3/29/2013 10:34:00 AM

Exclusive: Talking with Frank McClelland on L'Espalier's 35 Years

Frank McClelland
In 1978, Frank McClelland opened a high-end French restaurant in an elegant townhouse on quiet Gloucester Street in the Back Bay. Five years ago, the chef-owner moved L’Espalier adjacent to the Mandarin Oriental on Boylston Street.

This year, as the restaurant celebrates 35 years in business, McClelland will roll out special menus and dinners. (Keep tuned to the website.) When he recently offered his e-mail subscribers a multicourse, tasting anniversary dinner for $48 (what you might pay in the 1970’s), the dinner sold out in 15 minutes.

Along with running L’Espalier, McClelland operates Au Soleil Catering and still has one out of three of his casual concepts, Sel de la Terre Natick. The other two Sel de la Terre locations closed over the past year. Over the last five years, McClelland has added the title of farmer. He lives on and operates Apple Street Farm, a 14-acre equestrian farm in Essex where he grows a multitude of produce that he uses in his cooking and sells to other chefs. On the farm, he has some goats, chickens and other livestock. McClelland is married, and is also a father to five children ages 21, 19, 16, six and two.

McClelland took the time to talk with Zagat to reflect on the business of cooking, running a restaurant and the secret to keeping it all together.

Zagat: So, 35 years. What’s your secret?
FM: You really need to be built for the restaurant business to withstand the challenges, physically and mentally. Physically, it’s early mornings, late nights, long drives every day and juggling family and a farm to boot. The secret to the physical is staying fit. I workout on a regular basis and try to take care of myself, diet wise, too.

Zagat: What about staying creative?
FM: Creativity, that’s the mental part. Creativity is why I do it, so my secret is really staying fresh all the time and never really looking back. It’s about challenging new frontiers and not being worried or scared of changing dishes and changing menus and formats, and trying a new food or service or new programs to keep L’Espalier fresh. I don’t have a signature dish. My key is to evolve every day, learn every day. And that is a challenge to my team, because people in general don’t embrace change.

Zagat: What do you think of the dining climate these days?
FM: I think all restaurants are taking a hit on the streets of Boston because there are too many seats now; everyone’s built economical menus.

Zagat: Are you referring to Sel de la Terre?
FM: Yeah. It just got too difficult to fill seats and I felt it best to sell them off and really put my energies where I want to put them, which is L’Espalier and farming. 

Zagat: Any faux pas dishes in 35 years?
FM: I can’t think of anything. I’m more of a, ‘What do you think?’ type of leader. I’m not a dictator. Ultimately, I have to be. I try to teach my team - the art department in the kitchen - to think like me. The only way I do that is to open up, and to open up to what they’re thinking. And in that respect we have a very disciplined test kitchen, so we don’t really put anything on the menu that hasn’t been tested for a week, two weeks, sometimes three. Over the years, I’ve learned that we need to test and retest and refine and refine, and if we’re satisfied, we put in on the menu.

Zagat: You’ve had quite a few cooks who’ve worked at L'Espalier who have recently opened their open places. Alex Crabb of Asta, Louis di Biccari of Tavern Road. What’s your sense of being a place that’s spawned chefs who have gone off to open their own restaurants?
FM: If someone asked me what’s the most rewarding thing in my career, it is working with people and seeing them leave and become a success. It brings tears to my eyes. Now, on top of that, I’m able to do something I’m passionate about: farming, and making really beautiful products and bringing it to them, talking about it and being inspired. I’m a purveyor, now, too, to all those guys. It gives me a chance to stop by, have a cup of coffee, talk with them, laugh, talk about ingredients.

Zagat: Do you see them as competition?
FM: No. I don’t. I’m very intense about L’Espalier, but I’m really not concerned about people taking business from me. If they take business from me, good for them. I don’t know if I’m over that or I just have a better perspective on it. I don’t really care.

Zagat: Farm, family, restaurant, catering. What more do you want to do, what’s next?
FM: I’d like to open a casual restaurant. Trying to do La Brasa in Somerville. I want to do more farming and then offshoots from that. But I suspect I’ll be around for a long time to come.


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