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Celebrity chef series at Hingham’s Summer Shack

jasper white.JPGLiving and dining in today’s ubiquitous celebrity chef and foodie culture, anyone could be forgiven for not knowing that the American food scene wasn’t always so. But chef Jasper White [left], who was part of the culinary flowering of the late ’70s that led to the scene as it is today, saw it all unfold.

With White holding a series of one-night Celebrity Chef dinners in March and April at his Summer Shack in Hingham, we thought it was the perfect time to take a quick look at how the whole phenomenon started.

In the beginning (say, the ’50s and ’60s), chefs labored anonymously in restaurant kitchens, with owners either out front or out of sight.

Many Americans, sold on modern convenience foods at home  (canned vegetables and Campbell’s soup-based casseroles), didn’t expect much more when they went out. In some circles, it was even considered gauche to talk about food at the table.

You can imagine then, the impact of Julia Child’s first TV cooking show, “The French Chef,’’ which premiered in 1963 and ran for a decade.

The series, shot in Cambridge, played an enormous role in creating a fertile environment for what was to come. Locally, Child was a close friend to many young chefs (including White), serving as both fan and teacher.

As the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, cooking schools, dominated by The Culinary Institute of America, seeded the population with an increasing number of chefs trained in classical French technique.

Out of this mix of influences, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, came the first young Boston-based chefs to open their own restaurants.

This phenomenon — the chef-owned restaurant — was the starting point of what has become today’s celebrity chef culture.

The young chefs, inspired at the time by nouvelle cuisine in France, began producing beautiful dishes with fresh ingredients and simpler, lighter preparations.

Their cooking, and that of their counterparts in other major US cities, came to be known as the new American cuisine, and — for the first time — the chefs’ names began to be known, too.

In 1983, after struggling to raise the money, White opened Jasper’s, one of the first chef-owned restaurants — and one of the first to garner national press. Among Boston’s other pioneers were Moncef Meddeb (L’Espalier, 1978); Bruce Frankel (Panache, 1979); and Jimmy Burke (Allegro, 1981), who now owns Pembroke’s Orta.

Within a few years came Chris Schlesinger’s East Coast Grill (1985); Gordon Hamersley’s Hamersley Bistro (1987); Lydia Shire’s Biba (1989); and Todd English’s Olives (1989).

“In the early ’80s, there was no business model for the chef-owned restaurant,’’ said White. “It took a banker like Jack Sidell of US Trust in Boston to have the foresight to see where our industry was going. . . . Today, it’s hard to finance a restaurant that isn’t attached to a chef.’’

Boston chefs are a tight group, so it was only a matter of a few phone calls for White to get half a dozen of the city’s best to participate in his current series.

“It was the boring middle of winter and I thought it’d be fun to bring some Boston chefs to our South Shore customers,’’ said White, who closed Jasper’s after a 12-year run and subsequently opened the first Summer Shack in Cambridge (now there are four).

The first of the series of dinners was March 2 with Ming Tsai (of TV’s “Simply Ming’’).

A couple of weeks before the event, White and his three top chefs spent the day at Blue Ginger learning how to prepare Tsai’s dishes. Tsai then spent the day of the dinner at Summer Shack cooking with White and his crew. This is how each of the visiting chefs’ menus will be executed.

For the March 2 event, a curtained half-wall in the center of Summer Shack partitioned the restaurant while the front remained open to regular diners.

Dinner began with a beautiful plate of paper-thin hamachi sashimi with a bright salad of vivid microgreens.
my photo mahi mahi.JPGNext up? Thai-spiced mahi mahi [left]. The thick filet was served atop an island of wilted watercress in a sea of delicately flavored lime-coconut broth speckled with perfectly browned garlic slivers. The main course of pan-cooked, cleavered lobster and hanger steak — “surf and turf’’ — was wonderfully delicious with an edamame-speckled jasmine rice.
Together, the three courses were both curiously light and filling, nutrient-rich (proteins and vegetables) and flavor-packed — as balanced a menu as Ming’s famed East-West approach.
By dessert time, we were content enough to enjoy only small bites of the gorgeous bittersweet chocolate cake and cardamom ice cream.

The atmosphere was warm, elegant, and mellow. Servers were wonderful, inviting each table to indicate when they were ready for their next plate. A different wine accompanied each course: a French champagne, a French white, and a California red — poured as you like.
ming & jasper.JPG

Toward the end of the evening, Chefs White and Tsai – gracious, friendly, happy – visited diners at tables.
“This wasn’t a money maker,” said White. “You can’t go to one of these restaurants and get a four course meal with wine for $75. We’re having fun. We love what we do.”

For information about the other chefs in the series, visit the Summer Shack website.

Photo credits: Spiced mahi mahi by Joan Wilder for the Boston Globe. All others by Steve Sullivan.