Justin Urso, 32, has a stellar resume: Catalyst, Deuxave, and L’Espalier in Boston; Del Posto and Maze in New York City, where he worked under Gordon Ramsay. But nothing could have prepared him to open The Dial inside Central Square’s new 907 Main Hotel in September, when few people are visiting town and locals are reluctant to dine out. The restaurant has a global menu, though, and Urso is banking on people traveling to try his food.
You’re the chef at a hotel restaurant that opened during a pandemic. How’s that been going?
Well, I mean, it’s been quite an ordeal. Just before COVID-19 hit, we were probably about three weeks to a month away from opening. And then COVID happened, and obviously our site got shut down. And then, once construction was allowed to resume, we went from being able to have five to 10 people working in a space together to only having one person in a room at a time, so then that delayed our construction.
So we’re open now, and we couldn’t be happier. I know times are tough, but as our owner has said, “Sometimes the best thing to do to get through a storm is to drive right through it.” So that’s what we’re doing; we’re full steam ahead and making the best of a bad situation. Opening has certainly been challenging with COVID, with all of the added safety measures — not that they’re a challenge, but it’s something new to get used to and train everyone on. . . . On top of all of the added stresses of opening a restaurant, it’s adding one more on top, but I think our team has done a fantastic job.
What sort of safety protocols did you have to learn? I think people would be really curious to know.
Aside from obviously wearing gloves and masks at all times, we stop service every hour to wipe down and sanitize all surfaces, which you can imagine during a restaurant service has its challenges, but safety is the number-one priority. So we literally stop every hour on the hour and sanitize every surface in the kitchen, and any high-touch points like the slicer, fry handles, underneath any refrigerator doors. All of our employees have to do wellness checks when they walk in the door. They get a temperature taken and fill out a questionnaire every single day.
Also, we recently installed some air-filtration systems. They’re from a company called Aura Air, and they’ve got four different types of filters: a HEPA filter, a copper filter, a UV filter, and an ion sterilization process. So our space is about as safe as you can make it during COVID, but it’s certainly all been things that we’ve had to learn.
What’s your your take on indoor dining? That’s a source of debate and concern for people. How you think winter is going to go as temperatures drop?
It’s been hard to judge right now, because we’ve had a burst of warmer weather in the fall. So I think given the option, everyone’s going to eat outside when it’s nice out, but I do get the sense that a good portion of our guests are comfortable dining inside, with the added fact that we’ve added those air-filtration systems. So, obviously, inside we’ll be operating at a fraction of what our normal capacity would have been, but we will continue to see people outside on our patio. We have a number of heaters out there to keep things as warm as we possibly can. We’ll keep the patio open, as well as have a socially distanced dining room for anybody who wants to come inside and warm up.
What’s your take on the economic health of restaurants right now?
I hate to be blunt, but it’s concerning. Across the board, across the state, the country, restaurants are closing at a rapid pace. Everyone’s trying to hang on the best that they can, but if there’s not some sort of a stimulus package, you’re going to continue to see a loss of a lot of neighborhood restaurants. And, unfortunately, most places will probably be replaced by large chains, which kind of takes the identity out of any given neighborhood or city. So I’m really disappointed and concerned.
What sort of relief would you like to see?
Organizations such as Mass Restaurants United, and the IRC — the Independent Restaurant Coalition — have gotten some bills proposed, but they’re currently just sitting on the legislators’ desks. So getting those restaurant relief packages passed would be a huge win and help stabilize the industry for sure.
To be blunt — which is the point of this column! — is patio dining going to be enough to sustain you, with some indoor dining? How do you compensate for what you thought was going to be a normal winter?
Quite frankly, patio dining is not enough. And there will be some people who will continue to dine through the winter, which we’re very appreciative of, but that’s not going to be enough to sustain any restaurant. We’re going to launch takeout within the next week or so through Toast, and we’re very much looking forward to that. So if you don’t feel comfortable dining inside, and you don’t want to bear the cold, then please order takeout. Support your local restaurants as much as you can, us included obviously.
The other thing is, pre-COVID, we certainly had a very different staffing level than we do now. We’re kind of running it at bare-bones staffing, which is unfortunate, because we want to employ as many people as we possibly can, but that’s just the reality of the situation. We’ve got to make sure that we’re still around for once COVID is over.
Are people traveling right now?
We have rooms every night. Certainly, travel is down, and it’s not at the levels we had hoped for, but all things considered, the fact that we still have guests in rooms every single night, I think that’s a positive.
You have an eclectic menu. What is your favorite dish?
Oh, that’s tough. I have a lot of favorites. I really like the jerk quail. I really like the moqueca, which is a Brazilian shellfish stew. I really like our lamb ribs, and I guess I’ll stop there. But I love everything on the menu. I don’t think we have anything that’s a miss.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you first become interested in food? Do you have an early food memory that sparked your career path?
I have two that really grounded me and started me. One is, I come from a partial Italian-American family. So my Italian grandmother making sauce: I remember her baby-sitting me and making sauce and ravioli as a young kid. And then the other memory is, my other set of grandparents ran a small livestock farm up in Vermont, and I would go up there in the summer for a couple of weeks. I would help out on the farm a little bit, but they also had a very large garden. So seeing farm-fresh or garden-fresh produce, as well as an early understanding of where our food actually came from, were two things that really impacted the way I look at food, and my overall feeling of how I like to cook.
As for how I started cooking, I kind of just fell into the industry. I was 15 years old, and my parents told me it was time to get a job, so I got a job dishwashing at a local country club. Within a month, I was promoted to line cook, and I really enjoyed the fast-paced industry. And I did that for a couple of years, and then it was time to start looking at colleges, and I said, “You know what? I kind of like what I’m doing.” So from there I went to the Culinary Institute of America, and I kind of haven’t looked back since.
What was it like to work with Gordon Ramsay? Did you ever meet him?
So Gordon came to the property twice while I was there. Not much interaction. The TV persona is just that, the TV persona. Listen, his kitchens are very strict, but it was just like every other kitchen you’ve ever worked in. Gordon would come in, say hi, and leave. There wasn’t screaming and pots and pans thrown and that sort of thing. I’ve heard stories from back in the day, 10 or 15 years prior, but his kitchens haven’t been that way in a long time.
What would you say to readers who are on the fence about eating out?
That every single person working — at least in our restaurant, but I would have to assume everybody that I’ve talked to throughout the industry — takes the safety of their guests as the utmost priority. Without them, we’re not here, so nobody’s going to risk their guests getting sick for profitability or anything else. Because we know that at the end of the day, if our guests aren’t safe, then we’re not going to be around. So everyone absolutely takes this as seriously as they can, and we’re all just doing our best.
Also, be nice. We’re still working through and trying to figure out systems on how to best serve everybody with the pandemic and operating around PPE, and all of the other new constraints that have added to an already tight system.
Fun question: Favorite quarantine snack?
I’m slightly embarrassed to say this, but just some quick nachos.
That’s not embarrassing. What do you put on them?
We’ve got a decent-sized garden here at the house, so we do fresh jalapenos, but then pickled jalapenos as well, a little bit of cilantro, and some sour cream.