Chef Sherry Hughes knows what it’s like to struggle. The former journalist left the media world after two decades to train at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Now, she relates to the women she serves at the Women’s Lunch Place, a Back Bay day shelter. Hughes provides nutritious meals to women in need — and a listening ear, too. “I’ve been sober for 25 years, but I’ve been in the throes of addiction. I don’t know exactly where [these women] have been, but I know how they’ve felt a lot of the time. I know how tough their life is — not in the same way, but in some ways,” she says.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? I think it was the Magic Pan at Faneuil Hall a million years ago, when I was in high school. I used to come down to Boston with a friend because her mother was in a theater group. We’d be set free to roam around Boston! This was in the early 1970s. I’d never had any food like that before. It was really exciting for me. It was delicious.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? In general, I feel working in the culinary field is still [not] considered a really professional job. I think that it doesn’t get as much respect as it should. I think part of that is the way that restaurants are structured in terms of benefits, pay, promotions, and those kinds of things.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? I worked in the business in my early 20s like a lot of people do, waitressing, bartending, for about 10 years. I worked for Friendly’s for about eight years as a corporate trainer, traveling all over the East Coast, opening new restaurants for them. I’m trying to think about how it’s changed. In Boston, I can’t address that. I haven’t been in and out to make a fair assessment. But the deck is stacked more evenly [in terms of] men and women in positions of strength, management, and such. Men don’t get away with quite as much as they used to, although they still get away with plenty. Honestly, because of a few television shows, people are more interested and more engaged and really want to have better food and try different kinds and learn how to cook.
What other restaurants do you visit? I really like Porto for a couple reasons. One of my favorite foods is Mediterranean, and I love small plates. I think it’s a great way to eat with a bunch of people. And I really like Eastern Standard. I love the food and their attention to detail and their service. I think they’re really invested in giving people a good experience there.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? What I learned really young is if I learned how to cook, I could eat whatever I wanted. My mother was an amazing cook. Everyone in my family cooks. I can’t think of any one memory, but we all had to help in the kitchen, and so I just learned how to cook really young, and as a result I was a learner in the kitchen.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? I was out with a bunch of people in Philadelphia. I don’t remember the name. We were celebrating my sister’s birthday. [The waitress] was literally nodding off while waiting on us. I don’t know, it might have been one of those places where they didn’t care or everyone was partying behind the scenes, but it was really disturbing to me. It was really bizarre. The food was good, though.
How could Boston become a better food city? More family-style. There are places in Pennsylvania, Amish or whatever, and they sort of serve you big platters of food. I love eating like that. I think we become isolated from one another because we never do that anymore. I grew up where we ate together every night, table set. My husband and I still do that every night. People don’t do it anymore and we get away from each other.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Knowledgeable, loyal, and dedicated. People find that restaurant they love, and they really support them. And then they cry if they close. I hear that stuff a lot. The latest one is Strip T’s. People are so disappointed about that.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? I am not a fan of sushi, and you can’t swing a cat without hitting a sushi restaurant. I wish it would sort of fade a little. Make room for some other fabulous things. I also wish that people weren’t so afraid of bread. Or pasta. Or white potatoes. I’m not talking about gluten sensitivities. But for a while now, people [have been] so anti-carb. I wish that trend would die down a bit.
What are you reading? I listen to a lot of audiobooks because I commute a lot. I’m reading “Veganist.” It was recommended by a friend. I’d love to be a vegan, but I also want a ton of steak for dinner. That’s my cross to bear. Her suggestion is to lean into different ways of eating, lean into making different choices. It’s more research than anything, and it’s well-written.
How’s your commute? I’m in my car at least two hours a day. I live in Fitchburg. In the morning, I leave my house 20 after 5, and I’m in the city at 20 after 6. On the way home, it’s more challenging. If I hit the magic window, if I’m out by 2:30, I have an hour drive home. But that rarely happens.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? I don’t eat liver, and if I never saw it again, I would be happy. There is nothing in the world that would make it appetizing to me.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? I don’t know. I have no idea. I haven’t been out and about that much.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? I can tell you a bar: Daisy Buchanan’s. I don’t drink anymore, but I had a lot fun there.
Who was your most memorable customer? Our ladies struggle with poverty and homelessness. I can’t tell you about one, but I can tell you it warms my heart whenever a woman tells me she enjoyed her lunch and expresses gratitude for having good food. We just made a really nice Mother’s Day meal; we pulled out all the stops and made a really fancy lemon curd, fresh berries. This isn’t a meal these ladies would normally get to have. I had a lot of women talk about that. It’s a tough day for our ladies sometimes. Any time they express that they feel better that they ate good food in the shelter, that does it for me.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? I would go to the North End, pick a spot, and have a big bowl of pasta with Bolognese and some crusty bread and just mess around in it for a while. That would be such a good meal. I like Giacomo’s.Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.