A conversation with Tiffani Faison of Sweet Cheeks and Tiger Mama, and soon Orfano
Tiffani Faison has almost singlehandedly transformed the Fenway’s food-scape. Italian-American restaurant Orfano is the newest in her Big Heart Hospitality empire, which includes Sweet Cheeks (barbecue), Tiger Mama (Southeast Asian), and Fool’s Errand (an eccentric cocktail bar with chandeliers and finger sandwiches), all along a once quiet stretch of Boylston Street. It’s slated to open in late August. Faison owns the restaurant with wife Kelly Walsh; Michele Carter, former executive chef of Barbara Lynch’s Gruppo, is the creative culinary director.
Faison continues to expand and add employees (200 to date) in a climate when restaurants — big-name ones, with well-known chefs — seem to be closing regularly.
“All of our numbers are open with our management team. We hide nothing. We have a lot of conversations about how to spend money in a restaurant: Spend it like it’s your money, not like it’s someone else’s or it’s free money, because it’s not. It’s just like personal finance. It matters what you make, but it matters more what you spend,” she says. “We don’t open another [restaurant] without paying the previous one back. So the food halls are the only exception that we’ve ever made to that.”
Also helpful, says Faison, is a “no [jerks]” policy.
“We have a zero-tolerance policy around things. That’s not to say that people don’t say dumb things sometimes, or don’t pop off, or don’t say things that are disrespectful or sexist. But we don’t let it go. We deal with it in the moment. We deal with it in a way that we do our best to give the person who has made the comment, or has done something wrong, the benefit of the doubt. But we make it very clear that it’s unacceptable. If it happens, if it continues, they’re gone.”
As for Orfano, “This is unabashed Italian-American cuisine, seen through a different lens,” she says. “It’s the easiest to explain of all the restaurants, and I have the hardest time with an elevator pitch with it.”
She refuses to name a favorite dish — but she does recommend the breadsticks.
What’s the first restaurant in Boston that you ever remember visiting, and what did you eat?
It was Durgin Park. I was going from my freshman into my sophomore year in college. I was living in California, and we were on our way to UVM for debate camp — nerd central. We went to the World Debate Institute every summer, and we stopped in Boston. I’d never been, and we ended up in Faneuil Hall, of course. . . . I think I was still only eating poultry and fish at that point. So I probably ate a lot of sides.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here?
Why don’t you guys pick a question that literally sets humans on fire? It’s so interesting. I mean, the question assumes that it’s broken, which it’s not. . . . Obviously, we have a giant labor shortage, right? There’s this huge labor crisis. And we had, a couple of years ago, we had the beginnings of the #MeToo movement start, which promised to really shake up industries . . . And I really thought that it would have consequences and reverberations in Boston. And we have been untouched by it. We are not untouched by abuse. We are untouched by any sort of transparency. One of the things I find frustrating is the people who are running restaurants [who] are abusive, not respectful, and unkind to people who work with them. They’re working in abusive situations, and it makes me insane. It’s like, how do you get a bullhorn and say, “It doesn’t have to be like this, and you don’t have to work there!”? When it’s just competitive, people should be able to work and should be seeking out environments that are respectful and kind.
How does this take root? Why do some people feel that this is an OK way to behave?
I mean, that’s a question for a team of shrinks. Because I think it’s an individual, right? I think there are some people for whom their insecurity manifests as abuse. Where they maybe don’t feel like they deserve it, or they have a problem with success. Or they weren’t raised properly. Or maybe the converse side of that is they feel like they totally deserve it. They’ve always deserved it. It’s like a birthright for them. So I think it runs the gamut. I don’t know that there’s one shining star of a quick explanation. It’s as complex as people are.
Why don’t you think the #MeToo movement has touched Boston as much as elsewhere?
That’s a great question. It’s such an interesting place because we are so liberal, and so conservative. And the conservative part of us does not want to ruffle feathers. And I think people are deeply afraid of saying something. I know they are. No one wants to be the first.
On a lighter note: What other restaurants do you visit when you’re not working?
I think everyone knows my deep love for Cafe Sushi. Oleana. We go to the Galway House in JP from time to time. And Holly Crab. And the upstairs bar at Grill 23.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think you might work in restaurants someday?
I remember eating wild boar with my father at an Oktoberfest in Germany and thinking, “What is this?” But as a profession, I remember working at the Fountain Grill. I made milkshakes for people, as my first job in a restaurant, when I was like 14. I remember having cans of whipped cream that I would put on this really terrible sundae, and I would just overdo it to the nines. Just all the way, as high as I could stack that whipped cream. And then put cherries on, extra of everything. And I would deliver it to the table and there would just be this, “ooh” and “aah.” It was so addictive, making people happy, just the sheer joy in their faces.
How could the Boston food scene get even better?
Interesting. I’d like to see more high-profile food from people who are clearly living here. We have one of the largest Cape Verdean populations in the country, and name one. Name me a Cape Verdean restaurant. We have a significant population from Trinidad and Tobago. So I’d like to see that celebrated in a way that becomes a little bit more mainstream.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had?
I’ve never had one that I’m like, “Jesus, this is just like a dumpster fire. I’m leaving.” But we took our team to New York last weekend. We were eight, right? And so we had made some reservations in some places and we were just popping into others. And it was astounding how poorly we were treated because we were a large party. People didn’t want to touch us with a 10-foot pole. At one point, we walked into a restaurant and [were told], “There’s no way.” We just wanted to stand at the bar and have a drink. They said, “There’s no way I can accommodate the eight of you.” OK, so then we went outside, and then we walked in two by two. And everything was fine. But there was just so much attitude thrown our way.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners.
This is a hard one. Somewhat dubious, right in the beginning. Boston diners will try you out for a second, and then they need to know that you are going to be consistently good. They’re smart that way. And then I would say informed. Smart. And loyal.
What is the most overdone trend right now?
I feel like the restaurant situation here is very much like the housing bubble, right? There’s so much opportunity, and sometimes people find themselves in restaurants that they’re not ready to run, or they don’t have the experience to run. Like, we didn’t have the money to buy the house. You weren’t ready to buy the house, but you ended up in this giant house. I think that’s being mirrored here a little bit. It’s great that there’s so much opportunity, but we’re in a time when you used to really work on your craft for some time, and can’t. I ran a few restaurants before I ever took my first real gig. And I worked for a long time. If we want to call it a trend, it’s the idea of jumping into the pool too soon.
What are you reading right now?
It’s so funny. We were on vacation. I read one book from cover to cover, and I haven’t done it in so long. “Between The World And Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. And “Good and Mad,” by Rebecca Traister.
How’s your commute?
Depends on when I leave. It can be as quick as six minutes. If I leave at the wrong time, I might as well walk.
What’s one food you never want to eat again?
Stinky tofu with fermented crab dip, in Hanoi. Never again. It took hours to get it out of my mouth, off my palate, and to stop thinking about throwing up. Never again.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant?
Olives, because of the sense of community that was there with the regulars.
Who was your most memorable customer?
I can name them. It’s Steve Mantelli, Cary Lynch, and Dominick Doyle. They were regulars at Olives, and I was a line cook. I had no means. I had no money. I showed up for staff meal on my days off. And they would take me out to restaurants that I could not have gone to without them in my life. The exposure level that they allowed for me was huge. They are now friends of mine. They’re 20-year friends of mine, and they’re now investors.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, where would you go?
Oh, that’s so hard. I would start at Cafe Sushi, then Oleana, and then I would go somewhere for copious amounts of caviar. I would go to Sweet Cheeks and have them pile tons of caviar on a fried chicken sandwich.