Rachel Miller

Grandma’s Jewish recipes inspire Lynn chef’s rise to the top

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Grandma’s Jewish recipes inspire Lynn chef’s rise to the top

Rachel Miller

A Jewish chef in Lynn has been shortlisted for the James Beard Foundation 2023 Outstanding Chef award.

Rachel Miller, executive chef of Nightshade Noodle Bar and owner of the neighboring Sin City Superette, has come a long way from working 80-hour weeks at a doughnut shop and a burger joint.

“All I’ve ever wanted is to be a semifinalist one day – in, like, a regional category,” she said. “Now being a finalist in the top five in the country? That’s insane! I’m over the moon.”

Seven years ago, Miller moved to the North Shore without knowing much about it beyond that she had a spot in a friend’s apartment there. “I’d heard of Lynn before,” she said, “but nothing particularly good.”

She was going through a breakup at the time, and just needed a new place to live. When she moved, some of the buildings in downtown Lynn were boarded up, and most of the businesses were older.

“You know, 40-year-old diners, and stuff like that,” she said. “And it was great. I loved it. I still love it.” She was between jobs at the time, helping out chef friends when she could, working private dinners and running Nightshade Pop-Ups around the North Shore. She had breakfast every morning across the street from her apartment, at a diner called Campus Coffee. Two years into making Lynn her home, the owners of that diner happened to retire. They sold Miller the property, and Nightshade Noodle Bar was born.

Though she’s lived in three apartments since then, Miller has stayed on that same downtown block, tethered – joyously – to her restaurant. Her life, quite literally, orbits around her kitchen. “Even when we’re closed, I just wake up and come here,” she said. “I just love it.”

Miller grew up in the South, spending school years at her mother’s home in Virginia and summers with other relatives in Louisiana. Jewish holidays were celebrated with her maternal grandmother, who lived next door to her mom.

“We had a huge mixed family, all nationalities, and people from all different walks of life,” Miller said. “I didn’t realize that was special until I was long gone. We all did everything under a Jewish umbrella there.”

Jewish food meant something different for Miller than for most of us; holidays would feature Filipino or Dominican food, and Sephardic French-Moroccan and Southern flavors always would find ways to permeate the kitchen, no matter who was cooking.

“I really value my Jewish heritage,” Miller said. “It’s a part of my personality, and it’s part of my food and my existence.” Her connection to Judaism and to food is tied closely to her relationship with her grandmother. She particularly recalls the doughnuts that her grandmother would make on Hanukkah, a traditional Moroccan treat called sfenj. Her grandmother would mix the dough in a big clay pot, fry the stuff on the stove, and serve the doughnuts drenched in thick honey and rich butter.

“I spent a lot of time in her kitchen and in her garden, smelling that food,” she said, “That was always so exciting for me, as a kid.”

That excitement followed Miller up north when she got on a bus to Boston at age 18 for an entry-level butcher job in the South End. By that point, Miller had already been working two simultaneous full-time jobs for years, at Mississippi doughnut shops and local Burger Kings. She dropped out of high school early in her sophomore year, and for almost three years, she would pull off 80-hour work weeks as she pulled herself up in the food world.

She was a dishwasher, a line chef and then, eventually, a butcher. “That jump started my career a lot,” she said, “I got a head start on everybody in my age group.”

This leap was particularly important for Miller, who noted that, as a queer Jewish woman in the South, she possessed “a triple whammy of things that ‘weren’t awesome’ in kitchens.” She faced her share of insults, missed opportunities, and disrespect in her work, especially early on in her career. But she still kept her focus on food. “I was always so headstrong and stubborn and aggressive,” she said. “I didn’t let people get in my way.”

Miller continued to work her way up in the food world, eventually graduating to work as the executive sous chef at Cambridge’s Bondir in 2009, and then sous chef and chef de cuisine at Boston’s Clio in 2013. After years working as a private chef and operating pop-ups around Boston, Miller opened Nightshade Noodle Bar in 2019, where she specializes in Vietnamese- and French inspired seafood and noodle dishes.

Miller’s food remains heavily influenced by her upbringing – her menu is interwoven with flavors both from her grandmother’s Sephardic French-Moroccan kitchen and her personal affinity for Southern spice. “It’s the way that we season food,” she said. “Having a place in my heart for stronger-flavored food is really helpful for my business, and for our food culture, and identity.”

Despite nearly 20 years as a professional chef, Miller has never dared to replicate her grandmother’s sfenj, those crispy, buttery, sweet doughnuts from her childhood.

“My grandmother gave me the recipe,” she admitted, “But I just don’t even want to attempt it. I don’t want to mess up my good memory.” Still, though the doughnuts themselves might remain in Miller’s memory, the flavors might soon appear on Nightshade’s menu. “Maybe as an ice cream dish in the next couple of weeks,” mused Miller. “When the weather warms up.”

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