When it comes to holiday gatherings, dinner has historically bogarted the spotlight. And understandably so—it’s awash in traditions both cultural and familial, as well as flavors complex and nostalgic. But then again, so is brunch. Of course, dinner has the advantage of multiple courses, epic proportions, and beautiful cocktails. Again, though, so does brunch. And when it comes right down to it, which of the two meals better melds ingredients and dishes both savory and sweet, salty and sour? Hands down—the answer is brunch.
And no one does brunch like Ryan McGovern, the clever and meticulous chef at Manchester-by-the-Sea’s lauded bistro, Foreign Affairs. So when the question arises—at least from now through the holiday season—as to how to throw a remarkably festive brunch that breaks the mold, we turn to McGovern first.
His food philosophy is a big part of what makes eating an adventure: No matter what the specific meal is—it will be memorable. “I don’t want to give people the norm,” he says with no small amount of conviction. “There’s so much food out there and it’s all around us, but I want to open people’s eyes to more than what they’re used to.”
How does that level of excitement and commitment translate to the table? This chef smokes his own fish (with varying types of fruit tree wood to create distinctive flavor profiles). He and his team pickle the bistro’s own veggies. Whenever they have a free moment, they whip up condiments like homemade beer mustard. They macerate berries randomly for the weekly waffle special. And they’re constantly doing things like haphazardly making their own kimchee.
“Kimchee’s so undervalued!” exudes McGovern. “Especially when you’re adding it to breakfast and brunch dishes.” For instance, the Foreign Affairs’ breakfast sandwich is a carefully constructed pile—within a brioche roll—of an ever-so-subtle yolk explosion from two farm eggs, cheddar cheese, bacon, and house-made kimchee from farm cabbage. “It gives a spicy punch that isn’t too overwhelming,” explains McGovern. “Not to mention a fermented taste that gives the sandwich a kick in the butt.”
That’s the kind of dish he loves making for customers at the restaurant, but also for family and friends at his home on weekends. Served with an Asian soy salad in soy mizuna dressing, it’s superb every single time.
But that’s nothing compared to when guests sit down and dip into his bluefish pâté. At the restaurant, McGovern and his team get whichever fish is available from their local monger and smoke it in their kitchen with one of the woods from their backyard—the likes of which include pear wood, plum wood, or apple wood, so it’s not your typical hickory smoke. Similarly, with respect to the choice of fish, “We like to use different kinds of fish that aren’t on every last menu on the rest of the North Shore,” he says. Meanwhile, at home with his family over the holidays, a similar theme prevails. “We all hang out, and we smoke the fish and make a big batch of pâté before the big day,” he says. “It becomes a whole family event.” Everyone gets involved when McGovern is planning menus, too. With his young daughter, he foragesfor elderflowers, which he’s made into a kombucha mignonette of local wild flowers.
In the restaurant and at home, brunch has become the perfect backdrop against which McGovern can let loose his creative proclivities. His riff on eggs benedict, for example, is always changing; maybe it’s done with corn pancetta, scallops, and micro radish one week and with a hollandaise, duck, and lobster the next.
He also switches up from week to week his famed Einkorn flour waffles. “It’s an all-organic and all-whole wheat that’s so pure in flavor you can actually taste the flour itself, and it’s actually almost sweet,” he says. At the bistro, he orders it whole and mills it himself. The fact that whole wheat is healthier than garden-variety white flour gets to not just his drive as a cook but also his family upbringing. “I was raised that white flour was the devil,” he says. “And I don’t want anyone to leave my restaurant or my house feeling like they have a cavity in the back of their mouth. Einkorn flour has a hearty, substantive taste, and it balances so well with the toppings we create, so nothing is overly sweet.” Sometimes that means macerated berries with house-made granola for texture and other times, a bronze fennel and lemon balm.
“The way I cook is also the way I was brought up,” he says in an almost prescriptive tone. “Support the farmers. Open people’s eyes. Bring them together.” And ultimately, as with any holiday activity, he describes it in terms that are more experiential than anything else. “I want people to leave my table feeling not stuffed, but nourished, intrigued, and happy.