the equipment, she added, was at times so loud “you felt you were at the airport, like a jet engine sound.”
The smoke appears to be affecting only a small number of immediate neighbors. Ron and Emily Axelrod live about a block down Shepard Street from the restaurant and said they have not been bothered by the smoke.
“I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic to the neighbors, but the restaurant owners have worked with the neighbors,” Emily Axelrod said. “I think it’s a bit of a witch hunt.”
As the wood-fired cooking trend spreads, so have the complaints. In Brookline, the owner of a barbecue restaurant agreed to stop using a pit smoker in 2009 after neighbors complained about odors. In Pittsburgh, a church claimed in 2015 that wood smoke from a nearby hotel restaurant was setting off its fire alarms and damaging its building.
After the neighbors first complained about Shepard, the City Council last fall discussed banning restaurants from using wood-fired ovens and grills. That drew a sharp reaction from restaurateurs, with chef Andy Husbands, of the Smoke Shop BBQ in Kendall Square, and Tom Brush, co-owner of Felipe’s Taqueria in Harvard Square, telling councilors a ban on wood or a mandate to use expensive scrubbers would be financially ruinous and force some restaurants to close.
The council backed off, and city officials are now looking into adopting broader regulations governing wood-fired restaurant systems. But Becker said Cambridge is unfairly singling out Shepard.
He also said his request that the city conduct its own scientific analysis has gone unheeded.
“You just try to be a good neighbor, and if someone has a problem with what you’re doing, you try to see how you can resolve it,” Becker said, frustrated with the ongoing battle with neighbors. “But if people have zero tolerance you say, ‘Wait a minute, what’s fair here?’ ”
In the meantime, Lee noted that he and his wife are looking to buy a house and said the experience has persuaded them to leave Cambridge.
“Before the restaurant, I had been looking in Cambridge,” Lee said. “I think I’m going to move somewhere else. It’s a little sad.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that one of the principals, Peter McKenzie, has since left the restaurant.