Chapel Talk by Gordon Hamersley '69

The following words represent a general version of Mr. Hamersley's chapel talk, although he often spoke from the heart and deviated from his written remarks:

As a student at Millbrook, I would describe myself as undisciplined, unmotivated and disorganized.  That combined with a stubborn case of independence made my time here at Millbrook unremarkable academically. Traditional success evaded me here…
I got out of here by the skin of my teeth and traveled to Boston U. where my lack of concern for all things academic continued. I graduated from college with a degree in education thinking I might someday want to teach school. I worked in the music business for a time. I loved rock n’roll and the blues, and I wanted to pursue things that I had passion for.

I traveled a lot around New England, dragging amplifiers and guitars around with me. I’d go out on the road with more money than I came back with, driving miles of road in all conditions, and finally one day, after being really broke for many months, I went into a small French restaurant to ask for a job. I said I’d do anything. The chef said ok…I had a job that paid $4.75 per hour with one meal a day. I called my father, who had been a bit concerned about my career path. I told him I had gotten a job. He was thrilled, thinking I was going to tell him about my new job teaching high school or something... I told him I was a professional dishwasher! There was silence on the other end. Then I heard a CLICK.

But what really happened was that I began a journey that has lasted for 35 years. I entered a culture that was good for me. I loved working at this restaurant. I was on a real schedule that had real deadlines. I learned discipline and time management. I watched serious cooks working at breakneck speed doing what they’d been trained to do. It was like watching a sports team in action, and I was part of it. I washed plenty of dishes, ate like a king, put in long hours, and never minded a bit.

One night the chef, Maurice le Duc, told me to make the salads for the night. I dropped my rubber apron, put on a cloth one and never looked back at that dish machine again. I began a long process of discovery about food. I realized very soon that I had a huge opportunity in front of me. I had finally found something that turned me on… I liked to work with my hands, study with my head, work as a team, study food history and make something that people loved to eat. We cooks would get up at 4 am and start making the breads and croissants for the day. We’d cook lunch and then take a break…usually a nap right on the floor of the dining room and then cook dinner service. I soaked up all the knowledge I could like a piece of bread in the bottom of a bowl of soup.

I was reading everything I could about food in America and I happened on an article about Wolfgang Puck, a young chef in Los Angeles. I decided that he was making food that sounded exciting, and I left to try and get a job in his kitchen. One week later I asked him for a job… and he said he had nothing for me.

So I went to work at this huge hotel. A crazy place... the drunken chef walked around with a gun in his apron, keeping the peace between the rival cultures that worked together in the kitchen. One night he came around the corner, threw something into my grill. A few minutes later, bullets started going off in the kitchen. He had thrown a handful of 22 shells into my grill! I reached for the phone and called 911. That was the last I saw of that guy. I was out the door before he was.

Again I went to Ma Maison to ask Wolfgang for a job, and this time he had something.

I learned from Wolf how great and new and interesting food could be. I got to work with ingredients I had only read about before. He taught me about seasonal and local cooking. I was learning in one of the best kitchens in America. And I was able to see how a chef could also open his own restaurant. It was a wild place full of Hollywood celebrities.

One night Julia Child came for a visit. She asked me about myself, and I told her I was from Boston. She invited me to her house and thus started a great relationship. My wife and I would visit Julia’s house and we’d cook together and talk about France and food in America. It was clear that a new wave of cooking was about to emerge here. I was in on it!

She and Wolf urged me to go and live and cook in France.

Fiona and I moved to Nice in 1983 and spent the year living in the old city, shopping in the market and cooking and eating out. I studied how the market worked, the seasonal aspect of things and how the relationships between cooks and merchants were the key to success. I learned about economics, too. One day I saw the first of the wild strawberries being displayed and a small argument going on among the merchant and the local women shoppers. When it broke up, I went to take some berries. An old woman, dressed in black, grabbed my arm and wagged her finger at me.  "No!" she said. "They are too expensive. Wait, and the price will come down." The next day they were 1/3 off. What a lesson about market forces!

We ate at many 3-star places, but mostly we ate at the warm friendly bistros on our street. It was at this time that I fell in love with the simple, hearty, regional dishes on these menus. I dreamed about having my own place and would visualize all the details of it. I actually have drawings of fantasy places that would later become a reality. I learned everything I could with the idea of one day doing it for myself.

Back in Boston in 1984, we began to plan our restaurant. We found a good space, we hired lawyers and architects and builders. We went to the city to get permits and licenses, and we shook hands with everyone in our new neighborhood in hopes that we might get permission to open.  Finally in 1987, we opened Hamersley’s Bistro. It was a neighborhood place with simple food at fair prices, like the places we loved in France. Finally our dream became a reality. My independent streak had paid off. I had my own place, did it in my own way, and could cook and do anything I wanted. And this is when the real hard work began!

We became a place that our neighborhood came to gather. I was suddenly more than just a chef. We got involved in community activities and spear headed a program to have businesses sponsor South End youth baseball. We helped start a group of chefs and farmers to organize ways distribute local produce, and we joined a group to help teach families how to better buy and cook nutritious food for themselves.

We became a place where young cooks came to train, and we taught and helped mentor many young chefs and restaurateurs.

Fiona and I have realized a dream. We trusted our instincts, trained hard to get really good at what we do, and then did the work to make it happen.

When I left here 40 years ago I went away with no ideas about what would happen to me. But I forged a path, educated myself and learned from some of the greats in my profession. We own one small restaurant today, participate in our community as much as we can and strive to do a better job tonight than we did last night. It is hard work, but it is great and fun work, and I am glad for the life that I have. I have a feel-good kind of job…and I give a party every night. What could be better than that?