This piece is part of our BOStoday Q+A series. Do you know someone we should interview? Nominate them here.
David Daniels recently took the reins of Boston Harbor Hotel’s kitchen, as well as the 30+ year tradition of the Boston Wine and Food Festival. The Italian chef is no stranger to popular Boston kitchens, having previously worked for Saltie Girl, XV Beacon Hotel, and OAK Bar + Kitchen at the Fairmont Copley Plaza.
We asked David 10 questions about Boston’s food scene, his role at Boston Harbor Hotel + what to expect from this year’s festival (running through late March).
What first got you interested in cooking?
I’m a first generation Italian. I grew up in a food household, to say the least. Back in the day, everything was scratch cooked and my nonni and my mom made everything from garden to table. My nonni had an incredible garden, from roma tomatoes to eggplants to chili peppers. I grew up with smells, tastes and technique in my house, and I knew from the time I was about eight years old that I wanted to be a chef. I don’t know how I knew that. My brother was fixing the lawnmower, and I was making gnocchi and hollandaise when I was ten years old.
My grandmother bought me a Betty Crocker cookbook for kids. I would tirelessly make my mother everything, from breakfast in bed to meatloaf in bed. This book was so tattered and had so many stains from the brownie recipe, or poached eggs. It was rudimentary, but I fell in love with the whole idea.
Can you give an overview of your professional culinary background, and how you got to Boston Harbor Hotel?
I worked here when I was 20 years old in 1987. I was very very green, but I knew what I knew and I knew that I was going to be great at this. So I was very highly skilled at the time for a 20-year-old, listened really well, outworked everybody, begged for the job, and got the job with really no prior experience. I talked my way into it, and worked my way up. When I was 21 years old, I was the de facto banquet chef of a hotel that had just opened.
After that, I worked at the Harvest in Cambridge again. I realized I wanted to be at a level that I didn’t see in Boston. That’s not to say that there weren’t talented people in kitchens in Boston, but I aspired to be more. I went to New York for two weeks, and then I went to San Francisco. There was no Eater, no Internet, so I grabbed the Zagat guide and picked out 10 restaurants where I was going to sit at the bar, meet the chef, and network for the day. And I decided on moving to San Francisco.
I cooked in California everywhere from Los Angeles, Big Sur, to Napa, San Francisco, at three or four different kitchens, and gained experience at a different level that I felt I couldn’t attain in Boston. Then I moved back after five years, hit the ground running, and I’ve never stopped.
I was the chef at XV Beacon Hotel for five years, then I was the chef at The Wauwinet on Nantucket for five years, and then I came back to Boston. To be back at Boston Harbor Hotel and in charge of the kitchen is very full circle. I’m really proud of what we’ve done, and I have to give a lot of credit to people who have supported me, certainly my kids and family members. From the day I walked back in this kitchen, I’ve had nothing but support.
What has it been like taking over the Boston Wine & Food Festival?
A tradition of 30 some odd years, and being the new guy — they were big shoes to step into, considering the reputation of the hotel, the festival itself, and the relationships that were built over a long period of time.
This was just another opportunity for me to shine with creativity and to teach the culinarians around me at Boston Harbor a new level of cooking. I couldn’t be any more grateful to be a part of it, and to be surrounded by amazingly talented people that have coordinated this sort of relaunch of the festival.
Who is this festival for?
I think it has something for everybody. The winemakers are all top shelf, they’re all the best of their craft in wine making. This year, we wanted to make it more approachable and food-focused in addition to what we’ve done for wine over the years. I think the level of food opens it up to just about everybody.
We can only get better at what we do, and we already have this foundation of success. We just did the opening weekend and ended it with a jazz brunch with food from New Orleans. Talk about approachable. Some of the events I’m not going to take too seriously — not in my efforts, but in the approachability of everything that we’re doing.
What sets Boston apart from other cities?
Well it’s my home, for one. My family came from Italy and moved to East Boston in the 50s.
Boston is approachable, walkable, and still has neighborhoods that are separate to themselves. I could not be a bigger fan of Boston everywhere I go, and I’m a huge advocate of what we are.
It’s not easy to live in the northeast. It’s crowded, there’s mad traffic, but we all seem to manage and flourish. I’ve lived in other cities — Bangkok, Los Angeles, and San Francisco — but I always came back home.
What other local restaurants are you watching?
If I go out, I go to Chinatown. Having said that, Saltie Girl is probably my favorite restaurant, because I had some part in its collaboration. My heart is with those guys. I also think they’re doing some amazing food with the volume they’re doing.
If Boston had one specific dish, what would it be?
Macaroni, or an Italian pasta dish. Boston’s roots are Italian and Irish, for sure, but my part of the tracks is Italy. I think for me, a dish of macaroni is everything about Boston. I love carbs.
If you could only choose one local restaurant menu to bring to a deserted island, which would it be?
Peach Farm in Chinatown. It’s a chef hang out. It’s an amazing venue for chefs to go to late at night for dinner, they know us by name. They pour a beer before we order one. I was turned on to it 25 years ago, and then to sort of bring up and coming chefs.
What are the last few things you’ve done locally?
I live in Hingham, on the water. I’m definitely a water baby. Smoking a cigar, drinking a glass of wine anywhere in Hingham is where you’ll find me.
On a typical day, I grab coffee at Red Eye Roaster — a huge iced coffee with my board shorts. I’ll head down to Hingham Harbor and go for a long swim, and then go home and have a glass of champagne and eat something from a farmer’s market.
What is something every Bostonian should know about?
Neighborhoods, and what they represent. The North End, the South End, Southie, our neighborhoods are food destinations now. I always think of where I can get ethnic food made in its original form, and I think that our neighborhoods are one of our best qualities.
I’m on the waterfront now, and I think there are some great bar scenes and cocktail culture here in the Seaport.