A Chat with Boston’s Leading Green Restaurant Owner Jim Solomon
Having picked up cooking after moving in with his father at age 12, Jim Solomon, owner of The Fireplace restaurant in Brookline, Mass., set off on a course of passion, cuisine, and environmentalism.
Solomon, who has worked almost every job in the restaurant business from handing out flyers at Paco’s Tacos to a managing position at Pizzeria Uno, realized a 14-year dream when he opened his restaurant on the corner of Washington St. and Beacon St., and continues to be a leader in the world of chic, warm, and eco-friendly cuisine.
Carpenter: Hi, Jim. So, how did you get into cooking?
Solomon: I used to walk to Fenway Park to watch games, and one day, probably a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, I ran into my mother, whom my brother and sister were living with. They asked, “How is it living with your father? Do you eat alright?” To which I thought, “Sure. Chinese one night, French the next, Italian after that. I eat better than ever.” I went home that night and thought, maybe we’re supposed to eat home-cooked meals, and we [father and son] didn’t. I told my dad, and we went shopping, bought herbs and spices, chicken and steak, and I would come home from school and cook, as it was acceptable procrastination.
How did you develop your palate?
I was always exposed to great food, but in those days I would just throw things in a pot. You know, if I wanted Italian food, I would just take anything out of the cabinet that looked like an Italian ingredient. I would just mix and match and experiment, then taste it. If the dish didn’t taste right, I would think of what it needed. I think that developed my palate, because I was concentrating on what I tasted. I think that’s where I learned to cook.
How did you get your start in the business?
My father was a professor in Cambridge, so I used to hang out at Harvard Square a lot. That was in the mid-70s. There was a Pizzeria and Paco’s Tacos, and in order to afford to buy some food from both stores, I decided to get a job at Paco’s thinking I could eat for free, and use the money I made for a slice at the Pizzeria, too.
What about ‘The Fireplace’? How did that come about?
During my time at The New School in New York, I took a class called “Restaurant Marketing, Advertising, and Promotions.” In that class, we had an assignment where we had to write a pitch letter to a food critic. I wrote about what I had been daydreaming about for a long time, which was The Fireplace. We went around the class and read what we had written about, everyone turned around and said, “Wow”. That was the encouragement I needed.
From that day onward, I took jobs with the intention of learning skills that would be relevant to the opening of The Fireplace. I took jobs as chef, and as waiter (to network), all the time thinking about The Fireplace.
On a more random note, what’s your favorite color, Jim?
Purple. I think it’s a nice warm color.
In terms of your restaurant’s green initiatives, have they always been there?
No, no. They developed. I opened having the values that were needed to have a green restaurant, but I didn’t even know anything about having a green restaurant.
I opened with a green mission, which was to buy from local farmers and fishermen, and use what was fresh and in season, and support the local community. That was what we we’ve always done, I just didn’t know that was helping to be green.
How did you get involved with the Green Restaurant Association?
It started with some direct mail, kind of like mail spam, asking whether I wanted a green restaurant. I thought, “Yeah, sure, I like that.” So I sent a manager to make the initial contact to see whether the organization was legitimate – the GRA was small-scale back then [early 2000s]. I wanted to do my part (note: Jim references this “Keep America Beautiful” commercial, which he insists most people know, as having a profound effect on him), that’s why I got together with the Green Restaurant Association.
Is it more difficult to ensure that your restaurant remains “green,” as opposed to restaurants that disregard their carbon footprint?
It is, but that’s where the Green Restaurant Association is so gifted. They are very aware of the demands on a restaurateur’s time, so they make it super easy for you. That’s their genius, really, to me.
Being a restaurateur doesn’t make you an expert on lighting, water savings, and chemicals. There’s a lot of mislabeling in this business, or loose labeling. It’s really difficult to make smart, green decisions. But what the GRA does is helps guide restaurant owners make the right decisions about green products. We can call them and say we want to change a certain product to make it greener, and they’ll show us which distributors have the greenest products, so we can make better decisions.
They actually take care of a lot of stuff, making the job of the restaurateur much easier. But you have to be really committed. There’s no quick pay back.
Jim, outside of the restaurant, how ‘green’ are you?
Not green enough but I’m working on it. I mean, at home we try to recycle as much as we can, and we reuse the plastic bags we get from the grocers. We’re trying to get better at bringing our own bags from home to go shopping, too.
My wife walks everywhere, and we try to teach my son about environmental issues. You know, like taking shorter showers and stuff.
Do you have a favorite sport? Sports team?
I like Basketball and baseball, the Celtics and the Red Sox.
Lastly, what is your favorite food, Jim?
Oh, Chinese food, without a doubt. Moo Shu and dumplings are my favorite. I’m also an ice-cream fanatic, too.
** For a complete profile of The Fireplace restaurant, click here.
– Kane Carpenter