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Ritual Gathering

Ritual Gathering

By Nina Coomes

Juliet has a second floor. For those who have been in the neat rectangular space of the restaurant, it seems impossible--past the pastry case and coffee counter are the seats, and then the bar. Behind the bar is a supply closet (which I later learned houses Juliet’s one and only refrigerator) adjacent to a bathroom. Everything has its designated place at the open but tidy Juliet. A sort of in-door terrace jutting out over the dining area feels unfeasible. And yet there I was, perched on a chair, my head grazing the ceiling, somehow floating above the cheery chatter of a rapidly filling Saturday brunch service. I sat across from Joshua Lewin, co-owner and chef at Juliet, who had first suggested that we meet in the “secret mezzanine office” which I quickly agreed to, baffled and intrigued by where such an office must hide. It turns out this mezzanine is above the supply closet, and can be reached by precariously pulling oneself up a ladder, a feat Josh seemed to do with total ease. As I looked out over the restaurant, it struck me that I was in something like the brain of Juliet, which felt apt, as here I was, talking to the human-brain of Juliet.

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Though we are meeting to talk about Josh’s experiences and ideas surrounding the summer long Beach Rose menu, Josh spends the first 10 minutes of our interview not talking about himself, but rather talking about Katrina, his partner at Juliet. When I ask him how they met, he replies quickly with a smile, “In a bar.” After their initial meeting at the bar, he followed up. “She owned a farmer’s market, an indoor farmers market in Central Square,” he tells me, “a couple days after we met at the bar I made a point to leave work and show up at that farmer’s market in my probably awkward way. In a couple months after that, we had thrown our first dining event together and really, it was just a hobby at first; us just enjoying each other’s company and sharing that with people.” He goes on, talking about what Katrina specifically brought to the table (her attention to detail, her attitudes toward service), when I comment that it seems from various interviews and articles that Katrina is the public face of the restaurant, and we rarely ever hear from him. He responds, laughing, “Katrina will be horrified to hear that!” and begins to talk about how adept Katrina is at interviews (“a very private person but very comfortable”) when he cuts himself off, saying “Look already I’m just talking about Katrina and not about me!” We share a laugh, and I ask him about where he grew up, mentioning a snippet of commentary I overheard at the November Les Pommes Sauvages menu where he mentioned being from the Boston/Dorchester area.

Josh begins, launching into his story: “I didn't live in Boston much when I was young. We went back and forth. I was born in Springfield, and then moved over the Connecticut border. We eventually settled in Western Mass.” Later in his life when thinking about where to start his culinary career, he decided on Boston, reasoning that “I have roots and family and support system in Boston which is how I ended up here.” On his involvement in the food industry, Josh says “I really had two entry points, one is that I needed a job in a big family, I wanted to have my own car, I had to pay a little bit of rent. I wanted to have a lifestyle and none of that was coming from my family, that was all coming from me.” He describes himself wryly, his face animated as he asks “What do you do if you’re an intelligent teenager with a problem with authority? You skip school to go work a lot in restaurants, so I had a lot of restaurant experience by the time I graduated, but that had nothing to do with career; it was a necessity.” Instead, Josh says his interest in food started at home, explaining, “I had no background in fine cuisine. Food wasn’t an intellectual subject or a travel tool even though we did eat well. My family split up so early and we moved around so much there was a lot that was uncomfortable about childhood. One thing that was never uncomfortable and always a lot of fun was the dinner table. Helping people cook, mostly grandmothers in that case. There were times, as a shy kid, too, if people were out having a raucous good time in the living room, there was a quieter meditative experience where I could learn something real about my family in the kitchen.” He regales me with descriptions of the cuisines his respective grandmothers made, one Jewish and the other Italian, resulting in alternating menus of brisket and chocolate chip cookies, or fresh pastas and pizzas. Josh jokes that between those two grandmothers, at one point he also went to CCD (early Catholic education for children) and Hebrew school at once, quipping, “Maybe that’s why I’m staunchly an atheist, but also why I love ritual.”

The Beach Rose menu is also born of a ritual of sorts. When I ask if his Massachusetts upbringing is where the ode to the New England coast comes from, Josh tells me that his Aunt Denise and Uncle Donny took him, and his brother and sister, every summer to the Connecticut shoreline. His Aunt Denise managed a local grocery store, and through her work there, she became friends with the president of a food workers union who owned a house on the Connecticut shore. Of his Aunt and Uncle, Josh remembers that “they just attracted these generous and warm people from all walks of life which was so fun to be exposed to. They learned that all kinds of people could come together, so somehow these very hard working, definitely middle class but upwardly mobile people, people who shared all their resources, would attract more well to do friends who would share with them. So we always felt all the time that we had these resources but it was based on these people’s generosity more than bank accounts.” Josh stops, mulling his words over, and adds, as if an afterthought, “What an important concept.”

During those Connecticut shoreline summers, Josh tells me that he and his brothers and sisters would go “crabbing with a clothesline,” proceeding to explain how one can catch crabs by attaching small pieces of hot dog to a clothesline, dropping it down into the water, and “pulling up a feast of crabs.” As he recalls watching friends drag up lobster traps on lobster boats, neighborhood cookouts, and block parties, I imagine the sprawling joy of summer, the lingering heat of beach sun still thrumming under one’s skin, the satisfaction of sharing food in large communal gatherings. “That’s food,” Josh summarizes, “that’s New England food.”

But the Beach Rose menu isn’t just a memory of childhood. It’s an echo of the present, too. Josh tells me that now, his sister lives a mile from that same Connecticut shoreline with her young family. “They’re developing a life there, right by where we would go out on those excursions and I know for my sister, this is a sense of comfort. Her husband works on a tugboat. This menu was developed over two summer trips with Katrina before Juliet opened, “when we were on my sister’s boat, digging in the sand bar.” His face suffused with delight, he explains that the beaches Katrina was used to were the beaches of Santa Cruz, “with cold water and roaring waves and clear beaches and year round everything. It’s a very different experience from the rush of New England shoreline, where you really only get 90 days a year when it’s even feasible to be on that shore. It’s a party for the whole summer.”

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Another thing the New England shoreline has that the West Coast apparently does not, are steamers. For those of you who may not know what a steamer is (I certainly didn’t until after the interview), a steamer is a type of clam integral to the New England clambake, where the clams are steamed and served whole. Biologically speaking, they are a species of soft shelled clam known as Mya arenaria, and can be found in sandbars where they burrow 3-8 inches below the surface. “So here we are on this boat and my sister brings us to a sandbar and my sister’s young kid is there, Delilah, bright red hair she looks like that princess in that movie Brave, and there we are, Katrina’s first New England sandbar and someone says “Hey Katrina, usually you can find steamers around here!” That’s not something they have in California, certainly not in Texas. Next thing you know, four hours later we have huge gallons and gallons of steamer clams we dug out of the sandbar.” That night, Josh tells me they took the steamer clams back to his sister’s home and cooked them into a feast. He concludes by saying “That trip, and that resulting sunburn where we couldn’t walk for almost a week, really is the Beach Rose menu.”

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Our conversation meanders from there, dipping into his time in the Marines, where the mussels served in the Beach Rose menu are sourced (Cape Cod, where the mussels act as both food source and natural ocean filter), sustainability in food, and where one can find a beach rose in Somerville (in front of the 7-11 on Prospect Street, though Josh does not recommend eating those). It strikes me that as Josh speaks about his various experiences and the many people who led him to Juliet, he constantly comes back to the word “share.”

His cooking with Katrina is an exercise in enjoying one another’s company and “sharing that with other people.” His first true interests in cooking were the result of his grandmothers and their ability to share a kitchen. At the Connecticut shoreline in childhood, he spoke of generosity and shared homes, how they opened up the possibility of wide open, abundant summers. He shared the knowledge of steamers with Katrina, shared the shoreline, shared even the sunburn painted across their legs.

Back down the ladder from the “secret mezzanine office” after our chat is over, walking through the clamor of the dining room, exiting into the brisk mid-February cold, I am left with an undeniable anticipation of summer. The impression of heat thrumming under skin, the particular joyful exhaustion of a day well spent in sea and sand, the wonder of the ocean and all its sustenance somehow shared with me, too. “What an important concept,” Josh had earlier said. I can’t help but agree.

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NINA COOMES

is a Japanese and American writer, performer, producer, and artist. She was born in Nagoya, raised in Chicago, and currently resides in Boston, MA.  Her writing has appeared in EATER, Catapult, The Collapsar, among other places. Her debut chapbook, haircut poems, was published by Dancing Girl Press in December 2017. See more of Nina’s work throughout of Juliet.

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