Food is about relationships for chef Chris Himmel—and his restaurants serve some of the best flavors in the business because of it.
If chef Chris Himmel isn’t yet on your radar, it’s time that changed. This renowned restaurateur owns three hot spots in Boston (Harvest, Grill 23, and Post 390) and while each is distinct, they share a guiding philosophy: Sourcing quality ingredients is what matters most. But this doesn’t stop at simply getting the product through Himmel’s doors. It’s about forming relationships with purveyors and meeting them in person, both locally and throughout the United States. This mindset led his team to develop Himmel Hits the Road: an annual team-building RV trip that puts a face to the fare served in his restaurants. This year’s trip (taking place from August 21 to September 1) will span Seattle, Portland, and Napa and involve salmon fishing, distillery visits, dinner in a vineyard, and more. We sat down with this humble culinary genius to get a taste of his world.
Can you tell us more about your philosophy for sourcing ingredients?
“The notion of sourcing thoughtfully and locally has really been built into the backbone of what we do as chefs. We take it to heart—which means that restaurants are as good today as they’ve ever been. At Himmel Hospitality Group, we guide our restaurants through a belief in not only sourcing the best products, but also getting to know the purveyors producing them. That’s the inspiration behind Himmel Hits the Road. It’s important to know where your ingredients come from, especially in regards to meat and seafood. Grill 23 is one of the only steakhouses of its size in the U.S. that can say all of its beef is source-verified. We know exactly where it came from: one farm and one family. This allows us to serve some of the best beef in the world—rivaling anywhere other than maybe Japan with its Kobe.”
Why a road trip?
“It’s special to experience different parts of the country. I know a lot of chefs who do team building with their restaurants, but take the European approach: shutting down production for two weeks and traveling to places like France, Italy, or Spain. Don’t get me wrong. One of the great thrills of my life is to travel to places like that, and I’d love for our team to do so together. But there’s so much to see in the States—and it’s fun to explore with an RV. If you’ve ever seen Family Vacation, you know all the things that can happen along road trips. Our cast of characters makes the experience comedic.”
Can you tell us a bit about last year’s trip?
“We drove 6,000 miles in three weeks, stopping in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, and more. We purposefully traveled off the beaten path, with the biggest of these detours being the Kentucky Bourbon Trail near Louisville; we ended up staying at Buffalo Trace Distillery for a few days so that we could sober up before moving on. Another cool stop was at Benton’s Smoky Mountain Hams and Bacon in Madisonville, Tennessee. Any chef will tell you that it’s the best bacon ever created, so to go in and have Allan Benton actually walk us through the facility was pretty cool. He even gifted us a slab of their special pork jowl, which has to be air cured for two weeks before cooking; we hung it from the ceiling of the RV for the rest of our trip and enjoyed it at the end. But what was most impactful about our visit to Benton’s was how much it meant to their team. They could count on one hand the number of times that people had actually driven out to meet them and learn why their meat is so great. Building those relationships is the biggest reason we do this trip.”
Can you expand upon the relationship-building aspect of Himmel Hits the Road?
“It’s about broadening horizons, gaining fresh perspectives, and team building on all sides. The trip builds camaraderie between the chefs at our three restaurants. When they collaborate with local chefs in the destinations we visit, it helps us to become truly immersed in each place, and inspires new ideas to bring back to Boston. I think it’s also safe to say their local teams grow an appreciation for what we bring to the table, too.
“But building relationships with our purveyors is even more impactful. We work hard to connect with local sources near Boston, but also use products that are really renowned throughout the country. It’s amazing to meet these people in person—not just for our chefs, but also for myself as the owner. We love letting them know just how much we appreciate what they do and to do so face to face. Nothing beats that.
“Himmel Hits the Road is also a great way to meet real people from around the country and all different walks of life. We hosted a few events at the RV parks we stayed in last year, serving massive spreads of seafood that we’d just caught. All of these awesome people staying at the parks would crowd around and join us.”
So as far as this year’s trip: Why the Pacific Northwest and Napa?
“I wanted to spend less time driving and consolidate the experience into 10 days. The only way to do that was to pick a region that made our whole team excited—and the Pacific Northwest through Northern California was topping all of our lists. The Pacific Northwest is one of the best areas in the country, if not the world, for sourcing seafood, which is exciting for me since I grew up by the ocean. But I also wanted a place that had something for our beverage teams—Grill 23 was one of only 89 American restaurants to receive Wine Spectator’s 2017 Grand Award. You’re hard-pressed to find two more beautiful regions that are producing better wine than the Pacific Northwest and Napa. Plus, there’s also the benefit of getting our name out to the West Coast. We’re proud of what we do, and frankly, we’re proud of Boston. There’s great stuff going on there, so anytime that we can help shed a light on that is exciting.”