Chef shuffles at beloved neighborhood joints tend to be a gamble for loyal patrons — often as not new blood at the kitchen’s helm results in unwelcome changes on the menu. If, however, you’re Jeremy Sewall — the culinary mastermind behind Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar, the imminent Row 34, and Coolidge Corner’s Lineage — you have a knack for matching chefs with kitchens. Proof of this is Alex Sáenz, Sewall’s latest pick for chef de cuisine at Lineage.
Sáenz, who grew up in Lima, Peru, and South Carolina, brings classic Southern touches to the menu — think fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, pimento cheese on the burgers — and infuses his dishes with a few Peruvian flavors to spice things up. Keeping in Lineage’s tradition, Sáenz nails dishes that manage to be both challenging and comforting to the palate at once. Each plate is brilliantly logical in its components, but has one distinct showstopper (aji Amarillo peppers gracing a ceviche, sauce gribiche zinging up a plate of asparagus) woven into each bite. This means you can’t always put your finger on why every course is blowing your mind — you just know that it's been blown.
Sáenz was most recently executive chef at Ten Tables’ Provincetown outpost; he officially took the helm at Lineage late this past February. So far, frequenters of the neighborhood mainstay can’t seem to get enough of the new menu, and Sáenz says he already feels a tremendously vocal support from the restaurant’s regulars. We sat down with him before a recent service to find out what he makes of his new digs.
Do you have anything specific you’d like to achieve during your time at Lineage?
For me, it’s all about branching out into a new neighborhood. I’ve cooked in several areas around Boston, but never Brookline. Plus, Jeremy has such an amazing following, and I wanted to see what it was like to be a part of that world. The farms that we work with, and the fishermen…a lot of people don’t get to tap into these specific vendors like he does. It’s just been so cool to have people know and trust him, and say to me, “You’re part of the family now,” just like that. I’ve worked with great chefs before, but Jeremy is just one of those people around town who really commands a lot of respect. Mostly, I’m just looking forward to getting to know the people of Brookline and surprising them a little bit.
How would you describe your relationship with Chef Sewall?
He’s just the nicest guy, of course. It’s funny, I actually interviewed for the head position over at Island Creek Oyster Bar when it opened, and Eastern Standard way back when, so we had met a few different times. It was one of those things that every time he looked at me he was like, “You’re not quite ready. Not that you couldn’t handle this, but you just need more time.” I had been doing a lot of fine dining, and he was looking for a little more relaxed of a style. He told me to keep doing what I was doing, and I did. Our rapport now is great, because there’s an understanding there. The fact that he trusts me to be here, and put something on the table that still resembles his vision, is amazing.
I would imagine it’s always difficult for a chef to release the reins to someone new.
It takes time to let go, definitely, and that’s the key that any chef will tell you: it’s hard to let go. This place has a reputation after seven years. But he knows my background, and he knows I’m not going to ruin that.
What’s the major difference between Lineage and any other restaurant you’ve worked for?
The family here is the first thing that comes to mind. Most restaurants have a lot of turnover in the kitchen, the front of house, managers, but all of these guys have been here for years. I’m the new guy. The way this place runs, it’s clear that there’s a serious standard that’s been set. The other restaurants I’ve worked in, they’ve wanted me to bring in my own style and change things up, and here, I mean, I could if they wanted me to, but it doesn’t need it. It’s such a smooth machine. The level of camaraderie is fantastic, and it’s stronger here than I’ve felt anywhere else.
Do you have a favorite dish on the menu at the moment?
I’ve been carrying the shrimp and grits with me for a very long time, and every time I put it on a menu, I’m always nervous about what the reaction will be. It’s such a simple thing, and people seem to gravitate to it, but I always worry if people will think it’s too pedestrian. Aside from that, this time of year is unbeatable. Ramp season! I think we have ramps in every dish right now. [laughs]
What’s the secret to perfect grits?
Patience, absolutely. We cook them for three or four hours, and we add a good amount of cheese and butter to make it creamy. Being a Southern kid, butter is number one! Besides that, you can’t beat getting good product from good people. You really don’t have to do much to it when the quality is there.