Keeping Portuguese Traditions And Brother’s Memory Alive At The Neighborhood
Sheila Borges-Foley doesn't run the business because she loves cooking. She runs it out of a deep love for her heritage, and a love for her late brother.
Sheila Borges-Foley isn’t in the restaurant business because she likes cooking. She’s in it, because of her Portuguese family’s roots in the industry, and an abiding love for her late brother. She was one of the 10 restaurateurs whose food was featured at the YUM fundraiser on April 6, which supported the work of The Welcome Project. The seventh annual fundraiser coincided with the 30th anniversary of Somerville’s sanctuary city status, and The Welcome Project’s existence.
Sheila Borges-Foley talks quickly. And she has to be quick: the daughter of Portuguese immigrants, she runs The Neighborhood Restaurant & Bakery, a local favorite among Somerville's restaurant-going population.
"This is my brother's baby. This is my brother's love," she said of the restaurant, which her brother opened in 1983. He never stopped working there, even when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
"He was literally dying, and he went in front of the Board of Selectmen, and asked them to give him a beer and wine license, and he got it. And he was dying."
Borges-Foley and her late brother came from a family with Portuguese cooking in their blood. Their mother and father immigrated to the United States from Azores, a small group of islands off the coast of Portugal. It is her father from whom the culinary heritage comes, she said. At YUM, volunteers served cream of wheat, Portuguese shrimp and rice, and meatcakes. The latter two are staples of Portuguese cuisine, and come straight from her father's recipes.
Those recipes come from a lifetime of her now-95-year-old father's dedication to the art of creating food. He started in someone else’s kitchen, but eventually opened his own restaurant. Though she didn't do the cooking, Borges-Foley would occasionally help out by waitressing on nights she wasn't going to school.
When she was 20, Borges-Foley moved to the Boston area, and started taking restaurant management classes at Bunker Hill Community College. She also helped waitress at her brother's newly-opened The Neighborhood, bringing back helpful tidbits she had learned in her restaurant management classes.
To furnish the new restaurant, her brother frequented auctions and thrift stores, bringing back an eclectic mix of chairs and tables.
"When we would get Zagat reviews, we would get a 2 on the decor," Borges-Foley said with a laugh. "Apparently, that's the cool thing now, but that's not how it always was."
But then her brother became sick. Borges-Foley will never forget when he handed her the keys to his life's work. Years later, she still feels a swell, when she remembers that day.
"There is a pride that comes along with the fact that my brother's sweat and tears was a huge part of this," she said. "I have a passion for this place. It was never about the money."
Now, it's her brother's son, Mariel, who helps to make the meatcakes and other Portuguese foods kept in a big book of Borges-Foley's father's accumulated recipes. Not that it’s often consulted: Mariel keeps them in his head, a practice learned from his grandfather.
This isn't the only practice carried from generation to generation, though. Borges-Foley makes sure the staff reuses everything they can't sell. Unsold fruit becomes jam. Leftover pieces of meat and vegetables become meatcakes. It's the mentality carried over from her father's less-than-affluent childhood.
"When you don't have anything, you don't throw bread away," she said. "No. You put it in hot coffee. Nothing goes to waste. Everything becomes something else."
And, at the end of the day, this mentality comes from what Borges-Foley describes as the very Portuguese desire to feed loved ones the best one can. This close-knit atmosphere is a physical one, too, as Borges-Foley and her son live above the restaurant, with a few other relatives. She said she is lucky to raise her son in the place he eats the foods of his heritage, surrounded by generations of his family members.
"When you wake up in the morning, you can hear clink-clink-clink of silverware, and smell bacon cooking," she said. "My kid gets to grow up with that."