Address: 118 Beacon St, Somerville, MA 02143
Bergamot founder gets personal. Shares challenges, solutions
Keith Pooler says his drive to be successful began in middle school. A stellar student, he thought about studying architecture, law or medicine, but after landing a job in an Ipswich restaurant working with skilled chefs, he fell in love with the business and went off to culinary school.
“I’ve always been driven to be the best,” says Pooler. “It’s kind of who I am.”
The soft-spoken chef and owner of Bergamot, the Somerville hot spot (which is rated #1 on Trip Advisor in that city) spent eight years in Manhattan, where most of his training took place at The River Café’.
“It was a Who’s Who of chefs that were coming out of there, such as Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer, and David Burke, all who I’d admired and respected,” says Pooler. “Forgione popularized the “Farm to Table” concept, and the phrase ‘Free-Range Chicken’ was coined at the River Café.”
But after September 11, Pooler says New York had changed for him. He returned to
Boston and accepted a position at Harvest in Cambridge. When the chef hurt his back, Pooler took over, and once the chef returned, not wanting to lose Pooler, the management sent him to open the Excelsior (formally Biba) to work with the famed Lydia Shire.
Pooler later returned to Harvest, where he learned the business side of how to run a tight restaurant.
From Harvest, he had a three-month stint in the suburbs, a time to which Pooler refers to as “one of the biggest mistakes of my life.” He returned to Boston and realized he could no longer work for anyone. It was time for his own place.
“I helped Lydia open up Scampo while I was looking for the space that’s now Bergamot,” says Pooler. But that he says, was no easy feat.
“My forte’ is in concept and execution,” admits Pooler. “Everything in the middle- dealing with the banks, finding backers, negotiating leases, were total unknowns.
We had a business plan, and everything thought out to the best of our ability, but there were things that just weren’t on our radar.”
Pooler and his partner hired restaurant consultant Michael Staub to help them.
“The guy makes restaurants happen for people and we went from zero to 100 overnight,” says Pooler. “When you’re going through this you don’t know who to trust, who to follow. There are a lot of unknowns.”
The location where Bergamot is located was found through word of mouth. Having never been on the market, Pooler says that removed some of the stress. But then came the lease negotiation.
“We had keys in our hands for this space, but they were taken away from us for two weeks because of a disagreement with the landlord during the lease negotiation,” says Pooler. Loosing that time cost us thousands of dollars.”
In the process of getting the space Pooler says he had to refinance his home mortgage.
“It was coming down to the wire,” but fortunately my attorneys stayed on top of me to get things done,” says Pooler. “They did all of the paperwork and knew what had to be taken care of in order to make this happen.” This, he said, also included obtaining the restaurant’s liquor license; what you can and cannot do, and how to transfer licensing.
“We got into this space on March 15, 2010 and opened up on April 1, less than four weeks later,” says Pooler.
Pooler says he is adamant about avoiding a signature dish. For the most part, the menu at Bergamot changes daily.
“I try to create a culinary think-tank in my kitchen, where people can discuss what they like and have a passion for,” says Pooler. “There are a lot of ideas going around and we take bits and pieces of many and create. Cooking is all I ever think about.”
Menus are designed by what’s in season in the market and on the farms.
“We do more local than is imaginable,” says Pooler. “We don’t stand on a soapbox. It’s the way things should be done, so we don’t need kudos. We are on a first- name basis with our purveyors.”
The changing menu, explains Pooler, is also done so the neighborhood has something to look forward to, as there are a number of people who eat at Bergamot two to three times a week. During the week of April 1, for example, Bergamot offered a range of dishes from crispy yucca gnocchi and roasted Giannone chicken, to pan-seared scallops and roasted leg of lamb, with side dishes of root vegetable latke and roasted sunchokes, which are made of haricot-verts, crimini mushrooms and caramelized onion soubise.
So where did Pooler come up with the name for his popular restaurant?
“Bergamot is an ingredient in my wife’s perfume, a main ingredient in Earl Gray tea, and a flower called Bee Balm,” says Pooler. We felt that play on the flower and the bee was fun, and we wanted it to be a fun, friendly neighborhood spot -a place that’s not uptight.”
April 1, 2013 marked three years in business.