Chefs to Watch 2016: John daSilva, Spoke, Somerville, Massachusetts

Liz Grossman

When Dave Jick and Felisha Foster first approached John daSilva about helming the kitchen of Spoke, the wine bar they were opening in Somerville, Mass., they unintentionally almost talked the chef out of it.

“They told me the kitchen would be 88 square feet with a small convection oven, a couple induction burners, a small table-top fryer, no vent. I was really turned off,” daSilva says. “I literally kind of ended the conversation right then and there in my mind.”

It took a trip to Nantucket to help his friend open a high-volume restaurant—where he saw how 800 lunch and dinner covers could come out of a small kitchen—to change his mind. “I saw the volume they were doing. I figured if they can do those covers, I can do my own brand of magic in a tiny kitchen,” he says. “I came back, called Felisha and said I was in.”

Small quarters have always been part of daSilva’s food memories. Growing up in Gloucester, he lived next door to his Sicilian and Portuguese grandparents, who cooked dinner every night. “I would come home from school and my grandmother would be making this incredible caldo verde. I have so many amazing food memories as a kid; that’s where my palate started to wake up.”

By age 13, he was washing dishes at the restaurant where his mom worked as a waitress, and later ended up at the New England Culinary Institute. He spent time working at the Boarding House in Nantucket and by 2008 started at No. 9 Park in Boston. But it was his six-month sabbatical on a 10-acre Concord farm owned by former No. 9 Park Chef de Cuisine Ben Elliott that brought him closer to food than the kitchen could. “I was harvesting vegetables, pulling weeds, getting to smell and taste and touch everything in its purest form,” he recalls. “I remember harvesting potatoes with a fork and was damaging more potatoes than I was comfortable with, so I just started digging with my hands. It was so amazing to smell the dirt and soil—it was spiritual in a way, just having that closeness with vegetables.”

When he finally settled into Spoke in 2013, that tiny kitchen turned out to be more than conducive to creating a menu inspired by the seasonal Mediterranean flavors and ingredients of his childhood. A salad of roasted and pickled cauliflower plays perfectly with hazelnuts, roasted grapes and vadouvan, while housemade salt and vinegar rye chips are used to scoop up chunks of smoked bluefish, pickled mustard seeds, grated horseradish topped with a blue fish fumé hollandaise lightened up with carbon dioxide, “so it gets super velvety and airy,” says daSilva. His light touch is found in every bite of his even heartier dishes, like his farro risotto with smoked chestnuts and roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms ($16, recipe). “We top it with a slow-poached egg, chives and sea salt and finish with cured egg yolks because they remind me of a nice, salty cheese.” And for daSilva, it all comes down to those memories. “The most fun I have creating a dish is trying to transport people back to early food memories, and trying to give them that connection. I want to help them travel back to something comfortable and beautiful; that’s the best feeling I have as a chef.”

Q&A with John daSilva:

How do you describe your food?
Bright, clean, fresh, simple and refined.

If you had to describe your restaurant in one word, what would it be?

Who or what inspires you?
Inspiration comes from everywhere. Sometimes I get it from cooking with my wife, Molly, at home, talking to my cooks about food in the kitchen, or chatting with my farmers at the market.

What’s on your cooking bucket list?
Cooking at a wine bar, I make it my business to stay informed on cheeses and cured meats as much as possible. Recently we have started making a lot of fresh cheeses in-house—chèvre, goat milk ricotta as well as ricotta salata. I’d love to delve deeper into aged cheeses and salumi.

When did you realize that you loved food?
When I was a kid, we shared a two-family house with my great-grandmother and my grandparents, so I was always spoiled with food when I got home from school. My great-grandmother was Portuguese and my grandmother was Sicilian, and they would prepare all kinds of good stuff—bacalao, sopa de couve, fresh bread slathered with butter. The arrangement was very Old World—we had a grapevine in the backyard and my grandfather was a fisherman, so we always had amazing fresh seafood and codfish hanging in the cellar. I guess you could say that laid the foundation for my love of food.

What ingredient is central to your cooking?
Hard to pick just one, so I'll say herbs. I use them in a lot of different ways—whole or chopped in salads, as a pesto or purée on top of pasta, infused into oils to season crudo. I love their natural beauty and their ability to brighten up or cool down a dish.

What would you do if you weren’t a chef?
I do a lot of impersonations and I love to make people laugh, so I think it would be a lot of fun to be a voice actor and comedian like Hank Azaria, Robin Williams or Dana Carvey.

What cookbook is most important to you?
Hard to pick just one, so I'll go off the beaten path and say The Flavor Bible and Food Lover's Companion. As a young cook, I referenced these books nearly every day.

How do you find calm in your kitchen?
I'm very fortunate to have a crew of talented, hard-working and professional chefs by my side, but inevitably things do get hectic. When that happens, I like to sit in the alley behind the restaurant, gather my thoughts and reflect. We have a small herb garden back there and a park across the street which helps me to relax.

What meal changed how you feel about food?
I had an amazing lunch at Eleven Madison Park several years ago that made me re-examine my approach to food. Their ability to highlight every facet of a single ingredient was really quite impressive. I also loved being able to interact with the servers and cooks.

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