Gordon Hamersley who, with his wife Fiona, put the South End on the map as a culinary destination at the dawn of the good-local-food revolution of the 1980s, told a packed room at the library that his many awards, honors and citations notwithstanding, the life of a celebrity chef was not for him. The tall, lean and voluble chef who now writes regularly about food for the Boston Globe, said that after more than two decades of a highly successful run of Hamersley's Bistro, where his wife created a fabulous wine list, they found themselves thinking about the next phase of their lives. They liked to do "other things," Hamersley said, like tying flies for trout fishing, training dogs, hunting grouse and woodcock, walking in the woods, writing, being a family. They had always agreed to wait for the other to be on the same page for any momentous decision about the Bistro. "Are you ready?" they asked each other one day in August 2014. "Totally," they both said. From that moment until they closed the restaurant, two months later, they were sold out each night. It had been their best year ever, financially. "But my kid still refers to me as 'my absentee father,'" joked Hamersley.
The financial pitfalls of opening a restaurant are many, and Hamersley credits the "Scottish blood" that runs in the veins of his wife, who also was his business partner, for avoiding them. "Today, the South End is full," said Hamersley. "The best food by young chefs now is found in Cambridge." He cited Giulia's, run by another husband-and-wife team, Michael Pagliarini and Pamela Ralston, as a good example. Responding to complaints from a library audience member about so many mediocre meals served in newly opened restaurants nowadays, Hamersley commented that today's chefs start their own place as soon as they can, perhaps too soon. "I had ten years of experience before I opened Hamersley's, he said. "I am a big believer in experience. How many roast chickens I have done: I know how to mingle the flavors because of that experience. The culinary schools are remiss by not allowing for that. You have to teach cooking as you teach law: it requires experience. A culinary school can’t mimick the experience of a Saturday night at Hamersley’s when a cook doesn’t do so well at four but somehow by seven is on top of his game.”
Those hectic but exhilarating Saturday nights at the Bistro is what he still misses, Hamersley says, but other than that he has no regrets. He never took the awards and honors he received too seriously, and dismissed the authority bestowed on him by some in the media to comment on a variety of subjects merely because he was an award- winning chef. "What do I know about the meal tax?" he asked, "or what the best knife is?" Hamersley's philosophy was to prepare good-quality but simple food in a casual setting, which was different from the traditional chef’s role in the 1980s where the chef always stayed in the back. Hamersley was enthralled by the South End’s diversity. “I stood on Tremont Street and watched what was going on, felt the vibe, and decided I was going to be comfortable for us there,” he said. “We wanted the restaurant to be a reflection of us, Fiona and I, as if you would ‘come into our house,’” he added. Their approach to running a restaurant was based on the old European chef’s notion that they were part of the community. “This is what we wanted it to be,” Hamersley said. “We fulfilled our dream.”