New England's Jasper White
Betty Fussell - January/February 1988
Fannie Farmer, move over. Make room for a man who at 6' 4" and 300 pounds takes up a lot of space. If anyone has altered the shape of new England cooking from Puritan minimalism to earthy largess, it's 35-year-old Jasper White. Reubens would have painted him with his nimbus of curly hair and beard as Bacchus, welcoming patrons of Jasper's to tables loaded with the fruits of harvest. "I like to eat and drink and carry on," he says. "I'm a little on the decadent side." Only in New England would his warm embrace of good food and drink and hospitality be called decadent. In California he'd be part of the landscape. In New England, by returning to earlier, heartier traditions of cooking, he's helping the Northeast rediscover the bounty of its own woods and seas.
"You have to come from elsewhere to see the place, to get an overview," Jasper says. Jasper of Boston, like Alice Waters of Berkeley, comes from New Jersey. And so does his passion for food that is rooted in the land; food like the tomatoes and pumpkins his Italian-Irish family grew on its farm, like the pheasant and quail his father taught him to hunt, like the bluefish and pollack he loves to catch, and the milk-fed baby goats he loves to barbecue. His overview has helped him meld the two major traditions of coastal New England, Anglo and Portuguese, into signature dishes like pork alentejana, combining pork, clams, and garlic, or his lobster and corn chowder, so hearty he serves it as a main dish.
"I have a lot of respect for traditional foods," he says, "and New England is a fabulous resource." The natives have returned the compliment: for the past five years boston magazine has bestowed its "best restaurant" award to Jasper's. Working with seasonal foods, Jasper garners his produce and meats from small-scale local farms typical of the Northeast. In spring he's able to get genuine baby lambs, pasture-fed calves for veal, and baby goats so small that he can quarter and grill them. The cows that provide the Vermont cheddar he buys in 90-pound blocks feed on buttercups in the spring. In summer the woods of New England give him wild blueberries for buckles and slumps, blackberries for cobblers, and mulberries for ice creams and sorbets. Winter root-cellars provide Maine potatoes; frozen fields sweeten the spring-dug parsnips he will turn into purées and chips "so crisp and sweet they are out of this world."
Autumn woods abound with game—deer that have fed on summer berries and cherries that flavor their meat, and more birds than he has time to hunt: wild turkey, teal, mallard, quail. A bevy of wild game furnished the private dinner he cooked recently for Julia Child: woodcock, grouse, Canada goose, and venison with the kind of flavor our Pilgrim fathers knew. Local game farms supply his restaurant with pheasant and squabs, local fields with pumpkins for his pumpkin crème brûlée, local orchards with 40 kinds of apples for tartlets or his gratin of apples and berries.
When it comes to fish, Jasper is no longer an émigré but a native: "We are the greatest region in the world by far for fish and shellfish." In summer he fishes in Maine, in the harbor fronting his 90-year-old house on Sawyer's Island, where he catches mackerel, flounder, fluke, and halibut, and waits for the big boats to bring in tuna, swordfish, and cod, or for his lobsterman neighbor to unpot the lobsters Jasper likes to clambake or stuff into sausage-casings or pan roast in the shell. He waxes lyric over the sweet and fleshy rock crabs north of Cape Cod and the Boreal shrimp so abundant from Maine to the Arctic that they could feed the world. Since Boston means fish to most of the tourists who flock to Boston's rehabilitated port, Jasper's menu is "70 percent from the ocean." His tasting-menu now is entirely fish, beginning with Littleneck clams, homemade gravlax, and fried squid salad, and ending with lobster and corn chowder.
Even some of the wines on his copious list are New England local: a dry fruit wine made from pears or one from Gravenstein apples that resembles Vouvray, or a bone-dry and delicious blueberry wine from Nashoba Winery. Although he's found good Chardonnay in Connecticut and Gewurtztraminer in Rhode Island, he hopes that New England will develop Riesling as its major grape, appropriate to the region's climate and topography.
In his restaurant, Jasper says that he has wanted "to show what the modern New England region is all about, because it's so incredibly rich—rich in ingredients, rich in history, rich in tradition." When he looked for a restaurant space five years ago, he converted an 1802 molasses warehouse on Commercial St. near Quincy Market in Boston's South End. "These were once waterfront warehouses, landfilled in the 1700s with dirt from Beacon Hill," he explains. " We're built on blue blood dirt." Outside Jasper's, from Commercial St. you can see ship masts and smell salt mist. Inside, you see whitewashed brick walls and beamed ceilings, a dark curved bar, Japanese prints, and theatrical bouquets of bird-of-paradise and salmon-pink lilies. "But no matter how much you dress it up," he explains, "you feel comfortable and relaxed here because the materials are all natural—earth and wood."
You also feel comfortable because of Jasper. This is a first-name family operation that turns patrons into pals. His wife, Nancy, now nursing their first baby, designs all the graphics. His staff is young, and many train here to become chefs on their own. His purveyors take him hunting and fishing. Spontaneity and fun are part of the scene. "The creative part you just let happen," he says, "often from what you have too much of." Like the ragout flavored with onions, garlic, and lamb stock made from a plethora of beans: fresh limas, shell beans, peas, green beans. Then there are innovations like his garlic noodles, homemade and square cut, that he serves with fish, the chunky sausages he smokes over applewood, the foie gras he poaches with grapes, or the johnnycakes he tops with caviar. And always there's the smell of freshly baked bread, baskets of soft chewy breadsticks, salted or browned with cheddar cheese.
Having launched his first restaurant, he is about to launch his first book, which includes recipes from the gang of young chefs who have been making the New England scene new. These are friends like Boston's Lydia Shire and Gordon Hammersley, Mike Gray in New Hampshire, Jimmy Dinan in Vermont, Bob Kinkead in Nantucket. He welcomes the camaraderie of chefs that has been a strength of California's first generation of New-American chef stars. Like most of them, he began with French models in preparation and service but soon created his own American space, looking for honest local ingredients and simpler methods. Increasingly, hew ants to get away from the restaurant that has won highest ratings everywhere. "I keep thinking of maybe a little clam shack on the coast of Main," he says. "Life is too short not to enjoy it."