Not all ingredients are equal. When you’re a young kid just starting out as a chef, you’re learning to tell the difference between the quality levels of different ingredients, and most of the time, quality levels are differentiated by price. (For example: A chicken Parmigiana is going to taste different if you use a Bell and Evans chicken versus a lesser expensive generic chicken.) And sometimes, those choices will make your food taste real different each time you make it. It’s important to remember that you’re always only as good as the ingredients you use.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Paul Delios, President/Co-owner/Creative Director, Kane’s Donuts.
Longtime Boston chef Paul Delios is the creative director, president and co-owner of New England icon, Kane’s Donuts.
In 2007, the former chef/owner of Charlestown’s Paolo’s Trattoria and nationally recognized Greek restaurant Mezé (and, a James Beard House guest chef invited for his skilled interpretations of traditional Mediterranean cuisine) assumed daily- and growth-management operations of Kane’s, his family’s longtime business and the Boston area’s OG handcrafted donut shop now celebrating its 65th year.
Today — as a chef-driven company with three locations — Kane’s is a lauded top-10 U.S. donut destination known for Instagrammable flavors; an expansive daily menu featuring Delios’ monthly, outside-the-white-box specials; a dedication to local ingredients; and Kane’s Gluten Free (KGF)…recognized as one of the country’s best line of gluten-free donuts (12 daily flavors) made by a traditional donut shop, in the traditional way: kettle-cooked.
Under Delios’ leadership, Kane’s has appeared on the Travel Channel’s Donut Paradise and in countless local television clips; its signature Honey-Dip Donut was named the best glazed donut in the country by Travel + Leisure magazine; Kane’s was named one of the U.S. top-10 donut shops by Bon Appetite magazine; and local and national media outlets (USAToday; Yankee magazine; Yelp) regularly include it on annual donut “best of” lists.
In 2014, Delios co-wrote At The Greek Table: Contemporary twists on traditional tastes (and the wine to serve with each bite!). He’s currently developing a short-form, chef-on-the-street series chronicling Boston’s best unsung city eats with production partner Jason Faulkner of the podcast and social media brand, Old Dirty Boston. Delios lives in Wakefield, Mass., with his wife Jean of 25 years, and their dog, Mary.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
Our readers would love to “get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
Having grown up in a family that was steeped in the history of food service (both my grandfathers owned restaurants and so did my parents), I also watched my family in their home environments preparing food, and I always loved it. And seeing my mom and dad and all of my friends’ moms preparing food, too, inspired my love of different cuisines.
I grew up in a predominantly Italian neighborhood, close to the ocean, where the availability of fresh fish and shellfish was an everyday thing. So with the ability to have fresh ingredients; the knowledge I gained from my friends’ moms cooking; and my own family — my grandfather on my mom’s side was classical trained in France and on Dad’s side, my grandfather had a restaurant in Greece — I guess guess it’s in the blood.
There’s an old Greek word called filoxenía, which literally translates to “unmatched hospitality.” When people came into my restaurants (and when they come into the donut shop now), I’ve always tried to provide the best of the best…food, quality, etc. There’s nothing better for a chef than to see people smile when they’re eating their food.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
The first food I fell in love with and was making at a young age at home was pizza. Making my own crust. Using homemade cheese. I was probably 7 years old and my mother would wake up to the smell of pizza in the oven…and it was me! I never asked for permission…I just started messing with the stove.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
The funniest moment? I have one that’s more ironic than laugh-out-loud funny…from when a local celebrity chef came into my restaurant to “check out” everything I had in the kitchen restaurant and flipped out because I had a wood-burning oven. He stomped out, actually.
In another instance, I was invited to a restaurant when a reporter tried to put me on the spot by asking about the nearby competition in the neighborhood where I was opening my first restaurant. He tried to ruffle my feathers about why I wasn’t more afraid of being near one of Boston’s more well-known chefs…but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of an anxious answer.
“Now there will be another option for all the patrons in the neighborhood,” I said cooly, “and it’ll only enhance the dining experience. Just like the 174 Italian restaurants in the North End, we hope to help pull more business in.”
I don’t know if you’d call those “funny” stories, but the reporter was trying to mess with me (and the other chef by creating friction where there wasn’t any. As for a take-away from both situations…I like to feed on being as good as I possibly can be: I am my own competition. I don’t feed on rivalry. It’s been 20 years since that stuff happened and I still feel the same way.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
My very first restaurant business was a catering company that we housed at the Gannon Golf Course in Lynn, Mass., and my partner Chris and I started it with 75 dollars each. When we took over the kitchen — which started off by offering hot dogs, grilled foods and other things you could easily eat while golfing — we enjoyed serving the patrons at the bar a bunch of different foods that didn’t have to be “hand-friendly.” We were successful…but it was such a seasonal business. And every time there was a snow storm, I had to find ways to pay my bills.
Our first year, we had 117 inches of snow. I needed to be sure my staff got a paycheck, so I went without one. It was literally one of those “how to survive the winter” situations. That was a tough thing.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
Knowing your customers — knowing what diners gravitate toward more frequently in a particular geographical area — is the key.
Example: If I’m in a pace like Vermont, they’re generally not gonna go crazy over seafood; they’re gonna be more interested in land-based entrees (chicken pot pie, meat, etc.). When I was going to open Paolo’s, I was opening in Charlestown, Mass., which was a stone’s throw from Boston’s Italian neighborhood, the North
End. I literally counted how many people walked over the bridge from our side into the North End to see where they were going. Then, I’d walk around the North End to see who I recognized in restaurants, and I’d ask people out on the street where they’d eaten. That kind of “anthropology” helped me understand that folks in my neighborhood were definitely interested in Italian food (among other things), and that helped me plan my menu.
Now…to come up with a dish that’s successful, I believe in the power of taking popular ingredients and putting them together in ways customers may not be used to but that seem familiar. When I came up with my Farfalle Rustica recipe, since the majority of most meat-eaters love bacon, I sautéed bacon and spinach, and tossed it all with farfalle pasta, garlic and shallots…and since diners go to Italian-inspired restaurants expecting something tossed with a little tomato in it, I added sun-dried tomatoes, too, for added punch. It’s about delivering flavors in an unexpected way.
I also think it’s a help if you have a natural ability to think about how ingredients pair well together, which I’m grateful that I do. (And you don’t have to be a chef to have that skill: Many home cooks do, too.)
Personally, what is the “perfect meal for you?”
I still go back to pizza: My love of it since childhood has lasted me my whole life, and as I bite into each time, each bite is as wondrous as my first. The simplicity of taking flour, water and yeast, and putting a couple simple toppings on top turns it into something magical.
Now: Not to say that I don’t enjoy sitting down to the simplicity of hearty bowl of bolognese on homemade tagliatelle and it’s simplicity, but pizza’s always been my first love. (And you know what they say about your first love….)
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
A lot of times it’s basic seasonality that drives my inspiration. When it’s squash season, I want to find ways to use butternut squash. (Being of Greek heritage, a lot of times I’ll shred some butternut squash and combine it with onions and leeks and turn it into a phyllo pie). Warmer weather? I like to plant my own garden, so as different harvests become available throughout the year, I’ll generally prepare meals for my wife and I according to what’s on hand. When I had my restaurants, that same perspective drove what dishes I prepared for my guests.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
I’m trying to formulate a new cookbook. My first cookbook leaned heavy on my Greek heritage. But going back to something I said earlier…I’ve always been grateful that I can look at different ingredients and know how they’d work together, and I tend to do that with different cuisines, as well. This next cookbook is based on my all-time favorite foods and dishes and how they cross the lines of different cultures.
At Kane’s Donuts, I’m going to continue to develop the new menu items we launched in 2020 (which was our 65th anniversary)…namely, “Kane’s Pantry,” our new line of kitchen staples based off of some of our most popular donut fillings — think seedless black raspberry jam and blueberry jam; marmalade; and a cranberry preserve — so that folks can have the tools they need to cook like a chef (or simply enjoy a taste of Kane’s at home).
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Offer to pay people a living wage who work for you, so you can surround yourself with the most talented individuals…because it will allow you the ability to step away from the business from time to time while knowing that it’s good hands. That kind of freedom allows you the chance to plan for extended vacation time and, as most chefs do, to conduct food research when your’e away. I’ve been fortunate to have traveled throughout Europe, the Caribbean and the Southwest, and I’ve been able to add many flavors and dishes to my cooking repertoire…but I wouldn’t have been able to do that without a staff that I can trust. In the end, it’s always translated to more seats in my restaurants, because every time I come back to work, I return with a new sense of excitement about food, and the new and different ways I can prepare it for the enjoyment of my customers.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
At Kane’s? The Honey-Dip Donut. It’s a yeast-raised, brioche style donut made with fresh, local, organic honey mixed into the glaze, and they’re generously sized. They were named a top-10 honey-dip in the country by Travel + Leisure magazine for their simplicity (and deliciousness).
And the one dish people had to try at my former restaurant, Paolo’s? The Bolognese.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Your love for cooking sometimes has to take a backseat to building a business. In 2007 my father asked me if I would help take over our family business. I did this along with my siblings…but because I had the most experience in the restaurant industry, the bulk of growing Kane’s fell to me. And to do that, it meant I had to put my personal involvement in the industry as a restaurateur on hold. It was the right decision, and it’s not like I’ve been out of the industry, but running and growing a donut brand is very different from cooking meals with your own hands every night for your own customers. It was hard. But it was right.
2) Not all ingredients are equal. When you’re a young kid just starting out as a chef, you’re learning to tell the difference between the quality levels of different ingredients, and most of the time, quality levels are differentiated by price. (For example: A chicken Parmigiana is going to taste different if you use a Bell and Evans chicken versus a lesser expensive generic chicken.) And sometimes, those choices will make your food taste real different each time you make it. It’s important to remember that you’re always only as good as the ingredients you use.
3) Don’t believe your own BS. When people throw accolades at you, don’t listen. Other people will often talk about your business, but your job is to actually go about doing it. Not that feedback isn’t important…but what’s more important is not believing the hype. Keep your head down and do your job.
4) Always put work and family into proper perspective. Without the strength and support from family or a support system at home, this industry can be very hard. Make sure you put your life partner on an equal level as your business, and when you’re in the throes of work, don’t forget how important it is to have work, family AND play.
5) Whenever possible, try to open your restaurant on your own. Partners are great, but only when you dance well together. Often, partners don’t work well in creative situations and most chefs in restaurant situations find themselves in an artist’s role; but let’s face it: Michelangelo almost went mad painting with a pope over his shoulder. If you have partners invested in your business, they will drive you crazy.
The only partnerships I suggest having are ones where you both can dance well together…where they can keep up with you and you can keep up with them. And always pay people back, so you can sleep at night and then like what you see in the mirror in the morning.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would inspire people to grow their own gardens, and eat more vegetables so that we could be less reliant on animal protein. We’re hurting the environment. Doing this would help cure disease and increase people’s longevity much like the way life is in the Blue Zones around the world.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.