Friday, February 9, 2001
Michael Leviton and Jill Goldman-Leviton share a life of dichotomy: trendy/antique, city/country, public/private. Their lives are all of these things, and more.
The Levitons compete on a professional fast-track by jointly owning Lumière, one of the area's hottest new restaurants. Bon Appetit magazine rated Lumière, in West Newton, as one of Boston's best restaurants in 2000. The Levitons also reside very quietly in one of Carlisle's oldest homes, the former Litchfield Parsonage. They ferociously guard their unlisted number.
Running a top restaurant means the Levitons work all the time. They find the professional awards and personal accolades they receive at the restaurant very rewarding, but they also live a life of sacrifice. It's just part of dichotomy.
Venturing beyond Applebee's
If you have driven by the West Newton Cinema, you may have passed Lumière without even realizing it. The restaurant is situated on the corner directly across from the movie theater. Distracted by garish signs and bustling neighborhood traffic, you can easily miss the restaurant's discreet facade. Pale window coverings shield the long, narrow windows and protect the diners from peering eyes with understatement.
Once you open the door, however, you'll find that you may just be the only person east of Route 495 that hasn't heard of this restaurant. It's packed on weekends, with the 65 seats filled almost exclusively by reservations. Yet, despite the crowd, the decor has an immediate calming effect. More likely than not, Goldman-Leviton will be the first person you speak to at the restaurant.
"I run the front of the house," she said. "I control your entire experience from when you call, to when you're served, to when you leave." She answers the phone, takes reservations, greets people, and even takes orders as needed despite the presence of a half-dozen waiters. Goldman-Leviton concluded that in her attempts to ensure exemplary service, "I run three miles a night."
Leviton directs the "back of the house." Boston Magazine named him the town's best new chef in 1999, and Food & Wine called him one of the country's best new chefs in 2000. The restaurant specializes in French cuisine, with a distinct leaning to seafood. Leviton calls the food "simple," but his unique pairings of excellent ingredients result in food that is simply extraordinary.
His and her story
Although the Levitons are both from the East Coasthe from Newton and she from Portland, Mainethey met in San Francisco.
Leviton had studied psychology at Wesleyan in Connecticut. About midway through school, he realized he loved cooking and w anted to be a chef. He spent the next three years in San Francisco, then two in New York, then another three in San Francisco. He worked at high-end restaurants including La Cirque in New York and Square One and Hermes in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Goldman was studying African studies and dance at UMass-Amherst. She then went to Africa for two years, first to study dance in Senegal and then literature in Nairobi. After considering a Peace Corps offer for another two-year stint in Africa, she realized that if she stayed she would probably never leave Africa. She decided to return to the U.S., and give San Francisco a chance. Goldman landed a job delivering special events at the San Francisco Opera. A top woman chef, impressed with Goldman's work, invited her to help with the kickoff of her new restaurant. While they were meeting there, Leviton came in to apply as a fish chef. He went to the kitchen to demonstrate his skills.
"I said, 'If this guy can cook, I'm marrying him,'" recalled Goldman. "He was this cute Jewish guy from the East Coast." Eight months later they were engaged. Obviously, he could cook.
"We are like twins separated at birth," she continued. "We're opposites, but we complement each other perfectly." She is dynamic and outgoing; he is guarded and careful. She is outspoken and optimistic; he's shy and mildly cynical.
Despite or perhaps because of their differences, the two work very well together. The couple came up with the plan for the restaurant while in California. Leviton said, " We started to think about where we wanted to settle, where we wanted to open a restaurant, where we wanted to raise children. And it wasn't Northern California."
Putting a name on a vision
Once in Boston, the Levitons took two and a half years to find a suitable site and another fourteen months before opening the restaurant on February 11, 1999. Leviton ran through the steps:
· negotiating a purchase-and-sale agreement,
· getting a parking waiver and another waiver to increase the capacity of the restaurant to 65 people,
· acquiring an original issue beer and wine license,
· raising a ridiculous amount of money,
· hiring contractors,
· taking care of the design, and
· getting everything built.
The couple say they named the restaurant Lumière for a few reasons. The word means "light" in French. Goldman-Leviton is a professional photographer, and so light has special meaning to her. The name Lumière also has historical significance. In the 1890s, two French brothers August and Louis Lumièrecreated the first combined camera and projector that could record pictures on a celluloid strip. In 1895, they presented the first film in a cafe. So the restaurant Lumière has a subtle connection to the West Newton theatre across the street.
Light imagery figures prominently in the design of the restaurant. A multifaceted lamp graces the entryway. There are saffron origami-style lanterns, and wall lights covered with white musical scores and notes in script.
"We really took great pains to make sure that the lighting was very, very beautiful," said Leviton. "At night the whole restaurant is surrounded in this wonderful peachy glow. Everyone looks good in that sort of soft focus."
Finding a good place to hibernate
Almost counter-intuitively, the trend-setting couple decided that they wanted to live in an antique house in the country. After almost a year-long search of the western suburbs, they stumbled upon Carlisle. They saw and purchased the 258-year-old Litchfield Parsonage house on three acres at 501 Lowell Street in August 2000.
Originally built in 1743 by farmer John Henry, the house really evolved when purchased by the Reverend Paul Litchfield. A 1775 Harvard graduate, he studied theology in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He married Mary Bailey of Scituate in 1778. After his ordination, Litchfield came to Carlisle in 1781 as the town's first parish minister to a congregation of 30 members (10 male, 20 female). He received an initial settlement of 150 pounds in silver from the town, and an annual salary of 80 pounds (1 pound was equivalent to $75 in paper money). The next year he bought the Henry farm on 184 acres for 600 pounds. Over his next 45 years in Carlisle, he would extensively revise and add to the existing building to accommodate the needs of his wife and six children.
Larry Sorli, Jr., a new friend and architectural advisor to the Levitons in Carlisle, described the original house as a saltbox. He outlined the features dating back to the Litchfield Parsonage era that are still present:
· unusual vestibule and portico entrance,
· original massive fireplace behind smaller and more efficient fireplaces,
· horizontal wainscot paneling under windows, and
· Federal-style woodwork.
The Levitons have made some immediate repairs at the house. They had to fix the plumbing. They had the electrical wires grounded. They brought the sub-standard dryer up to code. Many walls, ceilings, and doors need refinishing. Nonetheless, the couple has not jumped into major revisions or additions.
"They are very fond of saving what is there," said Sorli of the Levitons. "It is important not to overwhelm a historic house with new design. You want the old house to still be the center. " Sorli recommends getting to know a house first before considering design.
The Levitons are doing just that. The rooms of the house are pristine and relatively bare. They have chosen to decorate with care and precision rather than a checkbook. An old house isn't always an easy acquaintance to makethe furnace bellowed angry smoke after a cleaning, and a squirrel recently ran through their bedroom.
Nonetheless, Goldman-Leviton said, "We're madly in love with the house, and we love Carlisle. We hike every morning with the dog for at least an hour. And then he goes to Larry's." Malcolm, four and a half, is a large poodle that enjoys play dates with Sorli's dog Marshall.
Lumière makes a name for itself
Solitude is perhaps the biggest reason why the couple enjoys living in Carlisle. As they are working most of their waking hours, they need a refuge where they can relax in relative anonymity...without the phone ringing for reservations as it did when they lived in Belmont.
The restaurant is only open in the evening , but the workday in a French kitchen starts much earlier. Monday through Saturday that means 9 a.m., and on Sundays the staff gets in at 11 a.m. The restaurant is closed on Mondays. Leviton changes a couple things on the menu every week, based on the proteins and produce available. He estimates he spends about 80 hours a week at the restaurant.
"Jill is working on her Master's," he said, "so she's working time and a half." On two weekdays away from the restaurant, Goldman-Leviton studies fine arts at Mass Art, and then is back at Lumière by evening. She describes her photographic art as greatly influenced by the surrealists.
"I do a lot of nudes," said Goldman-Leviton. "I do self-portraits. The images are distorted by mirrors and water. I am concerned with women's issues and identity. I also photograph Michael, and morph between his body and mine." She calls her work private versus public, and more appropriate for galleries than the library.
Although the couple works together much of the day, they don't spend much quality time together. They don't see their families or friends much. They aren't free on weekends. Their workdays are 9 a.m. to 11 at night, six days a week. On Monday, the restaurant is closed, and they take the day off to relax.
If you ask Michael Leviton what he does when not working, he's blunt: "sleep." But he and his wife also dream. Of sending children to the Carlisle Public School. Of devoting more time and energy to art. Even of creating a small farm. Perhaps what explains this couple's ability to succeed in an industry when so many others failthey may dream of the future, but they stay focused on the present.
When you first walk into Lumière, you're struck by the dimness. But no matter how exhausted she really is or how tough a day you might have had, Jill Goldman-Leviton ensures you quickly can see and feel only light. And when Michael Leviton starts sending his exquisite creations your way, you can almost taste the illusion of light...but, of course, French food is really rich and very heavy. In the end, you can't help but to smile at the most ironic dichotomy of all.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito