Medical background helped female chef open first Boston restaurant on Newbury

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Chef Leigh Whittaker did not predict that her medical background or business degree would lead her to open her own restaurant two decades into her career. She also never imagined that her first restaurant would be located on one of Boston’s most popular streets.

“I never thought I’d end up on Newbury Street just for various reasons,” Whittaker said. “I cannot be happier that I’m here, to be honest. But it kind of fell into place.”

The culmination of Whittaker’s experiences will come to fruition when her latest business venture — a Mediterranean-influenced restaurant called Le Mari — opens Thursday on Newbury Street in Boston.

The restaurant’s name is French for “the husband,” which Whittaker has affectionately called the endeavor.

“Everyone says, ‘You open a restaurant, and you’re going to be married to it.’ So that’s kind of where that all came from,” Whittaker said during a phone interview.

Around the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic, Whittaker left her 20-year career in the medical device industry to follow her passion for cooking and enter the culinary world.

While Whittaker was “lucky enough to travel the world” for work, she said, “It was time to make a change and do something that was my passion in life.”

“I always loved cooking and you know, anyone I cooked for would always say you, ‘should open a restaurant,’” Whittaker said. “[But] I really didn’t want to just go and open a restaurant without being able to have that experience.”

Le Mari, a Mediterranean-influenced restaurant, is expected to open at 259 Newbury St. in Boston on Thursday, June 13.Alyssa Blumstein Photography

So Whittaker applied and got accepted to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, from which she graduated in June 2021 and continues as an instructor. Shortly after, Whittaker started working in one of New England’s most renowned farm-to-fork restaurants: Earth at Hidden Pond in Kennebunkport, Maine.

But as her summer in Kennebunkport was ending, Whittaker was inspired by female chefs in Boston (including Lydia Shire, Jody Adams and Tiffani Faison) and wanted to come back to the city.

“I worked for a male chef in Maine,” Whittaker said. “It was great to get that experience too, but I really had to come back to Boston and see what made Boston tick and why all of these female chefs were so prominent.”

This led Whittaker to join James Beard winner Karen Akunowicz (who she also idolized) at Fox & The Knife in South Boston in September 2021. At the restaurant, Whittaker trained new line chefs and helped them through the ins and outs of preparing, cooking, and plating dishes that would meet Akunowicz’s strong standards.

Whittaker was then inspired to create her own restaurant that blends her love of sourcing local ingredients with her talent for crafting homemade pasta and her joy of bringing people together.

While looking for a space, she enlisted the help of her restaurant partner Marty Bloom, who has opened dozens of restaurants in Eastern Massachusetts, including Fred’s Turkey House, Bloom’s Prime Rib House, Starbuck’s American Bar and Grill and Stromboli’s.

Le Mari’s previous space was initially going to be leased to Chickadee Group, but “for some reason, the deal kind of fell apart,” Whittaker said.

So, under Bloom’s direction, Whittaker put in a bid for the space. To her surprise, Whittaker beat out multiple bidders because of the connections she developed in her previous career.

“The owner of the Newbury Street Guest House sent me an email and said, ‘Didn’t you recognize my name,’” Whittaker said.

“I hadn’t because I didn’t put two and two together. He and I used to do acquisitions at a medical device company called C. R. Bard back in the day for about five years together,” the chef said. “He said, ‘I stopped all bids because I want you to have this.’”

That encounter laid the groundwork for Le Mari, which is expected to open at 259 Newbury St. on Thursday.

Le Mari, which will be one of a few female-owned restaurants on Newbury Street, is a 1,300-square-foot restaurant and bar that is home to a pair of Parisan-style patios for outdoor dining that can each fit roughly 20 people.

The inside of the restaurant is clad in deep turquoise tones reminiscent of the Aegean Sea and accented with golden hues. The space is outfitted with a mix of traditional seating, high-top tables and banquettes.

There are two bars located in the back of the restaurant: one that seats 18 and one that seats 30. The dining room is complimented with a French mural that hangs along exposed brick.

Crystal chandeliers and sconces providing subtle lighting can also be found throughout the space.

Le Mari

Le Mari, a Mediterranean-influenced restaurant, is expected to open at 259 Newbury St. in Boston on Thursday, June 13.Alyssa Blumstein Photography

The Mediterranean tapas-style restaurant is intended to highlight fresh ingredients and seasonal dishes, from raw preparations and small bites to seafood, pasta and steak offerings. Regarding the menu’s intentionally short list, Whittaker said, “We wanted to keep it reasonable, so that way it was executable.”

“We tried to really take a look at what we felt was kind of the trends in terms of dish size and as well as kind of peoples’ tastes,” she explained. “But you’ll see there’s some kind of unique, different stuff on there and we didn’t want to be like everybody else.”

Le Mari’s menu features items such as scallops with grilled pineapple, duck fat gaufrettes with shallot aioli, caviar and tarroco dust and Cavatelli con vongole (clams) served with squid ink and San Marzano tomatoes.

Le Mari’s drink menu covers a plethora of cocktails and wine selections such as the “Yes, Chef” (Altos blanco, agave and Thai bird chili), “Catchin’ a Flight T’Amaro” (bourbon, Amaro and citrus expression) and the “I’ve Studied Abroad” (Velo vodka, Caffè Borghetti and Tia Maria cold brew).

Le Mari will be open for dinner from 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday. The restaurant is looking to launch weekday lunch and weekend brunch in the coming weeks as well.

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