“Have you tried the chicken?”: What the restaurant industry has taught me

I wasn’t quite sure what I’d be getting myself into when I looked at Boston Chef job postings that late, sad November night in Mugar Memorial Library (sad, I should say, because I was up studying). I needed a job, that much was true. I couldn’t work at my internship anymore because my schedule conflicted with the time I needed to spend at my college newspaper. I was sad to leave as I’d worked there since May and had developed great friendships and connections there.

Walking to the South End twice a week had become one of my favorite things to do in the city, so when I saw a hostess job opening at a restaurant near my old internship office, I decided, why not? My mother had raved about their pink peppercorn ice cream (which I came to learn hasn’t been on the menu for about 15 years) and the chef’s famous chicken since I could remember. I sent an email off with my resume and didn’t think about it again.

Two days later, I got a phone call (while at my internship, no less). “Hi, this is Alyson from the bistro. We got your resume.” They asked me to come in and I said I would.

My friend Margel, queen of the restaurant business with experience in waitressing, hostessing and cocktailing, coached me on what to say. “Be as friendly and charming as possible,” she said. “It’s all about politeness and about accommodating guests.”

Lo and behold, she was right, and I got the job. I had left the restaurant feeling good about the interview but unsure I’d get the position as I had no fine dining experience. What could they want out of a girl who had spent half her high school career elbow-deep in Kimball Farm ice cream? But, I was wrong, and thus began my first foray into the world of fine dining.

Since I’ve started working there, I’ve learned a few things about not only the restaurant business, but about life. One, it never hurts to be nice to everyone. Why wouldn’t you be nice? Every time I drop off a dish at the dishwashing station I yell “thank you!” to all the boys behind the drying racks. Confused “you’re welcome…?”s morphed into “you’re welcome sweetheart!”s pretty quickly. Two, it’s easier than you’d think to make connections with people. The owner and I struck up a conversation about journalism and, more specifically, have bonded over the events of the James “Whitey” Bulger trial, as he remembers Boston during Whitey’s reign of terror. Three, you can learn a lot about life by just listening to people. Sure, journalism has taught me that too, but there’s something to be said about bouncing ideas off people you don’t have all that much in common with. I can talk to my father or mother about an idea until I’m blue in the face but sometimes it’s nice to get new perspective from an objective party. Last night, I debated the pros and cons of pursuing a public relations internship instead of a journalism internship next summer with my general manager who gave me some really great advice. Lastly, I’ve learned just how valuable my sense of humor is. If I was unable to find the humor in every situation, I would have wilted months ago: customers can be brutal.

All in all, it’s been a fantastic place to work and I’ve had a pretty great experience so far. If I was 21, I’d toast a nice glass of rosé out on the patio to that.

Covering ‘Whitey’—my account as an area native

It finally hit me as I was standing on the second floor of John Joseph Moakley Courthouse in South Boston Thursday morning, gazing out of its impressive wall of glass: I was about to hear and report on the opening statements of what will be one of the most famous trials of all time.

BMl4RskCcAEOk9k-1

Me, holding a James “Whitey” Bulger t-shirt outside of John Joseph Moakley Courthouse in South Boston at 6 a.m. Thursday morning.

While I never knew exactly how much Thursday would influence me, I have known for years now the importance of this trial to both Boston and to the world of journalism. On June 22, 2011, law enforcement officials arrested James “Whitey” Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Grieg, in Santa Monica, Calif. I can remember reading Kevin Weeks’ book, Brutal, out loud to my mother off the screen of my iPhone the next day in the car on the way to Martha’s Vineyard. While our interest in the case of the alleged mobster and leader of the Winter Hill Gang hit its peak just after his arrest after 16 years on the lam, I had grown up hearing about Bulger, a Boston legend, infamous for ruling my city’s underground for more than 30 years. Weeks said Bulger once told him, in his life, he’d killed 40 men.

Weeks, one of Bulger’s ex-hechmen who served jail time for murder, eventually became an FBI informant, revealing alleged truths about Bulger’s rackets to reduce his own sentence. His book was as fascinating as it was shocking, in its descriptions of Bulger’s hold on Boston in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s before he fled the city in 1994. Weeks provided readers with gruesome, in-depth accounts of he and Bulger’s exploits, in which they murdered victims and buried them in the basement of a house at 799 East 3rd Street in South Boston, only to have to dig the corpses up again years later and re-bury them miles away upon deciding to sell the house.

Additionally, Weeks spared no details revolving around Bulger’s alleged shakedown business, wherein he would use fear and intimidation to convince locals to fork over large sums of cash. He would tell a cocaine dealer or a bookkeeper, or, really, anyone he didn’t like, that someone had paid Bulger a certain amount of cash to murder them. Then, he’d have them pay him off to not. The thought of one man manipulating and double-crossing so many people is almost unfathomable. No movie that I’ve seen (such as The Departed) has done Bulger’s true influence justice.

Along with Bulger’s other ex-cronies Stephen Flemmi and John Martorano, Weeks will testify against Bulger at some point over the coming months. J.W. Carney Jr., representing Bulger, largely sought to discredit all three in his opening argument, recommending that jurors be wary of testimony from three known murderers. However, he did admit that Bulger lead a life of crime. That much, it seemed, he could not deny without losing credibility himself.

The trial is set to last until mid-September. Its proceedings are being followed by all major Boston news outlets, including the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. Additionally, outlets such as CNN and the New York Times have been keeping up with the case’s happenings. Most news organizations had several representatives present either in Courtroom 11 with Bulger or in Courtroom 6, the media overflow room. I sat next to CNN producer Ross Levitt and near the Globe’s Milton Valencia and Kevin Cullen in the overflow room, which broadcast the proceedings on two large TVs with an accompanying audio feed.

For years now, I’ve been looking forward to having the opportunity to watch Bulger’s trial. I never imagined I’d actually be able to cover it, something which, as a Boston-area native and a student journalist, has always been on my bucket list. It was really exciting listening to opening arguments and writing my story afterward, which can be found here. Lastly, I’d like to give a shout-out to the staff at Moakley, who were very accommodating even though I’m just a college student journalist. They helped me get a media pass which allowed me to sit in the overflow room and also to bring in my laptop and phone on just two days’ notice which was unbelievably helpful.