Restaurants in Jamaica Plain tend to be predominantly staffed with local residents. With affordable housing becoming harder and harder to find, more and more people who work in the service industry are unable to live in Jamaica Plain. Today we’re talking to hospitality extraordinaire and JP resident Catherine Rosseel about the importance of community in the service industry, the future of affordable housing and her JP-famous dog Weatie. 

K: Where are you from originally? 

C: I am originally from Southborough, Massachusetts.  I went to school in upstate New York and lived for a short time in Brazil but I’ve spent most of my adult life in Boston.  I’ve lived in Harvard Square, Davis Square, Coolidge Corner, but I have found my home in Jamaica Plain.

K: How long have you lived in Jamaica Plain?

C: I’ve lived in Jamaica Plain for the last 15 years. Before I moved to Jamaica Plain, I only had a handful of friends that lived here.  Whenever I would come to visit them from Cambridge I remember feeling like it was miracle that I arrived in one piece at their door.  The Jamaicaway and the rotaries in Jamaica Plain are not for amateur drivers.

K: You’ve done a lot of work in the service industry in Jamaica Plain. How did you get started in the industry?

C: I’ve been working in the hospitality industry since I was 14 years old.  I’m not sure how I slid under the radar in terms of my age but I worked at this small delicatessen in my hometown making sandwiches and incorrectly counting change at the register.  I worked at a Marriott hotel in Westborough throughout high school as a server, host, and even an omelet chef at the weekend buffet…until I flipped an omelet unsuccessfully and it landed on the burner and set the fire alarm off at the hotel.  I loved the idea of creating a home away from home for people who were regulars at the hotel and I felt at home in what could feel like chaos to others in the restaurant world.

During high school I applied to the hospitality program at UMASS Amherst but decided to go the liberal arts route instead and ended up at Colgate in Hamilton, New York. Like a lot of young people who need to support themselves through school, I continued to bartend through college and was a restaurant server during the summers.

My concentration was Latin American studies and Spanish and my first job out of college was at an organization affiliated with Harvard that administered scholarship programs for students from Latin America.  For the next decade or so I continued to work at Harvard University in various programs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Global Health Initiative through the Provost Office.  Even though I loved the mission-driven work of the organizations I worked for, I never felt completely at ease in the confines of an office.  It was rare to leave the office and really be ‘done for the day’ when there would be 300 unread emails in my inbox.  I think that is stress that most people feel all the time now since there seem to be fewer boundaries between home and work life.

K: So how did you end up back in restaurants?

C: When I was trying to figure out if I was going to move or go back to graduate school my friend Maura was working at Bella Luna and I always loved the energy of that place. To me it felt like the YMCA combined with a great bar and restaurant. Like most people who get back into serving after a long hiatus, you bargain with yourself that this will only be temporary. You say ‘Just six months or so until I figure out my next steps.’  So of course I was there for about four years.

K: Four years? Wow!

C: I know, right?  Anything over a year is a ‘long time’ in the restaurant industry.  The reason that I stayed there as long as I did is in many ways the same reason that I decided to not pack it up for California: the community.  To date it was probably the most genuinely diverse places I’ve worked.  So many communities in JP felt that there was a place for them at the table there. Because of that there was this really rich, eclectic, fun vibe that people loved.  I’ve made lifelong friends from my time there.  We affectionately referred to ourselves as the island of misfit toys because none of us had a typical restaurant background.

After a short stint working downtown in the Financial District, I came running back to our neighborhood when there was an opportunity to work at Tres Gatos.  I love that place.  Every night I work there it feels like you’re literally hosting an amazing dinner party in your apartment.  It’s cozy in the front, has a killer book and record store in the back, and what happens in between is nothing short of a surprise.  That sounds weird to say when you’re talking about food but Stephen’s food is like that – a surprise.  It’s that good.  It wakes your mouth up after a long slumber of eating perfectly fine, even really good, meals out in a metropolitan city like Boston.  It makes going out to eat fun again.  It makes my job, primarily making people happy, so much easier.

There are so many great restaurants in Jamaica Plain and of course in Boston so I always feel grateful that people chose to come to Tres Gatos when they walk in that door.  I feel like I’m the ambassador for the restaurant but also for Jamaica Plain because there are so many people who are new to the neighborhood or who are visiting friends and family.  I get to share with them table side what makes JP awesome and unique like the festivals (Wake Up the Earth, JP Lantern Parade, Porchfest), best dog walks (Peter’s Hill in the Arboretum and Jamaica Pond), best cafes con leches (El Oriental) and all sorts of random tidbits depending on the day.


Catherine working at Tres Gatos.

The reason Jamaica Plain is so special is that it’s run like a small town.  It’s amazing that we are 10 minutes from downtown Boston because I sometimes feel like I’m in a small town in the midwest.  On any given day I run into people who I’ve waited on the week before at Tres Gatos.  When I’m grabbing coffee at City Feed and looking like a zombie sometimes people can’t place that I’m actually the woman who was wearing make up and looking somewhat knowledgeable about Spanish wine the night before. Other regulars I know on a first name basis.  I’ve seen them come in on a blind date, eventually get engaged, then married and even have their first date night out with their new baby.  Now that was over the course of working at both Bella Luna and Tres Gatos but that is why it’s so important for people to be able to work and live in the same place.  You can bear witness to people’s lives.

K: I feel like the thing that makes JP restaurants so fun to patron is because your neighbors and friends are the ones working there. Would you say you agree?

C: Absolutely! And that’s what people want. That’s what makes it feel unique and comforting.  People remember how they feel about a place long after they’ve eaten there.  I want people to feel welcomed, like they matter, like we’re all in this together. I want them to have a break from it all – especially in this year’s election cycle.

K: Would you say that the people who you know working in the service industry in JP aren’t living in JP? 

C: I know people are trying to stay in Jamaica Plain but it’s bordering on impossible of late when you look at Craigslist, Zillow or Trulia.  I think that it’s become this insane norm that if you want to live in an apartment in Jamaica Plain you should assume that you’ll pay at least a $1,000 per room if you’re lucky to find one at that entry-level price.  I say this with love because one of my friends had put a lot of work painting and decorating that apartment but I think to myself ‘Really?  The landlord thinks it’s fair to charge $2,400 for this tiny two-bedroom in a triple-decker that hasn’t received any updates in years?’  And the answer is ‘Yes’ because they can.  The landlord’s answer was that property values are rising and they need to pass that on tax increase to the renters.  And I’m sure that is somewhat true due to all the new luxury apartment developments that are springing up.  Perhaps to people who are in a different income bracket, the idea of going through the rigmarole of moving over a few hundred dollars doesn’t seem relatable but these are make it or break it numbers for people in the industry.

Sometimes when I look at the skyrocketing price for homes in Jamaica Plain and all over Boston it reminds me of a story I heard on NPR about 10 years ago when the real estate market blew up in Silicon Valley. It was no longer feasible for ‘regular’ people to live there.  The problem was that then the city lost its human infrastructure because the people who made that city run couldn’t afford to live there.  There were stories of these firemen, policemen, service industry folks who worked in cafes, having to creatively find places to sleep – not live – but sleep during the week while they worked in Silicon Valley.  Their actual homes would be like a two-hour drive away.  Come on.  We can do better than that.

I love Roslindale too.  It has a commuter rail but there is no subway.  I think that is why it’s still a ‘little bit’ cheaper to rent there than Jamaica Plain.  I have two sets of friends that I work with who’ve had to move from their apartments in Jamaica Plain and have landed in Roslindale in the last couple of months.  In both cases, their landlords were increasing their rent another $200-$400 and it wasn’t really feasible for them to pay that increase on what was already a stretch for them to begin with.

K: Do you have a favorite memory of Jamaica Plain? You probably have so many.

C: I have a ton of crazy memories.  Most of my favorite memories are when things happened organically and spontaneously in Jamaica Plain.  During that killer winter a couple of years back where we were all essentially living in snow tunnels.  A couple of neighbors built their own ice bar in the front yard and started having cocktail hours for any neighbors who were going stir crazy inside or for weary snow shovelers.  I loved that. (See picture here:  I remember other snowy nights being able to walk down to the Brendan Behan with Weatie for a pint.  She loved it there but I think eventually they had to stop allowing dogs in the bar.  They were drinking too much Frenet and starting fights.  Hahaha.

K: Weatie is a pretty popular dog around these parts isn’t she?

C:  She’s 11 and she has friends everywhere. Everybody knows her. She is a JP dog.  Weatie has a whole map in her mind about which vendors have dog treats behind the counter. She always tries to pull into Mount Washington Bank, even if it’s midnight and the bank is closed. Everyone at the bank knows Weatie.  They have her come up to the counter and put her paw up on it like a customer so that she can get her treat.  It’s adorable.

Weatie at the bank.

Weatie at the bank.

Then we’ll stop and say ‘Hi’ to Daniel and Jeb’s dog, Wilma, at New Leaf Florist.  She’ll then do some retail therapy at On Centre or Boomerangs where she’ll pretend she’s looking at jewelry so that they’ll give her a biscuit. Finally we move on to Fiore’s Bakery and sit outside in their new back patio and have a late breakfast.

Beside the people, the real reason I live in Jamaica Plain is for the green space.  I walk in the Arnold Arboretum almost every day with Weatie.  I feel so grateful to have access to that kind of beauty so close to the city.  It’s amazing to be among those trees and see them change season to season.  I was there just a couple of weeks ago and Weatie and I didn’t even notice that there was a redtail hawk preparing his lunch, a squirrel, about ten feet from us.  I think we get a little too blissed out there when we don’t notice a bird of prey sitting on the same hill as us.

Catherine's dog Weatie at The Arboretum.

Catherine’s dog Weatie at The Arboretum.

K: What would you like to see happen in JP in the future?

C: I want it to continue to be vibrant, genuinely diverse, great food, great music, culturally rich, weird, late night T service, protected green space, dog friendly, a fully funded and renovated community arts center for Spontaneous Celebrations.  I’d love for there to be a small movie theater maybe during the off-season at Footlight Theater!   I want it to continue to progress and hold on to what makes it JP and not become another neighborhood that gets sterilized by gentrification. There used to be a bumper sticker on a car I would always see around town that read ‘Keep JP Loopy!’

I want to see more affordable housing and it’s so important that JPNDC is making sure that happens. It is so sad to me to see my friends who are artists or who work in the restaurant industry or are families or aren’t making more than $150,000 can’t afford to live here. I have a very unique living situation with my generous friend, otherwise I don’t think I could afford to live in Jamaica Plain on my own.

Housing will continue to be a crisis. I think housing, just like health insurance, is a basic human right, and as long as we can stand behind that, there are many creative options to ensure that everyone has a place at the table.