The ultimate appeal of the Salty Pig is not its endless riffs on classic charcuterie, its crackling and cheerful pizza oven or madcap bar program. No, it has always been its staff, front of house and back, that catapults it into the must-go category of the Back Bay culinary galaxy. Straddling the fine line between the intuitive nature of fine dining and the cool humility of a no-frills joint, the team here, led by executive chef Kevin O’Donnell, always manage to make it seem like they’ve been looking forward to seeing you all day.
We sat down with a few of the people who keep the engine purring from behind the curtain, in the kitchen and out of the spotlight.
Somehow both ethereal and commanding in stature, general manager and beverage director Erin Murtagh has a startling self-awareness for her 20-some-odd years. Buoyed by a rare ability to set any conversation ablaze with her ardor for all things food and drink, Murtagh has been a part of the Salty Pig team since it was a dusty construction site across from Back Bay Station.
“I just couldn’t get enough of it. I was soaking it up like a sponge,” she says of the initial training period, when she was first hired on as a server. “It’s so much more than just going out to eat. It’s this whole other language.”
Having just graduated from Boston University, Murtagh was preparing to take her LSATs when she found herself spending more and more time digging into the menu instead of her textbooks. Once she made the transition to bartender — and began making off-the-wall simples and bitters at the restaurant, wine and beer at home — her life took an entirely new direction.
“People kind of fall into this business because they’re doing something else and they need to make money, but it’s only after that happens that you fall in love with it,” she says.
After former GM Jillian Rocco left to join newcomer Row 34, Murtagh soon had another hat to wear. If you’ve seen her darting around during a busy service, invisible when necessary and present when not, you know she was made for the role.
“For me, the GM is just putting out fires. I do the typical things like scheduling and hiring and keeping track of the numbers, but I don’t ever want to be just one thing,” she says. “I love being able to jump behind the bar, or jump on the host stand, and then jump on expo. There’s always so much to do that you’re never bored.”
A no-nonsense guy with the quiet temperament of an artist, Scott Keith ascribes his beginnings in the working world to the “school of hard knocks.” His time running the charcuterie program at the Pig is his late-in-life leap year of sorts — an attempt to reinvent himself by plunging into the deep end of the school of cured meats.
“For the first time in a long time, I like coming in to work,” he says. “Not to keep blowing smoke up Kevin’s a—, but he’s a phenomenal chef. Mike [Lombardi] too. The whole staff is super talented, so I’ve really enjoyed learning all that I can from them.”
Keith generally works his magic by day, which is why he remains unseen by the majority of nighttime diners who come through the doors seeking a board piled high with his coppa di testa, wild boar cacciatorini and smoked beef tongue.
The notoriously difficult regulations surrounding in-house charcuterie programs always present a challenge to enterprising meat-curers seeking a license, but the restaurant’s steadfast dedication to the process has become second nature to him. Doing it right comes first, but gracing it with a unique flair is a close second.
“I love the creative aspect to it,” he says,glancing up at the offerings currently adorning the chalkboard. “It really is an amazing combination of art and science.”
When O’Donnell arrived in Boston to reinvigorate the Salty Pig, he didn’t come alone — his right-hand man and partner in crime, Michael Lombardi, was right behind him. Lombardi, second-in-command as executive sous chef, worked alongside O’Donnell at both L’Office, a Parisian sensation they opened in just three weeks, and on the line at NYC’s legendary Del Posto.
“The reason I came to Boston is much deeper than what we’re doing here,” Lombardi says. “Boston is a city with a population of people who truly want to be here, but the food scene hasn’t evolved as much as it should have.”
As a result, he has every intention of staying put and helping to transform what the city is known for. For starters, he believes that the dining experience should lean toward exploring a chef’s vision and style, rather than grouping a myriad personalities and experiences under one regional umbrella— say, Italian or New American.
“As chefs, we all bring something different, but no one differentiates us quite yet,” he says. “I aim to be not so far out of the box that you can’t relate to people, but outside enough that it’s new even if you’ve had it a million times.”
In the last year, the Salty Pig has gone from a restaurant that bought most of its charcuterie to one that makes most of it. “This is a town that loves charcuterie, and it gets talked about, but it always kind of ends at chicken liver mousse and pates,” Lombardi points out. “We’re trying to look outside the box and take as broad of a scope as we can.”
Who’s the guy putting out the sandwiches come lunchtime? That would be the chef’s older brother. But don’t expect any messy sibling rivalry.
“Oh, he remembers that I’m older and bigger,” he jokes. “I beat it into him when he was a young lad, of course.”
Brian was working at a restaurant in their home state of Rhode Island when Kevin called him up, begging him to join the team in Boston. After a month, he relented.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him and what he’s accomplished, and what he’s trying to do,” he says. “I think he’s really working towards being a revolutionary in the culinary field here, and doing a lot of things that nobody else is doing. He’s making it work, and I’m really glad to be a part of that.”
O’Donnell mentions that every person on staff is dedicated to the same pursuit of perfection — a rarity in an industry where many are simply looking for fast cash. Lunch service, usually an afterthought, gets just as much love thanks to Brian.
“The same amount of thought and work goes into developing a sandwich concept as any other dish on the menu,” he says. “Every single one is composed, and everything in it has a purpose.”