Getting Salty with Brian Hillmer, executive chef at Jamaica Plain’s Community Servings
For years, chef Brian Hillmer ran culinary programs for giants like Legal Sea Foods, Tavern in the Square, and Not Your Average Joe’s. This fall, he switched gears to become the executive chef at Jamaica Plain’s Community Servings, the not-for-profit provider of medically appropriate, nutritious meals for homebound and critically ill individuals.
“These people may be unfortunate to be in the situation they’re in, and they shouldn’t be punished with bland or thoughtless food. Part of eating is the joy of hitting a memory from childhood or experiencing something that’s new, a flavor combination you weren’t expecting. They deserve that as much as anyone else,” he says.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? It was the Sel de la Terre below L’Espalier. I think it was bar bites. It was excellent. I came up here to work for Legal Sea Foods.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? A lot of times I feel like we’re just giving people what they want and not what’s good for them. There’s a lot of ranch dressing and cheese going out to our diners, and I think chefs are more hesitant to work with something more nutritious. They want to continue to bring as many clients back as they can. They hit those salt, sugar, fat high points to bring people back [instead of] being more thoughtful in the cuisine they put out. Huge portions are not necessary for survival. I don’t know anyone who needs 15 ounces of pasta on anything.
What do you wish more people knew about Community Servings? Our food is preventative as well as curative. I think that’s something maybe people don’t quite understand. We feed the hungry, but we also help them manage their health challenges through diet. Food is fuel. If you put the wrong kind of fuel into your system, it won’t run properly. Not only are we feeding people, we’re in fact helping improve their lives through better nutrition. We’re not feeding them hospital food. We try to do it from scratch and balance flavors well. We don’t open cans and just shove it out.
What do you wish more people knew about Community Servings clients? We prepare and deliver food for people who qualify for the meal program that are critically ill and homebound. Our mission is to serve the most critically ill and the most challenged. . . . I think people assume that we’re dealing with people who are in poverty. That’s really not a good description of all of our clients. There are those who struggle to feed themselves. But our primary mission is providing nutrition to people who are critically ill.
What other restaurants do you visit? I like my neighborhood in JP. I spend a lot of time at the Haven and the Frogmore, just up the street from me. And if I’m looking for doughnuts, I’m going to Brassica. They like to make those big, Homer Simpson-looking doughnuts. You can’t help but do the Homer Simpson moan when you bite into one. They do a wonderful job there. And I’m a big fan of chef [Michael] Scelfo at Alden & Harlow and Waypoint. The protein selection and presentation are excellent.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? I was a military brat. We traveled all over the world. I moved about once every year and a half or two years. I was fortunate to spend time in Asia and Europe. As a teenager, we were living in Naples, Italy, and I had always eaten to eat. My mom is a teacher. Cooking, she was good at it, but not a gourmet. So when I would go to the market up the street and experience real bread, volcanic soil tomatoes under the Mediterranean sun, I remember it was an awakening for me about cuisine. Food is not just fuel. There were so many levels and tiers of what it could be.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? If I’m out dining, I get a chuckle out of the word “actually.” Any time a server uses the word “actually” it makes me cringe. “How is this item, how is this drink?” The server says, “Actually, it’s really good,” implying I should have expected it to be terrible and that she’s surprised that it’s not.
How could Boston become a better food city? For me, it’s the talent pool. I think it’s a tremendous food city, but chefs are held back a little because it’s hard to find committed cooks to help them realize their vision. There are chefs out there who have a line to work for them, but those are too few and far between. If there’s a way we could improve the talent pool, with better avenues for people to work in kitchens and come up and have that passion for food, it’s the way to go. I don’t think we should coddle people, but at the same time, we have to figure out a way to be more inclusive to a wider variety of people and a wider variety of backgrounds, diamonds in the rough.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Loyal, discerning, and I love this Japanese word. It means to “eat yourself into bankruptcy” — kuidaore. It’s a sort of commitment to indulgence. We will overdo it, go and go and go. This bliss, tasting everything you can possibly taste. It’s not to the same level as other cities, but it’s something I definitely see. There’s a carefree and indulgent attitude when it comes to dining out in Boston.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Tacos. I love tacos, and I love when they’re done really well. I think everyone tries to throw together a taco program or whatever they can think of because it’s a convenient and easy way to sell an item. I feel like there’s not enough thought put into it. Oh, people love tacos, let’s make a taco!
What type of restaurant is Boston missing? I feel like we have almost everything here. Well, we don’t have a drive-in theater, but that’s not really food. Boston has everything. There’s a place on Washington Street down near the Dedham Mall that is basically regional roadside snack food and fair food. That’s the entire concept. If we have one of those, we have to have every other concept that there is.
What are you reading? I just read “The Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan and “Salt Sugar Fat” by Michael Moss. I enjoy the science and chemistry behind food and the growing of food as well.
How’s your commute? Amazing. I practically live across the street. It takes me seven minutes to get to work. . . . I used to drive two to four hours a day. I’m thinking about selling my car.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? McDonald’s.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? The Regal Beagle in Brookline just closed, and that was a bummer. I used to go a lot.
Who was your most memorable customer? Honestly, one of them was really recent. I went on a ride-along with my delivery guy to visit clients to see who they were and to be visible to them, to understand we’re not just a factory cranking out food. There are human beings behind it, and I wanted to show them we’re thoughtful about what we do and to get feedback from them. Some had lots to say, positive and negative. One gentleman we visited, he was in a basement apartment. He opened the door, came out to the hallway, talked to us. I asked him how the food was, and he said the food was saving his life. That was pretty powerful.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? I would probably go to Waypoint. I’d order everything. I would pursue the most ridiculous, indulgent things. Lots of oysters.