Let’s just get one thing out of they way first: Jared Forman, chef of the spectacular deadhorse hill in Worcester, is . . . a Mets fan. Diehard. It’s the first thing he talks about when we sit down. And no, it does not soften the blow of this Boston baseball betrayal when he reminds me that Mets pitcher Ron Darling (member of the hated 1986 team and whose autographed picture sits on the wall outside of the restaurant’s kitchen) hails from Millbury.
Suffice it to say, Forman will not have Sox fans at hello. After that? Absolutely.
For one thing, Forman has a deep reverence for the history of Worcester right down to the building his restaurant occupies on Main Street. He is sourcing local ingredients from trout to beans to greens to bread. And the food he makes from those ingredients? His approach is good news for Worcester, even if most people ‘round here don’t like strawberries named Darryl.
Forman does come by the Mets thing honestly. He was born and raised in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn and moved to Queens, home of the Mets, as a teenager. The borough’s international intensity fueled his passion for all things food and he soon decided to pursue a culinary degree at Johnson & Wales. His externship was at one of New York City’s most acclaimed fine dining destinations: Thomas Keller’s Per Se. The résumé is just as impressive from there: Michael White’s Marea, David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm, and Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern (under Michael Anthony and Nancy Olson).
“I saw fine dining at Per Se. I saw David Chang win a James Beard Rising Star chef award [in 2007] without a Michelin star and without being too fine or too lowbrow, just doing fun shit every day that I got used to,” Forman says. “Only when I went to Gramercy did I learn all the traditional stuff like working with stocks and sauces. I went from the funky to the refined. Kinda cool because I think of a dish differently than someone with a more classical background. I learned this stuff backwards.”
After Gramercy, Forman took his backwards approach to Watertown and joined his Momofuku kitchen mate Tim Maslow in transforming Strip T’s from a tiny sandwich shop into a modern dining destination beyond Boston. They even managed to convert many of the customers who had been eating tuna melts for years and wow them with food they had never tasted before. Thus, when Forman and his business partner, Sean Woods, were ready to open their own place, they did not hesitate to look even further out to Worcester, where Woods lived, for a larger customer base. The success of Strip T’s in blue-collar Watertown gave them reason to be optimistic.
“There are hungry people out here who don’t want to and don’t have to commute into Boston for a great meal,” says Forman.
But where to put down their stake? They knew that they didn’t want to follow the crowds. They wanted to be about the future in an area deeply tied to the city’s past, not just the present. “When I said we were going to open in Worcester people said, ‘Shrewsbury Street?’ No, I wanted to be part of a new wave. Not what Worcester was or is but both of them together for the future. I love where are we going and where we were in the golden age.
Some might see Main Street as a disadvantage or a sign of a city past its prime. Not Forman and Woods. “If you look down Main Street from where we are, I feel like I am on one beautiful street in New York. Nothing has changed and anything is possible,” Woods says. “We are tied to the past and then looking past what can be. Look at this building. We ripped down the real horsehair plaster walls to expose the original brick for the first time since it was built. The tin ceiling is 161 years old and gorgeous. This used to be the Bay State Hotel. It was world class. It was the place to be. It was legit. It can be again.”
Forman and Woods built out their vision of old and new themselves, doing much of the work on their own and aspiring to create something casual that showcased their personalities as well as the food and beverages that they want to eat and drink. This means right down to the dishes, which might be a vintage plate from a thrift shop next to a handmade wood bowl from the Berkshires.
“We wanted to create a place we wanted to be in,” says Forman. “That means comfortable and being welcome. We call it ‘modern hospitality.’ That’s something I learned at Gramercy Tavern. They make you feel welcome as soon as you walk in the door. They elevate it so that their service is so proper but at the same time super casual as well. And they do it better than anyone else. That’s why Gramercy is Danny Meyer’s crown jewel.”
Matching Meyer – reigning king of New York City restaurant hospitality – is a tall order but one Forman is dead serious about working hard to achieve: “Across the board in my career, I went into everything thinking I don’t know shit. Sean didn’t think we knew anything about opening a restaurant, because worked in restaurants before. And it’s not about us. I learned at Gramercy that everything that you do on a plate you should think about the customer experience with that plate. I see chefs adding stuff and doing fancy things. But if you can’t eat it without everything on the plate making complete sense then you fail in a hospitality sense. So every time I try and create something, I think about that.”
They also thought about all of that and more when they chose the name, deadhorse hill, which is unexpected and exactly what Forman and Woods wanted. They didn’t want to be a Something “Restaurant” or “Tavern.”
“We wanted to identify ourselves as this is who we are and there is no place like us,” says Forman. So the name reflects their desire to honor history and transform it for the customer. There is also a direct connection to the space: The actual Deadhorse Hill is one of the seven hills of Worcester, named for its ability to kill horses that followed its climb towards Leicester. From 1905 to 1911, it was also the site of a world-class auto race. The Bay State Hotel was the headquarters for the club that ran the race.
And thankfully and delightfully, Forman’s food matches the grand aspirations of the past, the current space, and his culinary experience, but also reflects the broad range of what he and his staff like. So you’ll find Southern Fried Chicken Thighs, Memphis Ribs, and Spaghetti & Meatballs as well as Poached Scottish Salmon served with an Herb Curry and Chanterelles and an Aged Duck Breast with Mustard Spaetzle and Creme Fraiche.
“Everything on the menu is me,” Forman says. “I want to have some approachable things so that people who walk in off the street and are not expecting a restaurant like this are able to eat something.”
Forman also believes that deadhorse hill has the potential to be a high caliber restaurant, but he knows he is catering to an audience with different needs and expectations: “I don’t want to price people out. I don’t want to be so different that customers can’t relate to us. But someone who wants something more adventurous? I want to provide for them too. We have things that are lowbrow, highbrow, and something that will satisfy everyone, but everything has a reason and as much passion behind it as anything else.”
Which means that fried chicken has as much thought behind it as the duck breast. Or consider the Grilled Skirt Steak served with mole (an unsweetened Mexican chocolate sauce) and seared avocado. Most people when they order a strip are not thinking chocolate. Few people when eating avocado even think to sear it. Forman wants you to know both are delicious: “If someone says, ‘I’m a meat and potatoes guy. I just want a steak.’ It’s an awesome option for them and someone who wants to be adventurous. Everyone has had fried sweet potato wedges, but have you had those wedges cooked out in chicken and duck fat and covered in house smoked pastrami and housemade XO sauce? I know that everyone in Worcester’s old guard likes salmon. So we bring in responsibly raised salmon, sous vide it to order, and put an herb curry on it. Now we are appealing to someone who just wants salmon and someone who wants an interesting flavor profile.”
For fun, Forman also deep-fries the salmon head, which sells out every time it’s on the menu. He’s also playing with the menu so don’t expect to find many mainstays. For example, that salmon is evolving into a dish made from local trout hot smoked to order served with the same herbed curry and chanterelles and then triticale berries and green garlic – all local.
“What’s next is tomorrow’s menu,” Forman says. “I want people to walk in and say I had this last time and I was blown away and I can’t wait for the next thing. I want to be there for these people.”
Those people are key. After all, the idea of a refined new restaurant on Main Street – the first of any note since Armsby Abbey opened in 2008 – might have been unpredictable. But the community on Main Street and beyond, including from Armsby and its customers, has been overwhelming supportive: “The Armsby guys and the people at Volturno and BirchTree Bread became our friends. We push each other to be better.”
Forman then smiles and says everything has been way better than they expected: “We get people in here that are excited. We do get people who don’t know what to expect. But we turn those people into regulars. I expected it would take more time but people were really waiting for this.”