Drink: Kerry O’Brien

by: Kevin Stanton

photography by: Kerry O’Brien

When I sat down with Kerry O’Brien, she had on a t-shirt that read, “Cold beer, Colder Women,” a credo that would probably please her mentor, Boston restaurateur Barbara Lynch. O’Brien grew up helping out at her parents’ restaurant, Red’s, on L street in South Boston. That’s where she met Lynch, who was a regular there.

“She used to tell me, all you need is a notebook and a Sharpie. I was 12, and I thought that was so cool. When I moved back to Boston she was the first person I called,” O’Brien said.

Kerry O’Brien takes tasting notes at Marchesi di Barolo in Barolo, Piedmont, Italy.

O’Brien isn’t just in the kitchen anymore. While you can still find her cooking on the line at the 167 Raw food truck, a couple nights a week she is behind the bar at The Gaslight. We sat down and grabbed a pint and talked about what it’s like as a woman in the kitchen, the importance of travel on expanding the palate and cheese camp.

Nantucket Today:

how did you end up on Nantucket?

Kerry O’Brien:

“I ended up here seven years ago because of the wine festival. I was living in boston and I had a friend who was here working the festival and needed some help so I volunteered. I had worked with him at l’espalier and sel de la terre. earlier I had decided I was going to move here. it was late in the season and straight Wharf had let someone go. it was one of those miraculous openings.”

Nantucket Today:

Did you go to culinary school?

O’Brien:

“Yes, I went to Johnson & Wales university in Providence. My parents owned a restaurant in south boston called red’s. We would always help out after school, dropping off bread to tables, whatever they needed. My parents were great cooks. Food was always a big part of our family. Watching them plate food and the precise ways of cutting vegetables, I saw it as a form of art.”

Most kitchens are run by men. is it challenging being a woman in the back of the house?

O’Brien:

“Yes, very much so. it’s challenging in general, but I definitely grew a hard shell working in the kitchen. the reason I wanted to work at No. 9 Park was because of barbara lynch. I needed a female role model. I hate to call her that, but she was.”

Nantucket Today:

What made you decide to switch from back of house to front of house?

O’Brien:

“I started in back of house. I cooked the line at No. 9 Park for two years.

I transitioned to pastry when I went to work at l’espalier and sel de la terre. I got kind of burned out. I made the choice to switch to front of house mainly as a quality-of-life move. I was working 16 hours a day six days a week making a flat rate of $100 a day. I was so broke.”

Nantucket Today:

Wage disparity between front of house employees and back of house is a major problem in restaurants.

What do you think the solution is?

O’Brien:

“I think adding the 3 percent kitchen gratuity to checks is a good start. but obviously that isn’t the answer. it’s really unfair. the back of house works so hard. it was a hard decision for me to make the switch to the front of the house.”

Nantucket Today:

You seem to get pulled back into the kitchen quite a bit.

O’Brien:

“Somehow I always get pulled back into the kitchen. After serving at straight Wharf for my second summer I decided to stay here year-round. liam from the Nautilus asked if I would come cook there. being in the kitchen is my favorite, especially cooking savory. When I worked pastry at l’espalier they had a commissary kitchen in roxbury where I would make croissants all day. After that I never wanted to eat another croissant again.”

Nantucket Today:

Do you think it is important for people in restaurants to cross-train at different positions?

O’Brien:

“I think it is very important. during this pandemic, bartenders are having to serve tables and run food. I think it’s helping. I feel like you are a better employee when you train in different positions. if you can understand back of the house and front of house it helps you see things you might not have seen before.”

Nantucket Today:Fresh vegetables at a Parisian farmers market.

You travel a lot. how important is travel when it comes to expanding your palate?

O’Brien:

“i think it is very important for your palate. it helps give you inspiration for cooking, but experiencing different cultures is important in general.”

Nantucket Today:

Do you have a favorite place you have traveled?

O’Brien:

“Up until my friend kerry Fee and I went to spain it was Paris, hands-down. My husband Zack and I go every year. I think the fact that he speaks fluent French helps a lot. I love the food, the culture, the city. this was my fourth year in a row going. but after visiting spain I fell in love. it is such a warm culture. last night we grilled some shishitos with salt and lemon and we had some beautiful tomatoes from Fog town Farm. that’s very much the way of cooking there.”

Nantucket Today:

When you were in spain you were mainly in the basque country. do you have a favorite wine from that region?

O’Brien:

“Txakolina. The grape is hondarrabi Zuri. it is a tough grape. it grows in a difficult climate, super-moist, rocky soil, right on the coast. it is so bright with high acidity. I think you can drink the rosé all day. that little bit of effervescence is so good with their style of food. We ate anchovies, fresh seafood and fresh cheese. it pairs so well. it is the only wine they make there, and everyone who makes it also makes a hard cider.”

Vineyards in Getaria, Pais Vasco, Spain.

Nantucket Today:

What did you think of San Sebastián?

O’Brien:

“I expected a bit of pretension going to san sebastián because of how expensive it is and the people who go there. I usually stay away from those places. People talk about going to

St. Barts and that doesn’t interest me at all. but it didn’t feel like that.

Their culture, basque culture, is so different from the rest of spain.”

Nantucket Today:

I heard you went to cheese camp. What was that like?

O’Brien:

“Cheese camp for me was at Jasper hill Farm in Vermont. it is geared toward professionals only and they choose 10 people per session. it is a week-long educational experience, on the farm and in the classroom. I had a roommate. it really felt like camp. We helped make the bayley hazen blue, which is probably their most well-known cheese. You spend time in 100-degree rooms making cheese and then you get to spend time in the cave.

Every day we had two hours of classroom education, which happened to be in the hill Farmstead brewery. I was very out of my element. I was the only restaurant person who wasn’t a cheesemaker or cheese monger.”

Nantucket Today:

Do you have a favorite wine and cheese pairing?

O’Brien:

“Gamay is my favorite grape in the world. there is this soft cow’s milk cheese my husband and I came across in Champagne called Chaource, a cow’s milk double creme. that would pair perfectly with a fruity, lighter style Gamay. it would also pair well with a Champagne.”

Nantucket Today:

I have heard that Champagne and potato chips are a perfect pairing. What is another Champagne pairing that people might not be aware of?

O’Brien:

“I love fried chicken and Champagne as a pairing. to narrow it down a bit, certainly a grower Champagne. I really like larmandier-bernier.”

Nantucket Today:

What is a grower Champagne?

O’Brien:

“Grower champagnes are 100 percent hands-on from farming to the wine making. Most of the larger houses in Champagne tend to source their grapes from other vineyards. With a grower champagne the producer owns the vineyard where the grapes are grown.”

Nantucket Today:

Are you a certified sommelier?

O’Brien:

“No. if my goal was to be some crazy sommelier, maybe. but the Court of Master sommeliers is a boys’ club, just like most things in my life. it’s so old-school. I think they need to get with the times. they are known for their sexism and I just can’t get down with that.”

Nantucket Today:

do you think it is important to keep wine notes, especially for the layman looking to get more into wine?

O’Brien:

“I think it is very important. I have notebooks on notebooks. I always

have one when I travel. Actually, I usually have two notebooks, one for food, primarily cheese, and one for wine. it can be intimidating to the normal person but it shouldn’t be. that is another problem I have with the wine industry. it should be more approachable. keeping a notebook is a good way to understand what you are smelling. that intimidating factor bothers me. say whatever you think you smell. Who cares?”

Kevin Stanton is an artist and graduate of MassArt, living and working on Nantucket. A bartender in Boston before he moved back to the island, he writes the “Drink” column for Nantucket Today.






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