Jay Hajj is a Boston dining scene legend.
He arrived in the city a fugitive from war-torn Lebanon, and found his fair share of childhood scrapes before setting off on a self-made career journey that took him from dishwasher to chef, Food Network regular and citywide restaurateur. His autobiographical cookbook—"Beirut to Boston: Comfort Food Inspired by a Rags-to-Restaurants Story"—blends great recipes with scenes from his remarkable life, including the time he hosted Bill Clinton at Mike’s City Diner, where we met him for a chat.
How did you get your start?
I knew college wasn’t for me but at a very early age I started working in the restaurant business. I started as a dishwasher, then at 13 or 14 years old I became a salad boy, then a sauté guy. Back then I didn’t know I loved it so much because I just wanted to get my new Nike sneakers—the stuff other kids had.
What was your first business?
Age 19, I bought a shop in Brookline called Temptations, 1992. I started making sandwiches. Not a lot of people knew about hummus then—now it’s part of the diet, like spaghetti sauce. I sold Temptations for a little money and in 1996 I bought Mike’s City Diner.
Did success happen quickly?
Everything around me was boarded up but after less than a year business shot up. The word went out on the street. Back then there was no nose-to-tail like we have now. People were amazed that I had fresh turkeys here, and ham off the bone.
What was the deal in 2000, when President Clinton ate at Mike’s City Diner?
He loved the food; we had ham, eggs, grits and cornbread. His quote to the Boston Globe, was ‘I ate like a horse.’ He wanted to know my story and he started talking to me about the politics of Syria and Lebanon. He was pronouncing names in Syria that I couldn’t even pronounce, and I know the language very well.
Which Boston restaurants would you recommend to visitors?
Santarpio’s would be my last supper. It’s always a solid nine and a half. Toro is a very casual but cool and hip place: the best tapas. Little Donkey in Cambridge. For Greek food, Kava on Shawmut Avenue—incredible. For Italian, I’ve got to say Prezza in the North End.
What are the city’s foodie strengths?
First of all, I think New England has the best seafood in the world, from lobster to haddock and black bass. Not because I’m biased: I feel it’s the truth. In the last 20 years, Boston has come such a long way. I’m always surprised by what chefs are doing. Just when you think ‘What else can they come up with?’ somebody opens a place and they’re extremely successful. And something that I thought would never work they make look extremely cool.
What cuisine currently excites you?
I went to Bangkok and fell in love with Thai street food. The ingredients, the herbs, the vegetables, stuff I’ve never seen. There’s so much to learn.