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A much-needed helping after greenhouse roof collapses

Chefs host benefit for Groton woman

By Abbey Niezgoda
Globe Correspondent / March 3, 2011

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It’s hard to make out the welcome sign beneath the blanket of snow the season has left behind, but a few left turns in Groton will drop you off at Jodie Gilson’s greenhouses — or what’s left of them.

Jodie’s son, Will, a Cambridge chef, clenched the wheel hard as he pulled up, the word “Eat’’ tattooed in large black letters on his left wrist. His eyes, reflected in the rear-view mirror, turned sad at the sight of his childhood playground, destroyed.

“I used to play paintball here every summer,’’ Will said.

“We’re hoping we can save a little bit of this,’’ his mother said, looking out at 22,000 square feet of collapsed greenhouse roof.

A back-breaking winter has already led to about 200 roof collapses across the state, according to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. Jodie Gilson’s livelihood grew beneath one of them. At 58, she has spent most of her time covered in dirt from potting herbs, a business she runs under the name J. Gilson Greenhouses.

After the roof caved in, Gilson learned quickly that her insurance policy would not cover the damage because the roof was not consistently heated and was made of polycarbonate, a thermoplastic. And so, she has turned to her son for help.

Will Gilson, executive chef at Garden at the Cellar in Cambridge, has often used his powers in the kitchen to give back.

He’s served up his signature herbal menus to raise money for UNICEF and the Greater Boston Food Bank, among other organizations. But after the storm took its toll early last month, he decided to put his talents for a cause closer to home: raising $25,000 so that his mother can make enough repairs to start her season.

With $3,000 already in hand, he and his friends are sponsoring a benefit dinner Saturday at the Boston Center for Adult Education with room for up to 200 people paying between $100 and $200 a head. He hopes the dinner will bring him at least close to his goal.

During a recent visit to the greenhouses he helped build, Will trudged with his mother through the snow to see what’s left.

“This is the first time I’ve heard water dripping out of this gutter!’’ Jodie exclaimed with excitement.

She paused to pick up pots and pieces along the path of devastation, pointing out the cauliflower and cabbages she can no longer get to because of the instability of the structure that once housed them.

“Before it all happened, I kept looking up and wondering how long it was going to last,’’ Jodie recalled. “I had never seen gutters bend like that before, so full of snow that had no place to go.’’

On Feb. 3, Jodie and a friend started raking snow off the thermoplastic as a precaution. They finished around 6 that night, and then Jodie drove the few miles home. Fifteen minutes later, she got a call from the friend: The greenhouses were down.

“It all must have happened in about a minute,’’ Jodie said. “More than a decade of work. . . It was like losing a family member or a best friend.’’

That night, after realizing insurance would not cover the damage, she texted her son.

“Despite best efforts, big greenhouse fell tonight,’’ she wrote. “Very sad.’’

Will didn’t hesitate.

“I asked her flat out, ‘How much do you need to fix this,’ ’’ Will said. “At first I don’t think she took me seriously, but then I told her to just give me a number.’’

Her answer was $25,000, a figure that is not nearly enough to rebuild the whole greenhouse operation, but enough to put up a small building, buy supplies, and get back in business.

Will began by posting a call for help on his personal blog, “Band of Chefs.’’

“You don’t know my mom, but you all know me,’’ he wrote. “You know my commitment to my family (given and chosen alike), my friends and my community. As I sit here and look at the calendar, I lose count of all the charitable events that I, and my restaurant, will be a part of in the next year. And I can’t help but think that I would trade all of those and everything that I do for people . . . just to be able to help my mom.’’

Roughly five days, 50 e-mails, and one PayPal button later, the camaraderie of the area’s restaurant scene was already apparent.

Eastern Standard donated all of its late-night menu proceeds for a week. The Boston Center for Adult Education is giving Will the space to hold the pop-up dinner Saturday, when its Mother’s Day in March menu will feature top chefs and some of their mothers’ favorite dishes.

Louis DiBiccari, chef at Sel de la Terre Back Bay and a close friend of Will’s, will be among those in the kitchen.

“There’s a bond in Boston’s restaurant industry that’s completely unique to this city,’’ DiBiccari said. “That’s just how it works here. We’re going to do whatever we can to help Will.’’

His mother can’t help but be proud. “If this is all coming back to him on [my] behalf, then I’m going to have to swallow my pride and say thank you,’’ Jodie said, her eyes welling with tears. “Thank you so much.’’

For details on the benefit dinner, visit www.bcae.org.