Lambert Givens, football player turned Food Network star at Hunter’s Kitchen & Bar, talks taking on one of the biggest names in restaurants.
“I’m very competitive,” says Boston chef Lambert Givens—and that spirit has served him well. First, on the football field, where Givens, a lifelong New England Patriots fan, dominated the gridiron playing for his alma mater, South Carolina State University.
Lately, however, Givens’ competition has empowered him to win in a very different arena: Last week he managed to Beat Bobby Flay on the hit Food Network show, a cook-off that pits the titular celebrity restaurant against a different guest chef in each episode. What was Givens’ game-winning dish? His gumbo, a mainstay on the menu at Hunter’s Kitchen & Bar in South Boston, where the former athlete and current chef has been using South American cuisine since the restaurant opened last year. “It’s like being in the Super Bowl,” Givens says of his Beat Bobby Flay experience. “I feel on top of the world.”
For good reason. Boston is a far cry from the gumbo-saturated restaurant scene of, say, Louisiana, but Givens’ spicy seafood dish — loaded with crab, shrimp, okra and andouille sausage — has earned the kind of national bragging rights that puts our city’s southern cuisine on the map.
Not bad for a guy who grew up in Connecticut, where Givens spent a lot of time learning to cook from his parents and, especially, his grandmother. Today, many of the dishes on Hunter’s menu — including the gumbo, as well as the greens — are prepared versions of the very recipes Givens’ family brought to New England after moving here from Georgia and Alabama.
Although he inherited the same passion for food early on, it wasn’t always clear that Givens would become a professional chef. In fact, he studied Consumer Science Business at SCSU—though he continued to teach himself to cook using the pot, toaster, and fryer he kept locked away in his dorm room. (“I had to hide them during room checks,” Givens adds with a laugh.) After graduation, Givens moved to Quincy to work for a telecommunications company. However, he soon realized that he really wanted to spend his career in the kitchen. “Something just clicked,” says Givens. “I was still young enough to change my life, and I knew that if I didn’t do it now, I never would.”
Through some contacts in the hospitality world, Givens landed a job as a line cook at Capo — an Italian restaurant from Broadway Restaurant Group, the team behind some of Southie’s most popular spots. He moved up to Broadway properties, including the sushi-oriented Fat Baby and the inventive gastropub Lincoln Tavern & Restaurant, before opening Hunter’s as executive chef in August 2021.
It was a thrilling anniversary gift when, a year later and armed with one of Hunter’s signature plates, Givens managed to knock out Bobby Flay on his home turf. Thanks to all that practice playing football in front of thousands of stadium spectators, cooking quickly for TV cameras and a live studio audience came naturally to Givens, he says — and what’s more, the still-early-career chef even lagged behind . – Training scene from one of the biggest names in the biz. “[Bobby] told me there would be tough times,” says Givens, “but if you stick with it and stay passionate, you’ll get through it.”
That advice echoes the approach Givens takes in the kitchen at Hunter’s, where he uses his football experience to keep his staff on the ball in a high-pressure, fast-paced industry. “It’s about having the same team values and making sure we work together as a well-oiled machine,” Givens says. “In those moments when you’re tired, you just have to give a little more.”
So what does Givens want more of, now that he’s beaten one of the country’s most popular chefs at his own game? First, with the start of football season ahead, he hopes Hunter’s will become the “number one spot” for game day dining; he would also like to open his own restaurant one day. That said, his competitive streak won’t rest: Givens would love to give Guy Fieri a run for his money. Food games for boys (hear that, Food Network?), and if Bobby Flay is ever up for a rematch, he knows exactly which Hunter’s dish he’d bring to the table for a second round.
“Our mac ‘n’ cheese,” Givens says, without hesitation. It’s a three-cheese blend with crusty macaroni topped with a cheddar-biscuit crumble, the chef explains. “And it’s one of the best in town.”
The game starts.