Jasper White, Chef Who Lifted New England Cuisine, Dies at 69

May 16, 2024
Dining & Wine
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Jasper White, a chef who put New England’s traditional foods on the fine-dining map in the 1980s and mentored a generation of Boston-area chefs, died on Saturday in Boston. He was 69.

His death, at a hospital, was caused by a brain aneurysm, his wife, Kathleen White, said.

At Restaurant Jasper in the North End of Boston, which was open from 1983 to 1995, and later at Jasper White’s Summer Shack, in three locations, Mr. White’s cooking was relentlessly focused on New England ingredients.

“As a chef and as an advocate, he was more responsible than anyone for the revival of oysters and oyster bars in New England,” said Skip Bennett, the founder of Island Creek Oysters, an oyster farm and distributor in Duxbury, Mass.

At a time when Boston’s destination-worthy dishes still included cornmeal pudding at the venerable Durgin-Park restaurant and fish chowder at the upmarket chain Legal Sea Foods, Mr. White developed an elegant but accessible style, based on local and seasonal ingredients like oysters, corn, maple and blueberries.

He neatly encapsulated his approach in his signature dish, pan-roasted lobster, in which he used a Cantonese butchering method, applied a French flambé technique to American bourbon and pulled the flavors together with lashings of butter and fresh herbs. He used maple sugar instead of white sugar to caramelize crème brûlée. He spiked Boston baked beans, traditionally flavored by molasses and salt pork, with thyme, Worcestershire sauce and cider vinegar.

Mr. White received a bachelor’s degree from the Culinary Institute of America in 1976, one of the first classes to graduate after the school, in Hyde Park, N.Y., was accredited in 1971. American chefs were just beginning to express the pride in local ingredients and diverse cooking traditions that led to the New American food revolution. Trained in Old-World tradition, they chafed at the strictness of what was then known as Continental cuisine, based on French recipes and taught at hotel schools around Europe.

With the chef Lydia Shire, Mr. White ran the kitchens at the eminent Boston hotels the Copley Plaza and the Parker House, and the two became New England’s leaders of the movement as it took hold in the 1980s.

“They were the first chefs who brought the attitude that you should pay attention to the ingredients instead of draping sauces over them,” the food writer John “Doc” Willoughby said in a phone interview.

Mr. Willoughby’s first writing assignment was to describe the emerging New American food scene in Boston. “I didn’t think it existed,” he said. “Jasper made me see it.”

Mr. White, he said, shaped and mentored a generation of leading chefs in Boston, including Todd English, Gordon Hamersley, Barbara Lynch and Chris Schlesinger.

“Many of us saw Jasper as a model of how to treat folks on the way up and how to be in this profession with humor, fellowship and kindness,” Mr. Schlesinger said in an interview.

In 1991, he was named best chef in the Northeast in the first-ever national James Beard Foundation Awards.

Jasper Kenneth White Jr. was born on May 28, 1954, in Orange, N.J., to Jasper and Mary (Whelan) White. His father worked in bridge construction; his mother managed the household. Jasper Jr. graduated from Freehold High School.

Mr. White’s interest in food was fed at his paternal grandmother’s Italian American kitchen table, eating green beans and mint picked in the backyard and tasting mussels and scungilli at a time when the only seafood regularly available to many Americans was frozen fish sticks.

He was the author of four cookbooks: “Jasper White’s Cooking From New England,” “Lobster at Home,” “50 Chowders,” and “The Summer Shack Cookbook — The Complete Guide to Shore Food.”

After closing Jasper in 1995, Mr. White pivoted away from fine dining in 2000 by opening Summer Shack, a large family-friendly spot in Cambridge, Mass., dedicated to shore-dinner classics like fried clams and lobster rolls. Enduringly popular, the restaurant spawned branches in Back Bay in Boston and at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn.

In 2017, Mr. White sold the business and retired. He took to the water, pulling cages of oysters from Island Creek’s beds in Duxbury Bay three days a week. “He supported New England’s seafood industry in every possible way, even when nobody could see it,” Mr. Bennett said.

In addition to his wife, his second, who was Kathleen Madden when they married, Mr. White is survived by six children, Jasper Paul, Mariel, Hayley, Ryan, Benjamin and Samuel; a brother, Matthew; and four grandchildren. He lived in Plymouth, Mass.

After the death of Julia Child, who was a regular at Restaurant Jasper, Mr. White wrote of her: “It took a catalyst to awaken America’s palate, to make the love of food an acceptable behavior and to raise expectations and standards of our cuisine.”

For many New Englanders, Mr. White was that catalyst.

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