An Interview with the owner of 
ONCE Somerville and 
Cuisine en Locale, JJ Gonson.

By Chas Wagner

originally published on Medium in March 2015; edited June 2016

Chas: Amanda Palmer was here a few weeks back. The punk rocker in you had to be loving that?
JJ: Big fan. Enormous respect. She does and says that need to be done and said. Bless her, she’s a dynamo.

From my music days, I became a big fan of all types of genres. I thought I was done with all things music when I moved back to the East Coast. But, when I saw this place, I fell in love with it. This didn’t start as a music venue. We thought more weddings and banquets.

Chas: This is a function hall. Are you good at hall functioning?
JJ: Oh, we function. Really serious functioning.

Chas: How’d you find the place?
JJ: When I was in college, I lived at the bottom of the hill on Central Street and I walked by this place all the time. It was like Ooompa-Loompa land. It was called Anthony’s Function Hall. I’m like,

“What is going on in there?”

Nobody goes in, nobody comes out.
Then, I get back here, post-Portland, post-Martha’s Vineyard, Cuisine en Locale is coming along, where one day, I finally decide to walk in. Somehow, someway, I fall madly in love with the place. I really can’t tell you why.

Chas: So cool. How long have you been in here now?
JJ: We opened our doors February 13th, 2014. We’re leasing and started doing work on it a few months before.
I really don’t know what it was. I literally turned to the guy, who was showing us the place, and I said,
“I’m going to rent this. This is going to be mine.”
Probably the worst thing I could have done. We figured it out, but it took a long time, because the place needed a ton of work. It needed sprinklers and it needed a liquor license to be negotiated and all this other crap. Nearly seven months to get to that February 2014 opening.
It was a learning experience. One thing, though, is I feel really good about the relationship with my landlord. He actually is a pretty responsible guy.

Chas: You seem shocked by having a good landlord?
JJ: Yeah, it is kind of a weird thing to say. I didn’t realize when I started how big of a partnership it is to go into a space of this size.

Chas: How many square feet is this spot?
JJ: 9,000!

Chas: Wow. That’s quite a commitment. Where were you located prior to here?

JJ: We were at Kitchen Inc., a shared kitchen space, for two years prior. We were one of the cornerstone businesses, since we were working there the most. Several days a week, it wasn’t the seven days a week like now.

Kitchen Inc.
Since we’re the only ones, we’re here around the clock. It’s a huge responsibility. There are weird things that I never thought I’d own in a million years. Like urinals.
I really never thought urinals were something that I needed to know about. I never paid attention to them. Shocking.
Not only do I own six urinals, but I own two broken urinals at the moment. It suuuucks.
I have to replace two. That’s horrifying to me. The fact that I own urinals is crazy.

Chas: Wait, you didn’t grow up saying I want to own urinals?
JJ: Yes, I would always say, “someday I’m going to own six urinals.” Not exactly.

Chas: The random learnings of an entrepreneur.
JJ: Totally. It’s actually kind of fascinating to watch a plumber work on a urinal. To be like, “well, ya know, the air gap is keeping the flush from moving down.” My god, I know so much about electrical and plumbing. I could probably adjust a urinal now.
You turn the thing, then you bang on it very lightly on the top, wait for the “toot toot,” then you turn the thing again and finally flush it.

Chas: I see the evolution now. From punk rocking to cooking to plumbing.
JJ: No joke, I tell people, if I need another career, I’m going into plumbing. They make so much money. Supply and demand. The female thing, too. I thought meal delivery was the thing, but no. Plumbing is where it’s at.
Seriously, I’ve learned so much from taking on this place. Liquor licensing. The three tiered liquor distribution system. Compressors on walk-in refrigerators and the ratio for meals-to-freezer capacity.
I feel like, when you start something, you think you know what you’re doing, until you don’t know what you are doing, until you really don’t know what you are doing.
Bottom line, once you’ve made the commitment, you’re then forced to learn it all.

Chas: At least you’re doing it. Rather than the 99% of people who never start and just think about it?
JJ: Yeah. Because if everyone were doing it, the world would be a shit show.
You gotta have the people that do the crazy shit and then the people who work for the people who do the crazy shit. It’s a great balance.

Chas: The menu brainstorms are a big deal around here. What’s process around that?
JJ: A lot of that happens at Staff Meal. Somebody will be like, “Oh, I went to this place the other night and they were doing this thing with beef and turnips and cabbage and cranberries. We should do that, but with cherries!” Or, people bringing ideas from blogs, TV, magazines, almost everywhere. All throughout the week we’re just riffing on ideas.
For example, Passover is coming up. We’ll always do a Passover menu. We talk about what we did last year, what worked, what we liked, where we need to improve.
Last year, we screwed up and did noodle kugel on accident, instead of potato kugel. Noodle is for Hanukkah, not Passover.
Or, just last week, we did a Guinness lamb stew for St. Patty’s Day, rather than corned beef. People were upset. But, we didn’t do it because everyone does it. Back to that, being a contrarian. Always on the fringe, not always successfully.

Chas: You love throwing bashes. What are the big ones?
JJ: Stuff we do on the regular. Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) Festival. That’s actually how we started doing Mexican, which led to Taco Mondays. That’s November 2nd.
Then, there’s the Once in Valhalla event. It’s always the third weekend in January. It’s a crazy Viking Feast and one of the only actual Viking holidays. Scandanavian-style food, like pickled fish and lots of boiled vegetables.
It was invented by Mimi, my first employee, and she also created these Viking and Valkyrie hats. She wanted to promote the hats, so, I decided to throw a Viking Feast to promote the hats.

Chas: Hats are always the catalyst for festivals. Did you work with a local company to make the hats?
JJ: Absolutely. Short Army makes them. We didn’t keep making the hats, but kept doing the feast, because people loved it. Five years running now. Miri actually did all the costumes, too.
Amanda Palmer actually wore one of the Viking capes at her last show. They are really beautiful and amazing.
It’s such a cool show that seats 200 people. While it’s a big production, it’s totally worth it.
Then, there’s one more show. I haven’t done it the last few years, because it’s so hard. It’s called Once In Hell, Dante’s Inferno in 10 Courses. It’s the most incredible show and I love it so much. But, it’s a full scale, theatrical production. We produced it with Allegra Libonatti, the Director at the American Repository Theater, and Ari Barbanell over at Oberon Theater.
Each actor/waiter are the minions of the different level of hell. I mean, these minions are ministering each hell level through food to the patrons. Crazy. So, you have the Wrathful, Zelous, Gluttonous, etc.
In the book, when Dante gets to the Violence ring of hell, he runs through the woods and all the branches of the trees start to break. Those branches are suicide because that’s a form of violence. As they break, the trees whisper to him of how they died. So, we had our waiters pouring beat soup into red goblets and whispering into people’s ears how they killed themselves.
It’s an extremely elaborate show. Very expensive and requires a ton of PR. Lots of rehearsal time with every waiter being an actor. Valhalla is more character-based improv, where the Gods know who they are and play themselves. Inferno, on the other hand, is scripted.

Chas: What’s your summer schedule?
JJ: Definitely farm-to-table, where we actually go out in the field and farms have us come hang out. My favorite is Morning Glory Farm on Martha’s Vineyard. Also, Fat Moon Farm out in Westford, MA. When we do real farm dinners, we work directly with the food from the farm. We plan a month or two ahead of time to get the food in advance and prep it.
I’ve even gone out to my old stomping grounds of Portland, OR and cooked with local farms. But, I haven’t gone in a few years because of this big project.

Chas: More than a project. This is a full-scale operation.
JJ: True. Although, I would love to head out west to cook again. I feel like we have so much coming up. Somebody told me once that you have your animals and I’m a mouse. I can only see what’s right in front of me.
Like, “we have pierogi night on Friday. That’s huge everyone.”
But, I’m really excited about Julianna Hatfield coming in. For me, that’s huge. I just love her new record. It’s really my favorite record right now. I’m thrilled. I’m trying to get some other really big people in, like Julianna!
The next big, big thing isn’t until the fall and it will be the BBQ.
We also do Follow the Honey. Every course is a food pairing and is created from honey by a different beekeper. It’s a big gathering of bee enthusiasts. Last year, we actually had a bee bearding in the parking lot.

Chas: What the hell is a bee bearding?
JJ: It’s when they take the Queen Bee and put it in a little box on someone and then all the bees climb up and it looks like they are wearing a bee. It’s really cool.

Chas: What neighborhood do you live in?
JJ: Central Square. I admit it, I’m a total hipster and the only reason I live there is to walk to shows and the clubs. Very deliberate. What’s awesome, more and more bands I like are starting to play here at our spot. It’s really super convenient. The Grannies, a band from San Francisco that dress up as old ladies, are coming end of April. Some of it’s up on the site, but we can’t be too promotional. You never want to be too clear on what we’re up to.
We were actually talking about closing the front door and making everyone come in through the back door, but not telling them. Total LA move. Really stupid thing. Guess what, it’s ironic.

Chas: Self-proclaimed hipster.
JJ: Oh yeah, I totally claim this title.
I’m actually OH. Original Hipster. I mean come on, I lived in Portland for the 90’s. The Dream of the 90’s was alive in Portland. I own it. Hipster dyed in the wool.

Chas: You are really tapped into Somerville and Cambridge. What’s your favorite part about the community?
JJ: 10 years, yeah. I love that all the business owners know each other.
Somerville and Cambridge are tiny big cities, with very transient populations. While the kids will come and go, the business owners stay the same. This year, I heard 1 million kids moved to Boston in the fall for the school year.

We get to know each other. When the laundromat caught on fire across the street and burned up all of Highland Kitchen’s dish towels, they came to us because they didn’t have dish towels for service.
We support each other.

There’s some wonderful community resources, like Main Street Somerville,Somerville Local First and Cambridge Local First. They help to bring us together. I belong to both Local Firsts, since our business started in Cambridge and our business address is still there, but our kitchen is in Somerville.

Obviously, I like the community. That’s me. I’m super social. I like the events and hanging out.
I really like it when people come in and they haven’t been in here before. “Wow, this is kind of interesting and different and I think I like it.” They discover it in an ironic, hipster way.