A quick drive in the pick-up, and Gilson unloads tables and tools for the night's dinner. His mother, Jodie, trim and quick-moving in white shorts and flip-flops, curly blonde hair and a visor, appears from a greenhouse, asks about linens, and offers to lend a hand. Gilson refuses the help. Two winters ago, Jodie's greenhouses collapsed under the weight of snow. Gilson rallied the Boston restaurant community and hosted a fundraising dinner to help his mom get back in business. He hefts a Caja China — a pig-roasting box — off the truck bed and explains it will serve as a mobile stove that night.
Gilson's parents split when he was 16, and the divorce forced his independence. "My mom used to joke that when I was a kid, I'd always say, 'Let me do it myself,' " Gilson says back in the truck. "And that's sort of remained true . . ." The narrow roads twist. Sheep speckle a field on the right.
". . .Until last year," Gilson continues, "when I said, 'I need help.' "
Gilson describes his "year in culinary purgatory." Having spent five years "making something out of nothing" at Garden at the Cellar, he itched to do something else. "I had just outgrown it," he says. The fundraising dinner for his mother showed him that he had reach in the community. "It makes you start thinking. It makes you start asking, 'What are you doing? Where are you going?' "
In the spring of 2011, Gilson, down in Fort Myers, Florida, for a father-son trip to spring training, got a phone call. A restaurant down on the Cape, in Truro, was available for takeover for the summer season.
"I talked it over with my dad," Gilson says. "He's my voice of reason." His father urged him to do it, said it seemed like just the sort of excuse Gilson needed to step away from Garden. "It didn't have to be right," says Gilson, "but it had to be right now." Three weeks later, he'd sold his share of Garden and was making plans for Truro.
A year ago, Gilson finished his summer stint and returned to Boston. "I had no job, no income, and no irons in the fire," he says, sitting at a table on a back patio at the Lyceum, squirrels in a frenzy over hickory nuts nearby. "It was one of the darkest periods of my life."
Gilson catalogues the jobs he took, a list he relays the way one describes a nightmare, with the amused relief of waking up. He taught a class at Newbury College. He cooked for a catering company. "I had gone from being a celebrity chef at one of their events, and now I was in the doldrums, cooking food for people who weren't coming to eat what I was making." He worked on a yacht for a week, for someone he refused to name, barefoot and alone in a galley kitchen. "It was one of the hardest things to do," he says. "I was given a list of food and told to prepare it." And he worked for an accounting firm doing staff-appreciation events.
Daisy, a gray-faced golden retriever, trots over for a nuzzle as if on cue. "Each one was a paycheck to get to the next paycheck."
He rented out the condo he owned in Somerville and moved back to Groton for eight months, sleeping in his childhood bedroom. Some remnants of a younger Gilson remain: beer bottles line a mantel; an old Nelly album and the soundtrack to Rush Hour 2 sit in a box labeled "rap CDs." There used to be more Aerosmith posters, Gilson says.
Doubt hounded him that year. He worried that the restaurant world had bested him, that he lacked what it took to succeed. "It was rock bottom," he says. "But rock bottom helps you refocus. I had to hit rock bottom to be able to see."