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Needham Chef Preparing To Open Restaurant

BY JOSH PERRY (@Josh_Perry10)

Needham resident and noted American chef Rachel Klein has announced plans to open her first restaurant, RFK Kitchen, on Great Plain Ave. The current goal is to have the restaurant up and running by the spring.

In the past few weeks, Klein and her partner, Francesco Melandri, have been meeting with architects and going over details as the opening date approaches.

Having worked for years in restaurants in New York, Providence, and Boston, Klein admits that this opening is a little different since she has lived with her husband and children in Needham since 2007.

“It’s a little more stressful because it’s personal,” said Klein last week. She joked, “If I don’t do well I can’t just leave and move away.”

Klein’s culinary worldview was formed in part from the many family trips that she took with her father and mother as a child across the U.S. and Europe. She was able to explore cuisines and cultures that would seem exotic to most children from New York.

“My dad really, really liked to eat out,” she explained, “and they weren’t the type of people going to four-star restaurants every night.”

“He loved Indian food, so he would find the best little Indian restaurant on the East Side and it would be in a subway. He would find these hidden jewels that would be great.”

Unlike modern foodies that have grown up with shows like “Top Chef” or “Chopped” and watch the Food Network every day, Klein learned about cooking from PBS. She watched “Frugal Gourmet” and Julia Child and used to prepare breakfast for her family on weekends.

“When I was little, I used to write menus and set the table on a Sunday or Saturday morning…and it was terrible; it wasn’t good at all,” she recalled with a laugh.

“It was the whole display and the whole system of getting it all ready and presenting and I thought it was really cool.”

Klein went to a “reputable” private middle and high school and watched classmates head to prestigious colleges such as Cal Tech, MIT, and Northwestern to pursue careers in law, finance, or science. A career in culinary was simply “not on the radar” of advisors at the school who could not direct Klein into a path that would lead to becoming an executive chef.

She went to school for art history, but eventually realized that there was a world of cooking that she could join and attended New York Restaurant School. She credits chef Mark Spangenthal for being her first mentor and giving her the first “real” restaurant job.

“[He] told me a long time ago to stay humble…and cook good food,” she said. “It was my first job where there was structure, expectations and it was my first real taste of what a kitchen should be.”

Her career has taken her to some of the best restaurants in New York, where she worked for the likes of Peter Hoffman at Savoy (one of the pioneers behind the organic movement on the East Coast) and Anita Lo at Anissa (a contestant on “Top Chef: Masters” renowned for her Asian-influenced cooking).

Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Klein took an opportunity to move north and work in Providence, R.I. to open a new restaurant there. Eventually, her career took her to Boston to work at a new restaurant in Harvard Square then to the Seaport Hotel and the OM Restaurant where she was named “Best New Chef” by “Boston Magazine” in 2006.

One surprising aspect of moving to Boston was that Klein found a thriving restaurant scene that was dominated by women, such as Barbara Lynch, Lydia Shire, and Jody Adams among others.

“When I left New York, I was working for one of the two female chefs that were considered that caliber,” she said. “So when I came to Boston, I was shocked at how many successful, well-regarded chefs were women.”

“Boston’s dining scene has gone through a major shift in recent years and women have played a major role in that. I think these women are the anchor that has helped bring this town up.”

Hospitality and the restaurant world can be cutthroat. Klein has worked for several restaurants that are unfortunately no longer around and she believes that she has the right attitude and Needham is the right community to be successful.

“I need there to be whimsy and fun with food,” said Klein. “I’m really over the whole ‘Temple of Food’ where people take it too seriously. At the end of the day, you need to have fun and that’s kind of where I’m at in my career.”

She noted several other successful restaurants in Needham and added, “I think sometimes people sleep on the suburbs. There’s a dynamic group of people in the suburbs.”

Klein has embraced the Needham community and she is hoping the community will embrace her as well. She said, “I want to contribute to making Needham a better and more diverse town.”

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