A Local Dining Mosh Pit


by Emily Gross


Gabriela Herman

The leader of ONCE, JJ Gonson.  

It was upon having children that personal chef JJ Gonson realized her passion for local food. JJ is a woman around whom people, food and laughter revolve. Having other mouths to feed besides her own inspired her to evaluate our food system, and thus she decided to take that concern and turn it into a lifestyle. Previously, she worked as a Portland, Oregon, rock music photographer, where her workspace became the place for all things grungy and loud, and now she is a chef, a mother, and a self-proclaimed “hardcore locavore.”

Although her focus is now on carrots and pork fat, rather than guitarists and mosh pits, she still maintains the energy, spontaneity, and intuition required in the world of finding the right shot. This internalized intense focus, which could appear to others as random and incoherent, is how she takes on the task of providing different communities with meals she and her team call One Night Culinary Events, or ONCE.

Over the past five years, JJ and her team, Cambridge-based Cuisine en Locale, have put on over 25 ONCE dinners. They have been held across the country, from Portland, Oregon to New York City. ONCEs occur as spontaneously as they can, based on a spur of JJ’s imagination. She has a group of cohorts who will follow wherever she leads as soon as a ONCE is announced on Cuisine en Locale’s website and Facebook page. The meals are a production, themed around the source of ingredients, time of year, or simply a flood of inspiration that often seems to overcome the chef. The purpose of the meal is to use only local resources and give them back to the community, providing guests wildly diverse dinners with a minimum of 14 courses.

Much of the inspiration for JJ’s cooking is rooted in her personal philosophy. “We’ve built our lives around saving pennies on toilet paper,” she says, and thus
JJ has boycotted supermarkets altogether. “It can be stupid and restrictive, but it’s my philosophy, not to be imposed on others.” You won’t hear JJ spewing out facts or numbers on the benefits of her diet or the pitfalls of the culinary world that has developed in America. She has a priority ladder when it comes to the food she prepares: flavor comes first, then nutrition, and finally economy and community.

JJ was eager to return to Martha’s Vineyard for what she called ONCE MV 2, the culinary event she held on the Island in August 2011. The first ONCE MV had been held the previous August. In 2001, JJ and her family moved to the Island for four years, after intending to stay only seven weeks. Since then, she’s moved off the Island and has been living in Cambridge with her family, ringleading Cuisine en Locale and its crew of cooks.

This time around, for ONCE MV 2, she arrived with a promise: a delicious meal, unlike anything she and the ONCE crew had ever done before.

JJ’s process of gathering resources is like a scavenger hunt without clues. Arriving at farm after farm, store after store, she simply asks what is good. “If it’s terrible, we won’t use it,” the culinary artist says, straight-forward and with an understanding that this seemingly obvious philosophy is not always adopted. At the suggestions of the farmers and chefs, she encounters what is in season, grown or raised on the Island, and most importantly, delicious.

For ONCE MV 2, JJ gathered 100 pounds of chicken from The GOOD Farm. She picked up jars of Aquinnah Sea Salt from 7a Foods, bought Morning Glory Farm zucchinis and rainbow carrots, and found various other goods from around the Vineyard: lobsters, blueberries, mussels, and milk.

She is formulating her menu at every moment; ideas for ingredients and dishes come out as she excitedly plans the meal. JJ says, “It’s a constant work in progress.” Nobody really knows what will end up on your plate until it is in front of you: heaping piles of freshly cooked vegetables, pork, chicken, and clams asking to be simultaneously devoured and appreciated for their taste, freshness, and unexpectedness.

If you’ve experienced the planning of ONCE, you’re expecting havoc to tumble out of the kitchen. The truth is, the culmination of the week’s work is the opposite. JJ shares her menu with diners as excitedly as she has prepared it. She expresses gratitude for the opportunity she gets to be surrounded by guests and loved ones. All get to experience the warmth of the food and the care that has gone into preparing the dinner.

JJ has accumulated followers who return to and travel for ONCE in order to be enveloped in an atmosphere of family-style dining, and the assurance of both source and excellence of the meals she prepares.

For ONCE MV 2, the cover fee of $65 per person was a contribution. JJ and her team make no profit. For the amount of food consumed, the impromptu dining atmosphere, and the preparation that the ONCE chefs provide, the meal is well worth that donation.

JJ’s staff works because they want to; they refer to the job informally as an apprenticeship. Every member of the ONCE team has a personality and role as large as head chef JJ. They work as they play, and play as they work. It is with this joy and enthusiasm that they can provide meals such as ONCE MV 2, the 14-courser held at the Scottish Bakehouse on the 1st of August in 2011.

The ingredients JJ and her team gathered inspired the menu that included homemade ricotta made with milk from the Grey Barn, blueberry glazed GOOD Farm chicken, and a dessert that JJ calls Bacon is Meat Crumble, made with Scottish Bakehouse oat cake, caramelized Beetlebung Farm onions, and North Tabor Farm bacon.

A ONCE dinner can feel like a marathon, with the same obligatory pacing. Although it is tempting to dive into the first few courses, such as chicken paté or a
chilled seafood salad of Menemsha mussels poached with Offshore Ale IPA (JJ dubs it Salad of the Gods), one must look ahead because there’s Beetlebung Farm leg of lamb, stuffed Menemsha littlenecks, and North Tabor pork shoulder still to come.

After the first round of food was offered, I was already tempted to go back for more. Aquinnah Sea Salt on top of fresh ricotta, sweet cherry tomatoes combined with the crunch of green onions, cucumbers, and carrots were so delicious. The same phenomenon seemed to be occurring among all of the diners, who laughed the night through as they more or less stuffed their faces, eating from the plates and silverware and drinking from the cups and glasses that they brought. As the sun went down, the food continued to get better, and I tried and tried to expand my stomach to hold the taste, the freshness, and the process. The culmination of JJ’s work came together in a moment of community and the food that we shared. Each ONCE must have this feeling. It is the fuel that the dinners run on.