Seeker Series: Chef Dave Becker

Written by: Iman Richards, Content Marketing Manager at Norbella

We spend a lot of time working and that’s why it’s so important to find a company that fits our values. One of the things that drew me to Norbella when I recently joined the team was exactly that. From our CEO Stephanie’s personal story to the Culture of Questions philosophy that encourages all of us to respectfully challenge the way we work, I’ve found that an organization that values those courageous enough to embrace vulnerability is one worth dedicating time to.

When I think about asking questions I also think about uncovering unique perspectives. In my previous work I spent a lot of time in the culinary world and came to realize that chefs have a wealth of knowledge about everything from the food they make to the businesses they run. They also understand the idea of entertaining, capturing attention, telling stories and creating exceptional experiences.

With that in mind, I decided to interview Chef Dave Becker and get his take on life, work and more.

I first met Dave back in 2014, when I was working as a restaurant publicist. I had heard from multiple friends in the industry about his reputation as being a real “talker”, but what I wasn’t expecting when I met him was his shockingly approachable demeanor. As so many in the hospitality industry strive for, Dave has an uncanny ability to make a stranger feel like family, or an outsider feel at home. His two restaurants, Sweet Basil in Needham, MA and Juniper in Wellesley, MA, are packed seven days a week with patrons who come not only for the food, but for their connection with the chef. This fall, he’ll open his third restaurant, Balani, in Waltham, MA and will publish his third cookbook shortly after.

Yet, despite his accomplishments and nearly 30 years of working in restaurants, Dave remains humble and optimistic towards an industry that grinds, judges, and often rejects those pursuing it. It’s rare to meet an individual whose immense passion and talent doesn’t fuel their ego.

Here’s how our conversation went.

Iman Richards [IR]: Let’s start with a cliché. When did you first know you were going to be a chef?

Dave Becker [DB]: To be honest, I think in a lot of ways it was by default. I was hating school as a kid, but would show up for work and people would actually like the food I made. I thought, “I don’t have that much experience, but people like it AND they’re paying me to do it? This is fantastic.” When all my friends were going off to college, I knew it was definitely not what I wanted to do. So suddenly I was in this position where I had no clue what career I wanted to pursue but could pay all of my bills from the same job I had in high school.

I’m going to say right after that I had a friend who had a job lined up for us in Napa Valley, so I headed out west with him and worked at Mustards Grill. At the time — this was the mid-90s — Mustards Grill was a hot spot. It was right around the time that The French Laundry had just opened up, and it was just a hot bed for really good restaurants. At that point in my career, I didn’t care whether I worked at a good restaurant or not — I could’ve worked at a Pizza Hut and been happy — but coincidentally, I ended up at a really good one. And I loved it. I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life, but the owner, Cindy Pawlcyn, was spending a lot of time at the restaurant. She was more approachable than other chefs I’d worked for, and had solid advice for everyone. I remember once she told me, “you probably should go to cooking school, but you don’t have to. You just have to read a lot and pay attention to people around you. If you’re working for kickass chefs, just absorb as much as you can.”

I guess, making a short story long, there was never a point in time where I was like, “I’m going to be a chef.” It was mostly looking at my coworkers who were complaining about needing time off and realizing that I didn’t want it because I loved my job.

IR: If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is. Have you lived anywhere else besides Napa and the Boston area?

DB: I worked in Italy for a little bit. I want to say it was more like a long apprenticeship, right in the Riviera in the Santa Margarita , near Portofino. Of all the places I’ve lived and work, it’s the coolest on paper. But when I was working there the kitchen had fluorescent lights, no windows, and was 100 feet from the beach. It was also kind of a hardcore kitchen so there wasn’t any music to be listened to. The only time they let me bring in my earbuds was once when I was making 2000 tortellini for a wedding and I was the only person doing it. But other than that, you just had to be working in silence. It was pretty brutal.

IR: And yet, you stuck with it. Was that apprenticeship what inspired you to open your first restaurant, Sweet Basil?

DB: Sort of. I was young, naïve and very ambitious, but hardworking. So when I came back, I went and worked for my old boss. It was fun until it wasn’t fun. I had a series of relatively unpleasant work experiences.

Looking back, I think I was destined to be my own boss just because of how chronically tardy I am. Whoever I ended up working for would always hate my ass because I would always be like 15min late to every shift — didn’t matter that I’d stay an hour and a half late. They would always end up feeling disrespected. And now, I don’t really care if people are late, as long as they aren’t in a hurry to leave early.

IR: And then came your second restaurant, Juniper, further down the line of course. I have to say, it came at a time when Eastern Mediterranean food was really making a name for itself.

DB: Oh yeah. Eastern Mediterranean is totally mainstream now. Even the NFL has an official hummus.

IR: Does it really?

DB: Yeah! There’s an official hummus of the NFL.

IR: That’s exactly my point. It’s like you were ahead of the trend.

DB: Well, the motivation between Juniper being Eastern Mediterranean was way less calculated than that.

The restaurant that I took over was Greek American. So basically I wanted to go in front of the town and be like, ‘hey, you guys love Charlie (the former owner), I love Charlie. Charlie’s doing Greek food, I’m going to do Greek food. I’m just going to tweak it a little bit.’ And that was the approach I took. If it had been a sushi restaurant, I probably would’ve been doing my version of sushi. It was definitely not a case study on demographics and what the town needed.

IR: And now you have a third restaurant in the works, Balani, which you’re opening later this Fall in Waltham, MA. What approach did you take when coming up with this new concept?

DB: I was tempted to do Italian for Balani, but the actual town of Waltham is totally saturated with really good Italian restaurants. Il Capriccio is there and La Campania, and then there’s a whole bunch of higher end pizza places and homemade sandwich shops — they just take it really seriously. So I was thinking if we did Middle Eastern-ish restaurant here it would be good. We’re going to try to have it be a lot of finger food. I want it to be a comfortable place where people feel they can just come, hangout, have some drinks. But Tim [Executive Chef at Juniper] has pointed out that once TGI Fridays has falafel, we’ve gotta not do it.

IR: As long as I’ve known you, you’ve been dedicated to several forms of sustainable practices — locally-sourced restaurants, composting and your worms, making pottery with recycled clay. What first inspired you to take interest in sustainability?

DB: I think it’s just from day one: hippie upbringing. I had parents that composted everything. I think if I got hit by a car and had like 40min to live in the back of an ambulance, that would probably be my biggest life regret — how shitty I’ve been to the environment.

IR: I feel like you’ve done a better job than the average person.

DB: Yeah, my intentions are there. But it’s harder to do than it looks, and you can’t do it alone.

IR: Okay, so what about pottery? For years, making recycled clay pottery to use in the restaurants as plateware was an outlet for you — is that still the case?

DB: Oh yeah. I go through phases of cranking it out. But I haven’t been doing it for the restaurants as much — I’ll hire other potters to make stuff for Sweet Basil and Juniper. I like them, I like their work, and then I don’t feel as hurt if my dishwashers break it.

IR: Let’s talk about publishing cookbooks. I imagine any sort of literature you put out there requires a certain level of vulnerability. That’s your stuff that you’re asking the world to care about and purchase. What has that experience been like?

DB: I like writing them, but hate selling them. With the first book there were enough people reaching out to me asking me to compile recipes for them that worked. And before I knew it I had like 50 recipes. And my girlfriend at the time, Nina [Gallant], was a food photographer, so we just had to do it. It made sense.

IR: Now you’re on book three.

DB: Yeah. What I realize with the books is that they’ve become business cards that nobody will ever throw away. You make the book, it sits on the counter, it’s in the kitchen. And if people cook out of it, that’s cool. But even if people don’t and it just sits there, they’ll never forget about you. It’s almost like a matchbook on a kitchen table that you’re always using to light candles. If it’s from a cool bar, you’re always thinking of that bar. That’s just branding 101.

IR: Speaking of branding, social media has obviously had a huge impact on the restaurant industry — the celebrity of chefs, foodie influencers, the obsession with photographing and sharing every meal, etc. — what are your feelings towards it?

DB: I haven’t noticed a direct connection between social media and tangible results. I feel like the more time I spend on social media, the less attention I give to the actual running of the restaurants. Personally, I’m going to make the food taste great, the place look cool, the music sound good, and that remains the focus. That’s where your skill and talent becomes monetized, when people start eating in your restaurant. But if they’re just admiring your taste from a distance…

IR: That’s a hot take, Dave. Any predictions on what the next big trend will be in 2019?

DB: I think things tend to get more extreme in a linear direction, or pull a 180 and go in the direct opposite direction. For a while, burgers and shakes were fucking everywhere. And then, what goes next? Smoothies and weird salad bowls with crunchy nuts.

IR: And that’s what we’re in now.

DB: Yeah. If I look at cocktails it went from bitter whiskey drinks to sweet and syrupy tiki drinks. And now there’s kombucha drinks, which are kind of the next step up from rum, syrupy tiki drinks. Sour, partially rotten gurgling little concoctions.

I don’t know if this could ever make it, but what would be really cool would be a hot gin drink, instead of hot sake. Just as boozy and served in a pitcher, but just sip it. I’m just making that up — I think it would be cool. Or what about sushi done with sticky grains instead of just rice?

IR: I’m surprised that’s not already a thing. You’re on to something.

DB: Right? Why does it have to be rice? You can totally make that same stuff with sticky millet or quinoa — just put some raw fish on it, it could be cool. Also, I think sooner or later opulent dining might make a comeback.

IR: Really? It’s kind of on hold right now.

DB: Oh definitely, people don’t like to just sit around. If you can’t eat in like 45min and be back instagramming or something…I realize I’m probably on the wrong side of history with the Instagram thing.

IR: Definitely a possibility.

DB: I think eye contact should make a comeback. I’m realizing this with my daughter. I have a feeling she’s going to turn out to be some sort of weirdo because she’s going to look people in the eye and say hi.

IR: Yes, she might the first of her generation to talk to people in person versus through a screen! Actually, can we talk about her a bit?

DB: Yeah, totally.

IR: How has becoming a father changed your perception on being a chef? The restaurant industry? The world?

DB: It’s still really new [week three] and I’m still sleep deprived but overall I think it’s really cool. I realize I don’t have the same level of patience for stupid shit that I once did. And I’m also trying to make better moral decisions. Which is hard, because I’m already realizing, as far as the carbon footprint goes, she’s making a huge one. There’s the diapers, all the cheap crap made in China that helps rock her to sleep, and the clothes. All of the fucking clothes! And all of that clothing requires land to grow the cotton and make the wool. It took boats and plants to make it all and she’s going to wear it twice.

I thought about the cloth diaper route, but that’s also totally indulgent. I don’t know. I want to put my money and effort where my mouth is, but this little kid who I’m going to sculpt into being an environmental radical is going to be making just tons and tons of waste, and I’m going to do nothing about it.

IR: I mean, there’s only so much you can do. Right?

DB: I know, but that’s also the best way to let yourself off the hook and do nothing.

IR: That’s true. Will you teach your daughter to cook?

DB: Oh yeah, big time. If it’s what she wants to do. I’m already thinking if she grows up to be an attractive young lady that’s all talented and smart, my gift to her will be to not spoil her and make her vain. You know what I mean? I’m not saying I’m not going to dote on her, but I’m already realizing I’m turning into a kind of ham dad. But if she wants to learn how to cook, of course I’ll teach her.

IR: I guess you have a little time before that. Curious, are you a coffee drinker?

DB: Totally! You kidding me? When I go to sleep, that’s one of the last thoughts I have as I’m dozing off, ‘this is awesome. I’m going to sleep — I’m going to be able to wake up and drink coffee.’

IR: Early bird, night owl or vampire (never sleeps)?

DB: Night owl. I sleep plenty, but I sleep better when the sun’s up to be honest.

IR: The restaurant industry probably forced you into that, huh?

DB: The restaurant industry and my complexion. I’m just a really pale guy. The sun usually leads to stress.

IR: How about your last meal on earth?

DB: Cinnamon Toast Crunch with ice cold milk.

IR: Great answer. I think that’s a good place to stop.

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Iman Richards is the Content Marketing Manager at Norbella. A lover of creativity, she’s spent her life on the east coast seeking live music, great food and beautiful stories.

The Norbella Seeker Series features Q&A conversations with marketers, innovators, and creatives from a slew of industries, each offering their unique perspective on the many subjects that hold weight and relevance in today’s world.

Ongoing questions & confessions of a modern-day media agency.