Boston-Area Chef Takes on Locavore Mission, Runs Local Food Share Program
July 11, 2012 | Jessica Vernabe
JJ Gonson says today isn’t like the good old days. No longer are there mothers or aunts or grandmothers (or “bubbies” as she calls it) in the kitchen slaving away over home-cooked meals every day—or at least that’s not the norm. Not only are people too busy these days, but there’s also fast food at every turn.
Cuisine en Locale—Gonson’s personal chef business based in Cambridge and Somerville in Massachusetts, near Boston—is there to fill in the gap. And Gonson is not only bringing cooked meals to the home, but she’s also providing a way for her customers to eat food made from all-local ingredients.
“I’m trying to help support a market to support our health and flavor and our community,” Gonson said. “I see those as sort of being the three fingers of the locavore.”
Cuisine en Locale, which means “kitchen on location,” works almost like a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. The difference is that instead of getting raw fruits, vegetables, meats and more from local farms, the food is already prepared into a variety of meals. Customers can sign up for Cuisine en Locale’s ONCE a Week (on a weekly basis), which is available in either “Omnivore” or “Vegevore” (or lacto-ovo vegetarian) shares.
Here’s how the process plays out: Gonson and her staff buy their ingredients directly from farmers in the local and regional area (local being within 100 miles and regional being within 300 miles). They return to a shared-use commercial kitchen they use, cook the meals and package them. The food is then delivered on select days to those in Somerville, Cambridge and parts of Boston for no additional charge. (Those outside the area can pay for delivery or pick up their food.)
One share is generally enough to provide seven big meals for one person (or fewer meals for more people). The shares cost $125 per week, though there are discounts for bundled purchases.
Gonson says all of her menus are designed around what is available from the farmers. For example, when the local farmer she usually buys meat from is out of chicken, she’ll spring for a different meat rather than going to a non-local farm. A few examples of past ONCE a Week dishes include “Sweedish Chicken Meatballs” and “Sweet and Sour Braised Stuffed Cabbage.”
Cuisine en Local typically gets about 40 ONCE a Week orders, with more of those being omnivores than vegevore, Gonson said.
For Gonson, it’s hard to communicate to her customers what she does in just a few words. Cuisine en Locale isn’t a restaurant. She’s licensed as a caterer, but the term doesn’t fully describe her business. Instead, she calls herself a locavore personal chef and an artist.
“What I am is a food artist,” she said. “I really love to play with flavor. I think of flavor as being like paint colors, and I love to perform with it.”
Gonson highlights the artistic aspect when it comes to Cuisine en Locale’s ONCE events, or pop-up culinary events held throughout the country. For ONCEs, Gonson will arrive at the location just a few days in advance. She then collects ingredients from area farmers, plans her menus based on what’s available and cooks, she said. The events are usually promoted during the same week. The ONCEs are themed, often becoming theatrical dinner performances.
One example is the ONCE in Hell concept, which is a culinary interpretation of the literary work Dante’s Inferno. Courses are made to reflect each ring of hell described in the text, and the food is served by actors behaving the like the minions of each ring, Gonson said.
Janna Comeau, a music teacher who lives in Revere, was first introduced to the ONCEs after learning about a ONCE in Hell dinner in her area through Meetup.com. Since then, she’s attended about 15 ONCE dinners.
“My favorite thing about ONCE is that it’s super local,” she said. “You know exactly where all the food’s coming from. Oftentimes you get to meet the farmers… and for someone who has like no cooking experience, that is totally neat to me. And not only that, you get really, really good food—(it’s) generally nutritious, too.”
So far, Cuisine en Local has held more than 25 ONCE events in locations that include the Boston area; New York; Portland, Ore.; and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Gonson said she is also planning to host one for the first time in Austin, Texas next March.
Becoming a Personal Chef
Gonson said she has always been a foodie. Ask her about her childhood in Cambridge, and she’ll tell you about a family that ate together at the dinner table every night. Her mother was “an amazing cook” and her father was a lover of good food, she noted.
Gonson spent her teenage years working for restaurants and other food-related businesses. By the time she was in college, she was switching off between working in restaurants and doing photography for travelling rock bands. After Gonson graduated college in 1991, she moved to Portland, Ore., where she continued working in restaurants and also started working for music record labels.
Gonson said Portland had a strong local food system since it was more expensive to import food than to grow it locally. However, that wasn’t the case in many other parts of the country.
“I’d go on tour with these bands and be like ‘Wow, this is weird. There’s no food anywhere,’” she said. “You’d go through parts of Illinois that had been cornfields and now they were miles of Denny’s (restaurants). I watched it all fall apart. … When we were on tour in the 80s, there were restaurants. When we went on tour in the 90s, it was all fast food.”
By the early 2000s, Gonson had gotten married, given birth to a newborn son and was living on an island—Martha’s Vineyard, which she said also had a strong local food system. It was there that she started becoming more conscientious about food-related issues. (She started reading about the use of artificial hormones and antibiotics on cows, and she didn’t want her new child to be exposed to that.)
Gonson says that after her friend who was a chef passed away, she stepped in to help in the kitchen and remembered how much she loved cooking professionally. She eventually moved with her family (which now consisted of two children) back to Cambridge. Once there, she decided to become a personal chef, cooking for one family for a year and focusing on organic and sustainably grown ingredients, she said. However, that business model only transformed from there, and Gonson started focusing primarily on local healthy ingredients.
“I’ve aggregated all of these wonderful cooks around me who also want to cook within my philosophy,” Gonson said, noting that she started Cuisine en Locale about six years ago. “(Now) it goes out to more people, and that’s enabled us to bring the cost down substantially. So it’s still personally chef-ing, but it’s not just for rich people.”
Gonson says the Boston area does not have the same “local food” structure as Portland and Martha’s Vineyard.
“It (food) can come by boat very easily right to Boston, and it comes here all the time—by airplane, by truck, by train,” she said. “The result is that there are (almost) no farms left in my area. They’ve been absolutely put out of business by big agriculture.”
She noted that sourcing food locally helps the environment by eliminating the need for fuel to transport food from across the country and from abroad. Cuisine en Locale also helps support local growers.
One of those producers is Kate Stillman, owner of Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm in Hardwick, Mass. Stillman said she appreciates Gonson’s flexibility and local-source mission.
“She never sends me these last-minute orders of stuff I don’t have,” Stillman said. “It’s always, ‘What do you have? Fine, we’ll take it.’… The beauty of JJ is she actually understands the whole local food system, the local food economy. She’s not just about a label.”
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