The door to the kitchen is open, and inside, Will Gilson is getting ready.
It's the second day of fall, the type of day that makes people drive to farms to buy half-gallons of cider and plastic tote bags full of apples. The sky is the deep blue of late September, and trees give the first hint of their coming shift. In Groton, 50 minutes west up Route 2, the air smells like hay, cut grass, and the sweet earthy stink of manure. Summer clings to the air. The splendor of this sort of day rests exactly in the sense of its not lasting; every long, cool shadow says not much longer now.
This time of year flatters the Herb Lyceum, the farm and restaurant that belongs to Gilson's family. But it's hard to imagine a time of year that wouldn't flatter this handsome white farmhouse on four acres of land. The house embodies a contradiction unique to New England: it's modest, utilitarian, frillless, resilient to time and storms, but also large, stately, significant, its every broad floorboard and old fireplace imbued with the weight of history and influence. It's been in the Gilson family for generations.
It's a likable lie, the ones New Englanders tell through their houses and their sweaters, a vestigial Puritan sense of humility and restraint. Wool gone threadbare in the elbows and boots that have seen two decades' worth of winters belie — or is it reveal? — the ancestral home with nine bedrooms and the Mayflower lineage.
Greenhouses, 10 of them, stretch like caterpillars across the property. The Gilsons grow about 250,000 plants in the span of 12 weeks, plus tomatoes and mums for the markets nearby. At Garden at the Cellar in Cambridge, a subterranean bar Gilson transformed into a hugely popular restaurant, he made big use of produce from the farm and gained a reputation for emphasizing local, sustainable food. (Full disclosure: I was a terrible bartender at the Cellar for a few months, back before Gilson came on as chef.)
The Lyceum itself is a converted carriage house with a kitchen and two small dining rooms with long tables. Dried plants hang like horsetails high along the wall. Exposed beams and worn wood give the feel of a barn, and even in midday brightness, one imagines candlelight on the tables, wax dripping on white linen, and a small crowd passing dishes, sharing tastes, engaging in the ritual of a communal meal.
Gilson moves about the Lyceum kitchen, stacking plates, making piles, and loading fold-up tables into the pick-up truck outside with the focused ease of someone, in all senses, at home. He's prepping for an event that evening at his mother's farm down the road. Closing in on 30, Gilson has a boyish appeal, a scruffy brawn, warmth, and charm. His light eyes have a flashing bit of mischief.
He's a few weeks away from opening his own restaurant, Puritan & Co., in Inman Square in Cambridge. A long communal table will be the centerpiece of the place. "I wanted to mimic the feeling of what we do here," he says. "Let people get a chance to be human beings again, not introverts toying around on their iPhones." The host station will be a 1920s stove from the Lyceum, the first stove Gilson cooked on. A massive soapstone sink from the early 1900s that's sitting on a back deck at the farm will have a place behind the oyster and charcuterie bar.
"Heritage" was an early name for the new place. "But that was a little bit too much 'This is my life, deal with it,' " says Gilson.