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JJ Gonson turns Cuisine en Locale into rock club

By James Reed
originally published in the Boston Globe on May 7, © 2015 

DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF

JJ Gonson.
In early March, JJ Gonson posted a Facebook update that raised some eyebrows. She does that a lot, actually, but this particular post stood out.

“Would you pay $150 to see Leonard Cohen at Cuisine en Locale?” she asked her online pals. The response translated to an overwhelming “Hell, yes.”

It was a brash concept, though, booking the iconic singer-songwriter at the Somerville event hall Gonson runs as a home base for her catering company and its various functions, including a popular series of pop-up dinners. The capacity is a little more than 400.
That’s just it: Gonson is a dreamer, a chaser of big ideas even when she’s unsure of how, or even if, they will work out. On the eve of Cuisine en Locale’s 10th anniversary later this year, she’s revving up with a new adventure. She’s focusing on turning part of her business space into a funky rock club off the beaten path.

“From the first time I saw the place, I could see the end result in my mind,” Gonson says over drinks and dessert in Central Square. “That’s my problem. I want to take everybody by the hand and get on the magic carpet and be like, ‘Just fly with me! I can see it. Can’t you?’ I don’t have a vision: I just see it. Wait. Is that a vision?”

She’s leasing the space, which she took over in late 2013 and estimates is between 8,000 and 9,000 square feet. It includes a kitchen, a ballroom, and a mezzanine lounge where you can order food and drinks on the nights they’re served. This is the headquarters for Cuisine en Locale, whose main operation is a weekly meal delivery program rooted in the principles and seasonal ingredients of eating local. Gonson is a staunch believer in and embodiment of the locavore movement.

The place is a trip, a time-warped banquet hall formerly known as Anthony’s, a couple of doors down from Highland Kitchen. The building dates to 1917 but was renovated and divided into different spaces in 1964. The decor has pretty much been preserved in amber, right down to the carpet speckled with reds and oranges. Draped in white Christmas lights, the lounge reminds me of the fusty but wonderful old steakhouses I grew up with in the Midwest.

Meanwhile, the ballroom has clean sight lines, a wood dance floor, a mirror ball, and crystal chandeliers that frame either side of the stage. It feels like you’re in the coolest basement that never existed. In fact, Cuisine en Locale is a rock club in its truest iteration. It has an untamed spirit and no rules other than to have a good time.

To transform Cuisine en Locale into a music destination, Gonson is thinking bigger than usual. Already it has presented performances by Kim Gordon, Amanda Palmer, Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys, and, just last week, the multi-artist Slavic Soul Fest.
Gonson recently connected with the folks at Bowery Boston, who have started to book shows in the ballroom, including Saul Williams on Saturday (see next page) and the Front Bottoms and Ceremony, both in June. Her band wish list includes Sleater-Kinney, Luscious Jackson, Portugal. The Man, and maybe Built to Spill. (Oh, and she wasn’t joking about Leonard Cohen, either. She submitted a bid, which was declined.)

DINA RUDICK/ GLOBE STAFF

Juliana Hatfield Three performing at Cuisine en Locale.

A few weeks ago, alt-rock hometown heroes Juliana Hatfield Three headlined at Cuisine en Locale, but Gonson was the queen bee behind the scenes in a black T-shirt emblazoned with “GRCB,” which stood for “Girls Rock Campaign Boston.” She dabbled in a little bit of everything, her attention diverted every couple of steps.

“It’s nice to see you, John,” she said, leaning in to a hug a regular.

“Yep, no problem,” she chirped when a colleague asked if she could help shuttle some food to customers.

“It’s right back there by the glowing red sign,” she instructed a woman wondering where the ladies room was.

And then my favorite: “I’ll be right back. I gotta make sure Evan isn’t getting into any trouble.” (That would be Evan Dando, the Lemonheads frontman who had dropped by to see his old friend Hatfield.)

Gonson’s sister, Claudia, who’s a member of the Magnetic Fields (and also manages that band) and Future Bible Heroes, says her sibling has always been like this.

“I think what JJ is exceptionally good at is world-making — gathering interesting people together to make interesting things happen,” Claudia writes in an e-mail. “She did this even back in high school. Her bedroom wasn’t just a place for her friends to hang out: It was a place for artistic people to congregate together and make things. Like a mini Warhol Factory.”

“I always joke that I can’t even figure out how to put on a matching outfit in the morning,” she adds, “while JJ manages to take three flowers out of her garden and place them into individual, tiny bottles over the sink, filled with colored marbles that catch the light just right and make the space shine. She just has that creative sensibility.”

Gonson, whose given name is actually Julia (but no one calls her that, not since her mother started referring to her as “JJ” at a young age), also has a wide network of connections. She and her father were partners in an indie label in the mid-’90s, which led to Gonson taking a job, briefly, as an executive at Virgin Records later that decade.

It takes someone of Gonson’s stature and colorful past to pull off the kind of harebrained goals she tackles. She’s charmingly vague about her age — “I’m somewhere around 48 years old, but I’d have to do the math” — but plots and plans with the verve of an eager new college grad.

A native of Cambridge, where she still lives with her husband and their two children, Gonson first made her name around here managing bands such as Hullabaloo and as a rock photographer. After a stint working as an electrician in a circus (no, seriously), she eventually ended up in Portland, Ore., where she befriended a young Elliott Smith.

Her photos of him, starting when he was still with the band Heatmiser, which Gonson also managed, are candid and tender. That’s one of her images on the cover of Smith’s 1994 debut studio album, “Roman Candle.” Lately, she’s been poring over negatives of Nirvana, whom she shot at the Reading Festival in 1992 but only recently discovered tucked away in a folder.

Maybe those photos would make a great book? Taking a sip of her Manhattan, Gonson swears she’s learning to embrace a new habit.
“No more new interests!” she exclaims, before admitting that will never fly. “At the end of the day, I will make things because I have to. Whether it’s a rock show or a menu, I’ll always create. And that has to do with pure joy.”
Then she lets out a gleeful little giggle.