PITTSFIELD – Bard College at Simon’s Rock does not have a cooking school or professional training program. But, he has a local alumnus who owns two Berkshire restaurants and has been acclaimed as a chef.
His name is Bjorn Somlo. The Lenox resident of Norwegian and Hungarian descent owns Nudelle Restaurant to Lenox and The Lantern Bar & Grill in Pittsfield, and has been named more than once as an Rising Star Chef and Best Chef in the North East by the James Beard Foundation, and as the People’s Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine.
Somlo, who grew up primarily in Austerlitz, NY, just across the state border, has some interesting ideas on food and dining. He also believes that slight changes to the state’s building code would allow small businesses, including restaurants, to thrive in Massachusetts’ 26 gateway cities, including Pittsfield. [at least three small Pittsfield restaurants have closed since 2013 because of the high costs of updating aging infrastructure, although one reopened under new management]. We discussed all of these topics with Somlo in a recent interview.
Question: So why did you decide to become a chef?
A: At school, I was a good student. Neither the best nor the worst. I have often been treated as if they thought I had more potential than I had. I did pretty well and ended up at Simon’s Rock. …
When I was about 16, I found myself in [Great] Barrington and I needed a job. While I was simultaneously going to school, I found a dishwashing job and it clicked. It clicked. I have the bug, and I have it badly.
Question: What clicked?
A: The trigger was being able to be good at something and doing it and seeing the rewards of accomplishment, and that just spoke to me. And then it continued with me more and more in it.
There was so much information [when] I started at that time; it was truly the last of an era. … It was before the Internet, so the information was [available] in a way you feel when playing video games and telling sci-fi stories or romantic Renaissance jokes.
The things that people were doing were happening in small areas of restaurants or countries or so on. You find a cookbook or something, and there was a literal discovery to have that information or to have those skills. And, it was also glorious about the food, because it’s kind of like the core of our being. From there came everything else – the arts, music, socializing, just all of that brilliant stuff. It’s about learning to eat, not how to make it. It’s very addicting in its own way.
Question: From your comments, it seems that you approached your profession in a more intellectual than practical way. Am I correct in assuming this?
A: I think so, but the reason I was able to get the intellectual part was because my body was nourished, it was busy and it was exciting. … there is so much adrenaline [in the restaurant industry] that, as a young man, you want it. There is a desire, there is a community.
The industry is also so historically awful that it creates. … As much as there is a toxic atmosphere, there are also brothers. There is a reason that many people in the hospitality industry can devote themselves to medicine and emergency response. They’re sort of already pre-programmed for that.
Question: Simon’s Rock seems like a strange place for an aspiring chef.
A: I really enjoyed the educational process, but when they really wanted me to focus on a degree it was like, “I don’t know. I love to cook.” … The more they pushed you into a major area, the more I thought I’d better wrap up. I got a liberal arts degree.
This is the other thing that is under-communicated and the schools don’t really tell you that. Going to cooking school is one of the worst things you can do if you are truly passionate about the cook you can become.
Question: Why is that?
A: Cooking is a job, it’s a job, it’s a question of repetition, it’s a question of the ingredients you use, the tools you use, your knowledge. It really is not an art. There are people who have great aesthetics and incredible talents. but these things have yet to become a profession, and like all of our professions, they are best when people learn on the move.
Question: (Somlo left the Berkshires to learn his trade as a chef at restaurants in New York and New Orleans before returning here and opening Nudel in 2009). Was running your own restaurant a goal or something you just decided to do when you returned to the Berkshires?
A: Part of every cook’s path to becoming a chef with the virus is to believe that the ultimate climax is owning. For me, the reason I rushed to burst as soon as I did was that the media landscape had changed at the time.
They started to write about food stories, without reporting [on] industry, and it made me feel like I was late to get to the point where I should. I decided that if I was back in this field then I wanted to be in this field, and I was running out of places I could work and I could also follow my eye, my palette and my passion for food. …
If I am to be here, I will follow my ideas, my theories and my passions, and I must do it on my own terms.
Question: So, is that why you opened Nudel?
A: Yeah, that’s why I decided to open something so small. I am not the way of the Berkshires. I don’t do the biggest hits. I don’t do what sells to the masses. I was young and stupid and …
Question: Well, you’re still in business. That’s it, 2021, and you’re still in business. It’s pretty good for a restaurant.
A: I am on business. But, it’s like someone whose 41 goes to 42 and says, “Dude, I left a lot of money on the table” wanting to do it my way. And being so deep in the romance of making great food and wanting to have my independent voice, as I was taught later, communicating with your people is a better deal.
Question: I know you have some interesting ideas about building codes and small business development in gateway cities. What are they?
A: In the state of Massachusetts, we have a three-pronged pincer against small independent businesses, and this is particularly noticeable in Gateway Cities.
In Gateway Cities, the problem is when they were built and the scale at which they were built. These are post-industrial cities that were built probably 100 years ago, but they were built on the scale of a given rise that they would be urban cities, and when the companies left they became cities. sitting in pieces of cities.
This means that the age of the buildings and the scale of the buildings are incredibly problematic. But, the value of the buildings and the population do not match.
Question: So how does the state’s existing building code play into this?
A: Long ago they added something you might call a grandfather clause, even though it’s not even a clause, just a few sentences. …
That said basically if you don’t spend more than a third of the ownership of your building [value] within five years of renovations, you are allowed to stay as you are. I believe it was done with the best of intentions to say, “Hey, we can’t keep changing the building code and go see a mom and a pop store because someone passed a law and told them that they need to put $ 50,000 into their business when they have 27 or 28 years of experience as responsible stewards in their community. I think that’s where it came from.
But, what he has done is that people who have owned businesses in the past have no incentive to invest in them because the cost of upgrading in these Gateway Cities is so high, especially with the extent of the changes to the code. They [the owners] you just have to overcome them, and when they leave it to the next generation, the entry bar and cost of these upgrades far exceeds what a company could invest or exceed the amount of capital you could raise, and the people who have the capital when they look at that capital and the demographics of a region, they’re going to say they’re not going to do it here.
What happens is you can’t open a neighborhood bar, or you can’t open a small restaurant because it’s going to cost $ 300,000 or $ 400,000.
Question: So what are you trying to do about it?
A: I try to talk to anyone who will listen to me. … It might not be the solution to all of our woes, but I know we’ll never be better off if the people who really care, or have the energy or the youth or the fire, can’t be part of this matrix which we call a town or a town.