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The hot zone
Saturday night in the kitchen of Boston’s buzziest restaurant

IT’S FOUR O’CLOCK, a breezy Boston afternoon. I’m darting through Tremont Street traffic, my backpack stuffed with fortifications: pens, notebooks, tape recorder, assorted equipment with which to keep my hair away from my face. My outfit, though not what I would normally choose for a Saturday night, is in line with what has been suggested — "comfortable shoes and clothing that can get dirty" — for the occasion.

I turn onto Temple Place, weaving my way around double-parked cars and piles of bulging garbage bags set out on the sidewalk. A taxi driver leans on his horn, urging on the woman at the front of the line who hasn’t floored it at the first glimmer of green from the traffic light. This is pure city chaos, in all its steel-gray bustle and beauty.

But much as I love this energy, now is not the time for lingering. I pull open the door to 52 Temple Place and leave it all behind. Tonight, I’m out for chaos of an entirely different sort.

4:15 p.m., the sleek, chic bar at Mantra. Executive chef Thomas John — known around here simply as "Chef" — comes to retrieve me from my perch on one of the stools that will be, a few hours from now, one of the most coveted seats in town. At the moment, the bar is nearly empty, though judging from their whirring pace, those who tend it — tonight, three bartenders and one bar-back — don’t seem to notice that the customers have yet to arrive. Glasses are washed and dried, ashtrays set in place, bottles straightened. There is a quiet but determined rhythm to the early-evening activities: it is the pace of those who are relishing the breathing room, because they know well what is to come.

Chef brings me first to the restaurant’s hostess stand, upon which sits OpenTable, the elaborate, brain-like reservation system that holds detailed information on exactly who will be found in the dining room on any given night. With the touch of a screen, Chef can see how many tables are booked, how many times each soon-to-arrive patron has visited the restaurant before, and which are people of note — including athletes, journalists, and local celebrities. (In fact, a few tables are always left free, in case any VIPs show up without a reservation. And this being Mantra, they often do.) Any guests who’ve dined here four times or more are visited, at some point during the evening, by Chef himself. Tonight, cast members of Blue Man Group are expected — I briefly imagine marshmallows whizzing across this swank dining room — as are the managing editor of Food & Wine magazine and colleagues, whom Chef will make sure to greet personally.

From here, Chef leads me on a whirlwind tour of the restaurant, which, in its inaugural year of operation — Mantra celebrated its first anniversary with a blow-out party last month — was heralded as one of the 10 best new restaurants of 2001 by Esquire; called "big news" by Wine & Spirits; and declared "expensive, fascinating, intellectual, and scandalous" in the pages of this newspaper. Chef himself has been generously lauded by publications such as Details ("Let’s be honest: Boston isn’t known for its hipness. Thomas John, the white-aproned wonder behind Mantra, is working to change that") and Food & Wine ("Thomas John deftly melds the seasonings of the sub-continent with New England ingredients and French technique"), which recently named him one of the best new chefs in America.

But at 4:15 on a Saturday afternoon, the Mantra staff isn’t thinking of the hip or the hype. Their unified focus on readying the restaurant for the impending onslaught is evident everywhere. And it’s no more apparent than downstairs in the kitchen, where the 18 people who will spend the next eight-plus hours standing — always standing — side by side in soaring temperatures are already at work. There’s Andrew, the saucier, simmering pans filled with colorful sauces. Over at the cold station, Dalbir — the restaurant’s butcher, who pulls double-duty — and Mehdi are preparing for the deluge of salad orders. Pastry chef Ernie is holed up in a small side room — other than the walk-in freezer, it is the kitchen’s only air-conditioned space — readying the night’s complimentary sweets. (A selection of handmade candies is delivered to every table after the entrŽe is cleared away. "It’s served pre-dessert as a transition from savory entrŽe to dessert, so it’s not a shock," Chef explains. "It’s a very gradual transition.")

We escape the heat temporarily, paying a visit to Mantra’s walk-in, which is, Chef announces proudly, double the standard size. Inside, shelves are stacked with endless delicacies: numerous kinds of mushrooms; packages of ostrich fillet; quail eggs. Gabriella, one of Mantra’s bread servers, slips in for butter. Tonight, she’ll be offering diners fresh-baked rolls and slices of breads such as raisin-pecan and semolina. Then there’s Mantra’s naan, made in a tandoor oven, which reaches a sweltering 800 degrees in the midst of the already hot kitchen. Tonight, Lali is the designated bread-maker; he’ll spend the next eight hours quietly standing over the oven, creating batch after batch of the popular Indian bread.

4:45 p.m., back of the dining room. Meeting time. The waitstaff and chefs gather to listen to general manager Thierry Navette as he goes over the night’s reservation list. The first diners are scheduled for 5:30; the last will arrive four hours later. There are VIPs and multiple-visit guests expected — Navette explains where they’ll be seated — as well as someone allergic to wheat, rye, oats, and barley; a special note of caution is given to the bread servers. Three of eight in a single party are celebrating birthdays. A server thinks one of the Food & Wine staffers on the list may have recently bought a condo in the area, in which case he could become a regular. Chef’s staff listens intently, nods, and tucks the information away. It will likely come in handy later in the night.

Following the meeting, it’s dinner time, here affectionately — or perhaps just hungrily — referred to as the "family meal." Plates are loaded with fish, calf’s liver, salad, rice, and mousse for dessert; the seasoned staff members know this will be their only chance tonight to eat — or at least to eat sitting down. Chef cleans his plate quickly, purposefully. There is a kitchen downstairs that will soon need tending, and he is clearly uncomfortable being here when he could be there. Thinking this brief period of calm must be a relished luxury, I ask Chef what part of the night is his favorite.

"Eight o’clock," he says, his face still and serious.

"When you’re busiest?" I wonder aloud.

Chef just smiles and nods: yes.


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Issue Date: July 11 - 18, 2002
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