Chef Mary Dumont’s latest culinary creation is Cultivar, which lives inside Downtown Boston’s Ames Hotel. But before there was Cultivar, there was California, there was Paris, and there were the pivotal moments that convinced Dumont that a chef’s apron was the uniform that she liked to wear the best.
Well, at twenty, I was driving across the country from Boston to California for an adventure. It was supposed to be temporary, but it ended up being ten years. I just really, really loved it there. I lived in Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz. I ended up in Sonoma. I was just so enamored with the colors and the food and I’d never seen anything like that before. My family was in the restaurant business, and we ate everywhere, so really good food wasn’t foreign to me. I think the thing about California was just the farmers market and seeing things that grew there. Being exposed to all those different things just totally blew my mind.
When I was about 23, my mother passed away suddenly. That was the pivotal moment in my life—well, one of them. One of the biggest. It really kind of put me on a track of “get it together and do it now”. At the time, I was working at a restaurant in San Francisco. I was waiting tables, I had friends who worked there, and I was having a great time working for this female chef who is a wonderful human being. One night one of the cooks didn’t show up. I’d talked to the chef about cooking because I loved to cook—obviously, it was in my blood—but I didn’t really want to do it as a career. But I just said “Well, I’ll do it. Of course, I’ll try it out.” I just jumped right in. I put my uniform on and felt it: “This is what I’m supposed to do.” I never looked back (though for a few days, I did think about the immediate decrease in my income since I wasn't waiting tables anymore).
I’m really not that old, but at this point, there wasn’t a really an Internet. I’d pore over Food & Wine magazine and the newspapers, just trying to figure out who the best chef in the city was. I’d walk by Jardiniere a bunch, which was an absolutely stunning restaurant also owned by a female chef. I’d wanted to work there for the longest time, not just because the owner was a woman, but because it was the best restaurant—and, yeah, the owner also happened to be a woman. I brought my knives in one morning and asked “Can I interview?”, and she just looked at me, like, “Um, do we have an appointment?” I told her I was ready to work, that I was here to work, and if she didn’t want to hire me, that was okay, but that I was just ready to get to work. By the end of the night she hired me (but not without side-eying me for a while, like “who is this kid?”)
I followed a sous chef friend from Jardiniere to Campton Place, where I started working for Chef Laurent Manrique. He became my career mentor. He was very French, like, he’d yell like a Frenchman, but he was also very thoughtful, and he also happened to be a Buddhist. He always said, “Squeaky wheel gets the grease, Mary, don’t ask for what you want, then you’re never going to get it.” One day he called me into his office and he told me he was going to Berlin and Paris for this big, three-week long event. He asked me to come with him. It was just myself, Laurent, and one of the other sous chefs. I remember being in Paris, going up in this rickety elevator on the Left Bank, and going into this antique room, where Oscar Wilde actually used to live. It really touched my inner literary nerd. It was just one of those moments in life, you know? My door was slightly open and all this light came in and reflected off of all of the tin roof tops, and it was just the classic Paris that I’d imagined. Kind of like that Ratatouille scene. I was journaling back then, and I wrote “I can’t believe that this is my life.” Yeah, I still have the journal.
In between 25 and 30, at the mid-point of my ten year California adventure, I moved to Chicago for a year. I ended up coming right back to California. For whatever reason, when I was younger, I decided a person is a grownup when they turn twenty-eight. That was just the time when adulthood happened. At that point, I hadn’t worked for Laurent for years but he’d just opened up a little French bistro in Sonoma, and I went up there for my first ever Executive Chef job. I was there for 2 years, and it was one of the best times of my life.
Between 30 and 35, I opened a restaurant of my own in Portsmouth called the Dunaway. I won the Food & Wine award for best new chef there. I stuck around for two years and then started working at Harvest in Harvard Square.
By the time I was 35, my dad was getting older, which was why I had decided to move back to the East Coast and just be close to him. I’d been in California for a while, so it seemed like the time to do it. My plan was to open a restaurant, work as a chef, and above all get to be close to my dad again.
At 40, I was getting ready to do something of my own again—working so hard in kitchens, you just really want to make your own money, call your own shots. I got married when I was about 37, and by 40, my focus in life really changed. I wanted to be on my own and do something for my family and myself. So, I started looking at properties and seeking investors to get the wheels in motion for a way to make that start––that start turned out to be Cultivar.
Cultivar is about a couple different things for both my wife and I. We put things together very purposefully. Like, the bar isn’t wood just because we like wood. The theme running through the restaurant is actually a little bit of an homage to both of our mothers. My wife and I both grew up in homes with these huge copper beech trees, and the beech tree is the queen of the forest. The whole bar top at Cultivar is made of it, and our logo includes it as well, so we really brought in the symbolism there. The restaurant’s identity overall is supposed to be all about bringing the outside in, providing a respite from the rest of the world. We spent a lot of time texting back and forth, my wife and I, trying to figure out what the place was going to be called. We went through every synonym for concepts we liked, for the ethos we had in mind. Cultivar stuck. If you're curious: a cultivar is a plant that has been propagated or cultivated through taking the cuttings of desirable plants and making a better plant out of those pieces. It’s a metaphor, of course. I’ve taken all of these cuttings of everything I’ve done in my career and my life, and I’ve put it together in this one restaurant.
––As told to and written by Oset Babur for The Thirty-One Percent