JJ Gonson remembers a time from her childhood in Cambridge when going out to eat was reserved for special occasions.
“Before the big takeout boom, I grew up with a mom who would cook every single meal at home,” Gonson says. “We would sit down and have dinner together.”
Gonson learned to cook from her mother, and started working in restaurants at a young age—first as a floor washer, then as a dishwasher, and eventually as a cook.
The restaurant jobs let Gonson work as a tour manager and band manager at the same time. After leaving the food service industry, she continued to cook for friends and even for bands as they came through on tour.
She wanted a flexible job once she had kids, so she started personal cheffing, which was the early focus of Cuisine en Locale. It started out with her cooking for families and for dinner parties. She would cook in personal kitchens, orchestrating menus that appealed to the tastes of the people attending.
Since all the food is local, New England seasonal flavors influence dishes heavily, but Gonson says the style of food can be very flexible. Her background is in Eastern European styles, but she also loves to experiment with various different types of cuisine and flavors from different places around the world. The formality can also change to fit the situation, from a family dinner to an elegant evening affair.
Her success in personal cheffing let her expand to a kitchen where she could do commercial catering over three years ago. Commercial catering lacks the same personal touch that appealed to her in being a personal chef, she says, but offers its own rewards.
“It’s a lot harder than it was when it was just cooking in people’s homes, because I could take a couple weeks between clients, or I could tell a private client that I needed time,” Gonson says.
Personal cheffing has taken a back seat to catering at Cuisine en Locale, but it’s still special for Gonson, in part because it brings her back to her rock ’n’ roll roots.
“I think of a meal as being very similar to a music performance,” Gonson says. “I think that when you compose a menu … I think of it as a live performance. Not all cooks are performers.”
Gonson pushes the performative aspect of her food outside of private homes, hosting 10-course pop-up dinners that address the importance of local food through discussions of the ingredients used and the importance of sourcing food responsibly. Gonson also offers “dark dining,” or blindfolded tasting, in her private chef services, which encourages people to interact with food in a new way.
“I love doing dark dining because I get to get really playful,” Gonson says. “They talk to each other, and they can smell everything, and after each course we have them guess what they ate.”
This story appears in the Food, Glorious Food! issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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