“I’m very competitive,” says Boston chef Lambert Givens, and that spirit has served him well. First, on the football field, where Givens, a longtime New England Patriots fan, dominated the grid while playing for his alma mater, South Carolina State University.
More recently, however, Givens’ competitiveness has propelled him to victory in a very different arena: last week he managed to Defeat Bobby Flay on the hit show Food Network, a cooking contest that pits the titular famed restaurateur against a different guest chef each episode. What was Givens’ winning dish? His okra, a mainstay on the menu at Hunter’s Kitchen & Bar in South Boston, where the former athlete and current chef has been preparing Southern American cuisine since the restaurant opened last year. “It’s like being at the Super Bowl,” Givens says of his Defeat Bobby Flay live. “I feel on top of the world.”
For good reason. Boston is a far cry from the okra-soaked restaurant scene of, say, Louisiana, but Givens’ spicy seafood stew – loaded with crab, shrimp, okra and andouille sausage – marked the genre right of national boast that puts our city’s southern cuisine on the map.
Not bad for a guy who grew up in Connecticut, where Givens spent a ton of time learning to cook with his parents and, most importantly, his grandmother. Today, many dishes on Hunter’s menu, including okra, as well as collard greens, are prepared versions of the very recipes Givens’ family brought to New England after moving from Georgia and Alabama. .
Although he inherited this same passion for food early on, it was not always clear that Givens would become a professional chef. In fact, he studied consumer science business at SCSU, though he continued to learn how to cook using the slow cooker, toaster oven, and deep fryer he kept hidden away in his dorm room. (“I used to hide them during room checks,” Givens adds with a laugh.) After graduation, Givens moved to Quincy to work for a telecommunications company. He quickly understood that he really wanted to spend his career in the kitchen. “Something just clicked,” said Givens. “I was still young enough to be able to change my life, and I knew that if I didn’t do it now, I never would.”
Through a few contacts in the hospitality world, Givens landed a job as a line cook at Capo, an Italian restaurant in the Broadway Restaurant Group, the team behind some of Southie’s most popular spots. He rose through the ranks at properties on Broadway, including the sushi-focused Fat Baby and the inventive gastropub Lincoln Tavern & Restaurant, before opening Hunter’s as executive chef in August 2021.
It was an exciting birthday present when, a year later and armed with one of Hunter’s signature plaques, Givens managed to defeat Bobby Flay on his home turf. Thanks to all that football practice in front of thousands of stadium spectators, fast cooking for TV cameras and a live studio audience came naturally to Givens, he says – and what’s more, the chef still in the early stages of career has even taken a little delay. -coaching scenes from one of the biggest names in the biz. “[Bobby] told me there would be tough times,” Givens shares, “but if you stick with it and stay passionate, you’ll get through it.”
That advice echoes the approach Givens took in the Hunter’s kitchen, where he leverages his football experience to keep his staff on the ball in a high-pressure, fast-paced industry. “It’s about sharing the same team values and making sure we work together like a well-oiled machine,” says Givens. “In those moments when you’re tired, you just have to give a little more.”
So what more does Givens want, now that he’s beaten one of the country’s most famous chefs at his own game? On the one hand, with the kick-off of the upcoming football season, he hopes Hunter’s will become the “number one place” for meals on game days; he would also like to open his own restaurant one day. That said, his competitive streak won’t stop: Givens would love to give Guy Fieri a run for his money on Guy’s Grocery Games (you hear that, Food Network?), and if Bobby Flay is ever up for a rematch, he knows exactly which Hunter dish he’d bring to the table for a second round.
“Our macaroni and cheese,” Givens says without hesitation. His is a blend of three cheeses with pasta shells, topped with a crumble of cheddar biscuits, explains the chef. “And it’s one of the best in town.”