Boston Chef: A Chat with Local Kitchen Groundbreaker Michael Scelfo

Michael Scelfo opens up about tattoos, Boston culinary legend, and the virtue of simple food.

It’s late on a Friday afternoon and I’m at Harvard Square restaurant Alden & Harlow with owner-chef-restaurateur Michael Scelfo. We’re chatting about his tattoos. He started the inking process three years ago. “All of them have some kind of significance,” he says, starting to point out particulars. “Here’s ‘Joe and Jo’—that’s for my grandparents Joe and Josephine. Here’s my kids’ names in my handwriting. Here’s some “Star Wars” stuff; a character from a graphic novel I really like called “Tales from Essex County”; and the latitude and longitude of Alden & Harlow.”

Scelfo, 45, also owns Waypoint, just down the road. His latest venue, upstairs from Alden & Harlow, is the Longfellow Bar. “I’ve got three or four more concepts that I would like to roll out before all is said and done,” he says, before plunging deep into the Boston restaurant scene and his own extraordinary culinary journey.

Color and flavor at Alden & Harlow

Did you ever eat here when this place was called Casablanca?

I did. I actually wrote my business plan for Alden & Harlow at the bar, not knowing it would eventually be in this location. It was definitely one of those crazy little ironies.

Do you think Boston helps establish your culinary identity?

My identity from a culinary perspective continues to evolve. You’re impacted by so much in any given place, but especially here where we’re impacted by the seafood, the produce, the culture, the people. It’s a transient place, especially Harvard. The clientele cycles through, so to speak. You ebb and flow with them and learn as you get older. It’s a great time to be in Boston.

Whole branzino at Waypoint

How do you stay fresh?

Nothing’s ever the same in this world. I try and keep the big picture stuff from not changing too much.

What’s the idea behind your latest place, the Longfellow Bar?

I think it’s a great complement to what we do down here at Alden & Harlow. It’s a more casual experience—in the sense that I want people to eat with their hands and get kind of dirty with it. The emphasis is on a great cocktail program and food to complement that.

How do you connect with Boston’s storied restaurant history?

I have a great respect for it. I think a lot of young chefs in this town are either transient or don’t know enough about it. But I remember being out west in culinary schools in Portland and reading about these young chefs in Boston that were doing cool things. They were changing the game in Boston—the culinary icons.

How do you feel about the whole “celebrity chef” thing?

I think I’m known because I’ve had success in town, but that term “celebrity” means nothing to me and makes me uncomfortable to even hear it. I want to do good food.

When we think of “celebrity chef” we often think of the wild, shouting chef.

That stereotype doesn’t exist in my world. I’ve never been the screaming lunatic throwing stuff around the kitchen. You work a lot, 60-70 hours a week.

Pickled Corn Pancakes at Alden & Harlow

Do you get out at all?

I don’t go out a ton, but I love to see live shows. The last show I went to was Childish Gambino at the Garden. We’ve got The Sinclair right across the street here, a great little venue. I love being around live music. I’m a music buff and a movie buff. I collect comic books and vinyl records.

How about dining out?

I like to check out new places when I can and support the people I want to support. I just recently had a great meal at a place called Celeste in Union Square. Delicious food, Latin American vibe. If I was eating casual—no frills and a welcoming atmosphere, bar food—I’d go to Trina’s Starlite Lounge off Inman Square. I also like Oleana. Chinatown has a ton of places. But time is precious and a lot of times I prefer to connect and cook at home with my family.

When many chefs are done for the night their go-to food is a sandwich. Is that true for you?

Yeah, when you’re doing complex food and complex flavors, sometimes you just want something really simple.

Michael Scelfo