Jodie Gilson had just returned from raking the roofs of her drift-covered greenhouses when the phone rang. It was someone calling to tell her the structures had collapsed under the weight of the snow and ice. Thirty feet tall, the size of a football field, they went down in a matter of minutes.
When she went to examine the damage, "it looked like a mattress that had caved in. I just sobbed. I cried all night, and the next day I said, 'OK, now what are you going to do?'"
Gilson wasn't the only one -- about 15 greenhouse complexes went down in Middlesex and Worcester counties, she says. And she was lucky. No one got hurt.
But she had no money with which to rebuild her wholesale business selling herbs and perennials. To be insured, greenhouses must be heated. Some growers spent about $10,000 on fuel just during January of this relentless winter, Gilson says. The cost was prohibitive.
That's where her son stepped in. Will Gilson is the chef of Cambridge restaurant Garden at the Cellar, as well as an organizer of popup restaurants around town. A generous volunteer for organizations such as Lovin' Spoonfuls, he sent out a message to his contacts in the food world, telling them that his time he needed their help. The goal: to raise enough money to put his mother back in business.
And his contacts responded.
"At 10 p.m., I put together an e-mail and sent it to everybody who might come up with ideas," he says. "The first e-mail I got back was from Garrett [Harker] at Eastern Standard. He said, 'Until we find a date for something, from this point on Eastern Standard is donating all sales from the late-night menu to your mom.' It was fantastic. Then someone suggested a blog, then someone said put a PayPal button on there. Now it's about 2 a.m. I go to bed and wake up the next day to 45 e-mails from people saying 'How can I help?' and donating stuff."
The Boston Center for Adult Education donated space to host a fund-raiser, Ken Oringer gave a group dinner at Clio to be auctioned, and some of the hottest chefs and bartenders in town offered their time and talent. The result: a popup restaurant tomorrow night called Mother's Day in March. (Grub Street has the menu here.) All proceeds will go to Jodie Gilson.
"I can't believe how awesome this town is," chef Gilson says.
You'll find more details on the story, with video, here. But that, to me, is its ultimate message: how awesome this town is. Boston's restaurant scene has always seemed unusually supportive and generous. But maybe it just seems that way because we live here. For perspective, I turned to Antoinette Bruno, CEO and editor in chief of the online magazine StarChefs.com. (It named Gilson a Rising Star chef in 2009.) She travels all over the country, meeting chefs and sampling their food.
"The Boston restaurant community is very tight-knit and very unusual among cities all across the country," she says. "They don't compete with each other. That's a rarity among chefs."
She traces the spirit of generosity to an informal club started years ago, where chefs would eat at each other's restaurants once a month. "Each would bring two bottles of wine, and one chef would do all the cooking," she says. "They would help each other -- how do you deal with this problem, how about sharing purveyors? It's an incredible sense of community. The camaraderie has extended through several generations of chefs. As new chefs come up through the ranks, they have continued the spirit of these dinners over a 15-year period. It's a close-knit community that really, truly takes care of its own."
The roster for the Mother's Day in March fund-raiser is hard evidence. Those chipping in to prepare dinner include Jamie Bissonnette (Toro / Coppa), Dante de Magistris (Dante / Il Casale), Louis DiBiccari (Sel de la Terre), Ed Doyle (Real Food Consulting), Mary Dumont (Harvest), Andy Husbands (Tremont 647), Matt Jennings (Farmstead / La Laiterie), Colin Lynch (Menton), Suzi Maitland (Trina's Starlight Lounge), Brian Poe (Poe's Kitchen), Steve "Nookie" Postal (Fenway Park), Jay Silva (Bambara), and, of course, Gilson, with Joanne Chang (Flour / Myers+Chang) on desserts. Wholesaler M.S. Walker is doing the wine, and Island Creek the oysters. Ian Grossman (Russell House Tavern) is running the front of the house, and bartenders include Jackson Cannon (Eastern Standard) and Joy Richard (Franklin Cafe).
All of this on the Saturday night before Restaurant Week, Will Gilson points out.
"I've always said I think Boston has one of the coolest restaurant scenes," he says. "We may not always get the most press, we may not always pave the way people are thinking about food, but we have people who are friends and step up and help each other when we need it."