It’s not uncommon for people to follow career paths unrelated to their academic degrees. Some decide being employed takes priority over waiting for jobs in their majors. Others discover pursuing a passion is more rewarding than doing work they prepared for in college. That is the case for a South Boston chef who walked away from a corporate gig to cook in restaurant kitchens.
“I really wanted to do something that made me happy and something I could be proud of. “I knew that I loved cooking, which I found peace in. I don’t think I could live without cooking. This was it for me,” says Lambert Givens, the executive chef at Hunter’s Kitchen & Bar.
Building a Cooking Career in South Boston
As a 20-something college business grad, Givens figured out pretty fast that his heart was not in the telecommunications job he landed. So in 2017, he joined the Broadway Restaurant Group as a line cook and began his professional culinary training. “My first real restaurant job was at Capo Italian Restaurant & Supper Club in South Boston. I started under Nicholas Dixon. He really took me under his wing, and I learned a lot,” Hunter’s executive chef acknowledges.
Chef Dixon is the Broadway Restaurant Group’s culinary director. He guided Givens through his climb up the ranks in some of the area’s most frequented restaurants. “Just being able to have that ability to rotate through the restaurants, learn from different chefs and cooks was an amazing opportunity,” says Givens. “I kept going with it and kept working hard. Having the success of Hunter’s and how things are going right now makes me think, what a great journey.”
The chef-in-training trekked through the group’s Fat Baby sushi restaurant and Lincoln Tavern gastro pub before becoming part of the team that opened Hunter’s Kitchen & Bar in August 2021. “I had tons of input. The culinary director and I worked together. He entrusted me to use my culinary imagination and let me do things the right way,” Givens remarks.
While there was some debate about what Hunter’s concept would be, the new executive chef knew he wanted a menu reflecting the food from his childhood. The Southern comfort cuisine served at the Boston restaurant includes some updated versions of family recipes.
“We have collard greens, which have always been in my family. We did switch out the vinegar flavor and cherry peppers that are part of the family recipe. We added smoked bacon,” notes Givens.
Diners on social media rave about the restaurant’s fried chicken and waffles, mac and cheese, Bayou shrimp and grits, and biscuits with Vermont honey butter. Chef Givens brags about the chicken and dumplings he makes.
“We do a smoked pulled chicken, and then we have a variety of seasonal vegetables that we do with that. We’ve gone through different recipes for dumplings, but I think this one is fluffy, light and delicious. Then we make our own herb gravy, and that’s what makes the dish.”
People who know him call Lambert “Lambo.” The seafood gumbo Roberta Williams taught him is one of the dishes attracting long lines to Hunter’s. Givens describes his Lambo’s Gumbo, which is a bit less traditional than his grandmother’s and shows off the quality of fresh seafood available in Boston.
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“We have shrimp and Dungeness crab in it and use homemade andouille sausage. We like cooking it a little longer and adding some extra flavors to elevate the gumbo and make it a little spicier.”
Beating Bobby’s Best Gumbo
Grandma’s gumbo lessons paid off when Givens battled a celebrity chef on Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay.” The show’s judges chose the seafood gumbo Givens made over Bobby’s version in an August 2022 episode. A nationwide audience watched Hunter’s executive chef get the best of the seldom-defeated Flay.
“Being able to have the opportunity to go up against a household name like Bobby Flay and come out victorious, it’s a dream come true,” says the Boston chef. “It meant that all my hard work wasn’t for nothing, and cooking is really something that was meant for me.”
“It meant that all my hard work wasn’t for nothing, and this was really something meant for me.” Givens is also gratified by the excitement his win generated. “It was huge. People loved it. I think it’s been a while since someone in Boston won something like that. A lot of people were very excited.”
Hunter’s has become a destination for some travelers who saw the chef make his winning gumbo. “I knew what it would mean for my career and Hunter’s Kitchen & Bar. We’re such a young restaurant. It’s pretty crucial for us to have someone co-sign our food as the real deal,” says Givens.
The chef’s competitive spirit welcomes other opportunities to test his culinary skills on televised cooking contests. Food Network’s “Chopped” might be too intense, but “Guy’s Grocery Games” would be light-hearted enough and more enjoyable for Givens.
Connected to Cooking in Connecticut
The Connecticut native cherishes the times he spent cooking with his family and sharing meals, especially Sunday dinners. “After church, I would go to the picking patch with my grandmother and pick fresh vegetables and things for dinner. Then we would spend our day cooking and making delicious recipes,” Givens recalls. “We’ve always sat down together as a family to have dinner. That’s definitely something I plan to do once I start my own family.”
The former football player got another taste of bonding over food when he cooked for teammates and friends at South Carolina State University. “I was hiding my toaster oven, crock pot, mini- fryer and things like that,” Givens admits. “When dorm inspections came, it was a scramble to run things to the car. They weren’t supposed to be in our room. I consider myself a little bit of a rule breaker.”
Some rules are meant to be followed – like the one being on a sports team taught him. “Having it feel like a family. That’s what being an athlete and on a sports team is like. It’s helped me become a leader by taking on my restaurant team as a family and not just co-workers,” says Chef Lambo.
As a leader, he values keeping an open mind, sharing knowledge, and seeking the opinions of those working with him in the kitchen. “I think it’s all about the cooks. It’s learning from them and being able to teach them at the same time. They really are the backbone of the restaurant.”
Chef Givens emphasizes how much he enjoys learning new things about cooking and demonstrating his dedication to excellence. “I think work ethic is the part that helps you lead a team. The team gets behind someone who is hardworking and always there. My competitiveness and wanting to be better help me lead the team.”
Preparing for Restaurant Ownership
The Southern-comfort-inspired dishes coming out of Hunter’s small kitchen are meant to evoke the same coziness and warmth as the restaurant’s two fireplaces and gleaming wood décor. Chef Givens gets a kick out of observing reactions to his team’s hard work. “Nothing is better than looking into the restaurant and seeing people enjoy their food. Bringing smiles to people’s faces from just the flavors you can create is joy. It is love,” adds Givens.
The restaurant at 110 Dorchester Street is open for brunch, lunch and dinner. The menu lists soups, salads, snacks, sandwiches, suppers, fixins, family-style meals and sweets. The experience of having worked with the carousel of chefs mastering the Broadway Restaurant Group’s variety of cuisines helps Givens and his staff handle the extensive offerings. “If there’s one thing I can get behind about Hunter’s, it is the consistency. We take so much pride in that,” he says.
Chef Lambo had praise-worthy cooking skills when he started his professional career but picked up knife work and plating techniques through on-the-job training. Being furloughed for six months during the COVID pandemic taught him other lessons. “Being able to stick through it and learning how to cut food and labor costs, learn things that can help keep your business afloat.”
Givens will not forget how critical an efficient takeout system can be to a restaurant’s survival. He will take that knowledge with him as he continues his culinary journey. “I haven’t even tapped into what I’m really capable of yet. The goal is to keep growing as a chef. I’ve always dreamed of having my own restaurant. There’s nothing I want more than that.”
When the time comes for Givens to fulfill that dream, he might recall the advice he received from multi-restaurant millionaire Bobby Flay. “He said to keep working hard and doing what you are doing.”
That is the same instruction Hunter’s executive chef would pass on to young cooks today. “I would say just don’t give up, especially if this is something you are passionate about making your life’s work. You have to understand there are ups and downs in life, and your time will come.”