Story by Rita Savard | Photos by Jim Vaiknoras
Ben Elliott wanted something new.
A chef at Barbara Lynch’s flagship restaurant, No. 9 Park in Boston, he was part of a team churning out some of the city’s most sought after cuisine. But finding a balance can be a tricky business.
A decade ago, he moved to Concord where he worked on restoring his late grandparents’ 10-acre farm, a place of wonder that tuned him on to good earth and great food in his childhood.
Edward and Emilie Thomas built the Saltbox Farm in the 1940s. It was a typical New England family farm, where growing your own vegetables was the norm, eggs came from backyard chickens and meat was procured from a pig-raising neighbor or beef farmer.
Ben learned the basics of planting and harvesting from Grandpa Ed and a love of cooking from his grandmother, Emilie, who always had something fresh bubbling on the stove or browning in the oven.
“She cooked out of her 1933 Boston Cooking-School edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” Elliott laughs.
He still has her tattered copy, held together by rubber bands.
Returning to Saltbox Farm was the beginning of a new chapter for Elliott, but it also signaled a shift in focus.
“I’d wake up, get in my car, look around and say, gee this is beautiful but I didn’t have time to really enjoy it,” says the chef whose days belonged to a rapid-fire kitchen.
“I felt a real obligation to the farm,” he says. “I got to a place where I realized, the least I can do is take care of it and have it be what my grandparents wanted it to be.”
He took a leap of faith and left the hustle of Boston. He repaired fences, built a chicken coop, planted fruit trees and realized, “farming is really hard (laughs).”
But it’s also rewarding.
“To be able to spend the first part of my day in the field, planting and weeding, and then taking what has grown into the kitchen to cook and then serve to people — that is a gift. And everyday I’m humbled by how lucky I am to be living this life.”
By launching a homey, green-minded restaurant rife with flavors from his family farm, Elliott is carrying on a tradition that would make his grandparents proud, and much more.
Saltbox Kitchen is sourcing local and biodynamic ingredients from other independent farms to fuel truly bad-ass cooking — and put people in touch with the community just as much as what’s on the plate.
The vegetable sides alone at the 84 Commonwealth Ave. restaurant are enough to justify a visit.
Foraged wild herbs are transformed into tasty mouthfuls in dishes like the Farro salad with olives, feta and kale; and spring onions salsa verde with anchovy, garlic, capos and olive oil.
The kind of hands-on organic production happening at Saltbox is what lured Elliott’s team of big-city talent, like the farm’s production manager, Mark Congdon.
A few years ago, Congdon was managing a successful South End café.
“I wanted $850 a month, a cabin in the woods and no electricity,” he laughs, while standing in the field and watching his dad, Wayne, drive by on a tractor.
Really, he says, joining Saltbox was an opportunity to be a part of something big in the community, to plan a season from seeds to harvest, and have a hand in “a change that needs to be made in the food system.”
The menu isn’t entirely made of ingredients from a 250-mile radius.
“I like avocados, I like pineapples and I like a lot of other ingredients that we can’t get locally,” Elliott says. “If the food we seek is produced with integrity, and it’s beautiful and delicious, we are going to be excited to share it with our guests.”
But count on receiving something from the family farm on your plate, whether it’s fresh basil, shaved fennel, tomatoes, carrots, snap peas or something else pulled from the dirt that day.
And every dish — from the roasted eggplant with goat cheese and golden raisins to the wild Alaskan salmon marinated in miso with pickled plum — is at home in the Saltbox Kitchen’s modern/rustic light-filled room, the defining feature of which is a gorgeous bar perfect for sipping a Juste Ciel Corsican Rose´.
Besides wowing guests with artfully wrought dishes, Executive Chef Aran Goldstein teaches them how to cook. This fall, the Saltbox will be revving up classes again at the Farm’s Little House Cooking School.
“I love the fact that we can plate beautiful dinners, make awesome food and teach others how to do it,” says Goldstein, who cooked in kitchens in Boston, Italy, China and New York. “There’s a lot of overthinking when it comes to cooking. It doesn’t have to be complicated. We like to make it a fun, easy and memorable experience.”
The team’s fierce commitment to green operations will eventually include brewing beer on site. The hops are already pushing through dirt on a portion of the farm and brewer Ralph Fiegel has plans to use sweet squash, local maple syrup, and Saltbox bees’ honey to fuel some of his homebrews.
Since opening July 9, Saltbox Kitchen has been buzzing with happy diners, and staff who are having fun and it shows.
But what’s not to love about an ever-changing menu that feeds you the freshest things springing up from the earth right now?
As for Elliott, he’s finally finding that balance between work and actually having a life.
“This is about leaving pretentions at the door, experimenting with new recipes and ideas, and having fun with food,” Elliott says. “Hopefully when people finish eating, they feel nourished, thoroughly satisfied and want to come back for more.”
Saltbox Kitchen, 84 Commonwealth Ave. in West Concord is open from 7am-7pm Monday through Saturday, offering breakfast, lunch and early dinner.
978-610-6020 | saltboxfarmconcord.com