Somewhere between my third oyster and my umpteenth, soaking up the summer sun on the back of a boat in the middle of Boston Harbor, I got it. Or maybe it was on the Green Monster, overlooking the game-day festivities on Yawkey Way as the Sox took batting practice. Then again, it could have been while standing in front of the historic Lenox Hotel, where two years earlier, some jackass set off a bomb during the city’s world-renowned marathon. Wherever exactly the moment happened, the fact is it happened: I caught Boston fever.
Chris Himmel is a native Bostonian with deep ties to the city and the executive V.P. of Himmel Hospitality Group; he’s also a pretty good amateur tour guide. With a phone call to a buddy in the Red Sox organization, Chris arranged a tour of the baseball cathedral that is Fenway Park. Heartaches from throughout the decades still linger like ghosts in this oldest of all baseball parks, despite having found relief in the team’s recent championships.
As if symbolically, an upper deck garden now grows, providing vegetables for the stadium’s restaurants, where once a plastic tarp occupied space. Fenway Farms is operated by Green City Growers, a local outfit dedicated to turning unused municipal space into urban farms.
Chris showcases the growers’ efforts at his award-winning restaurants. In fact, supporting local farmers is a big part of what the Himmel brand is all about. A little backstory on this guy is probably in order. Chris cut his teeth in the kitchen of Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry — to be more precise, he cut fish. He’s good with a knife, but after a couple of beers, he’ll tell you a story about how he was threatened with one (a knife, not a beer) for using another chef’s. He says he didn’t make that mistake again. These days, he prefers to run the operations and allow others to slice up their fingers. And he’s been pretty good at it, named last year to the Boston Business Journal’s “40 under 40” list.
On a gorgeous Friday morning, my host and guide introduced me to the farmers market at Copley Square. The local bounty was on full display in the midst of architectural grandeur, including the Boston Public Library, which I later toured in wide-eyed wonder. But architecture and history are merely the backdrop for my journey; I’m here to, well, taste Boston, Mass.
And tasting Boston means, to a large extent, “drinking it all in.” These folks enjoy their booze. At Bully Boy Distillery, they’re not only drinking it, they’re making it. In fact, they’re making it artisanally by hand in small batches. Chris is all about sourcing locally, even his Bourbon-style whisky.
So of course my man sources his foods locally. At Post 390, Chris and Chef Eric Brennan select a sustainable New England farm or fishery to celebrate in a monthly “Farm to Post” tasting series. The dinner series also features the best foragers and specialty food producers, culminating in contemporary dishes with local, seasonal ingredients. The prix fixe menu is completed with wine pairings from Beverage Director Jason Percival.
Master Sommelier Brahm Callahan, meanwhile, oversees the wine cellar at local favorite Grill 23 & Bar, which houses more than 1,700 varietals! The surf-and-turf staple, Chris tells me, has been the gold standard in town for more than 30 years, although he’s only taken the reigns in recent years. The joint is renowned for all-natural, dry-aged beef and inventive seafood presentations. While careful to retain the bar’s beloved heritage, Chris has added open-air windows that open out onto the street, providing a patio feel.
Meanwhile in nearby Cambridge, Executive Chef Tyler Kinnett’s modern New England cuisine is earning praise at Harvest from Zagat and Travel + Leisure, with awards from Boston Magazine and The Improper Bostonian. The Harvard Square restaurant has been named the best “Sunday Brunch,” “Outdoor Dining” and “Guaranteed Great Meal” in town.
During my stay, I began each day with a run through Boston Common, up to the State House and back (one has to do something to burn off drinks with Chris and his pals). My run would take me through beautiful Boston Public Garden, which can be seen from Bistro du Midi, a partner property of the Himmel group. I lunched at the French-inspired restaurant and enjoyed spectacular wine pairings while taking in pastoral views of the park.
Of course, if this was all I saw of Boston — fancy restaurants and public gardens — I wouldn’t be getting the whole picture, would I? It so happens that Chris and I share a common interest in urban food movements. His is more than an interest, it’s a passion. He took me to a barbecue at the Boys & Girls Club of Boston Blue Hills Club, which although it half-sounds like a private golf club, it certainly is not.
This is a grittier side of the city, lacking affluence and resources. What it is not lacking is the philanthropy of concerned Bostonians like Chris, as well the Kraft family (Josh is president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston and attended the grill-out). Himmel Hospitality Group partnered with the club as part of the group’s Farm-to-Change program. Green City Growers has planted gardens on-site and the children are learning how to eat and live healthy.
It’s encouraging to discover that the farm-to-table philosophy so ubiquitous on the left Coast is thriving on Northeastern shores three time zones away. And it’s nice to know that kindred spirits exist wherever you go in this great land.