Chef Jim Solomon of The Fireplace with step-son Jack Tuttle representing the Devotion School 2nd grade. Presenting the check for the combined efforts of the students and The Fireplace

Chef Jim Solomon of The Fireplace with step-son Jack Tuttle representing the Devotion School 2nd grade. Presenting the check for the combined efforts of the students and The Fireplace

Within the first few minutes of my recent conversation with Jim Solomon, the chef-owner of Brookline’s The Fireplace restaurant, it is clear he is tightly connected to the community, a very compassionate individual, and—yes—still a hands-on proprietor.

This is the case even though the establishment has been around for a decade and is celebrating its anniversary throughout the month of September. Today, a typical Monday , he is greeted by phone calls, messages and a restaurant to open (at 11 a.m.) when he arrives in the morning. He, 47 and with a closely groomed beard, also greets patrons walking into the restaurant with a handshake and a few heartfelt words of salutation intermittently during our interview. Chef Solomon is somewhat soft-spoken, though with a directness and weight to his speech, so that the listener easily hangs on each sentence.

The restaurateur relates that he has just receive word about a charitable initiative he is running with local reporter Susan Wernick for the Natick Visiting Nurse Association, a group from whose service he benefited following several back surgeries. The centerpiece for the fundraiser is a Fireplace-catered dinner for 10 at the winner’s home, with he and Ms. Wernick in attendance.

Chef Solomon continues that he received news that morning of a piece that had just run in the Boston Heralddetailing his relationship with a Jamaica Plain couple with whom he connected in September 2002, about a year after the restaurant’s opening. The couple, who had lost a daughter in the September 11th attacks, were calling to cancel a reservation because they remained very distraught and, touched by their story, Mr. Solomon sent them over a meal from the restaurant.

There were challenges in the early days for this Brookline business. The Fireplace’s chef-owner noted, that the restaurant opened for the first time only a few days before September 11th, 2001. The eatery remained dark for the day out of respect for the victims, then reopened because, Chef Solomon explained, people needed a place to go, to talk about the events. In addition, that August, he had been hit by a car and left temporarily paralyzed two days before he was to train the staff for the restaurant’s opening.

Chef Jim Solomon of the Fireplace with Devotion School Class Presenting Aid Check

Chef Jim Solomon of the Fireplace with Devotion School Class Presenting Aid Check

More recently, he and the restaurant responded to another crisis—the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami—by teaming with second-grade students at Brookline’s Devotion School to donate and fundraise, as he wanted to show kids the importance of charitable giving. The Fireplace’s menu featured special dishes fusing (Mr. Solomon was quick to point out he doesn’t usually do fusion) its trademark New England rustic cuisine with Japanese fare, and desserts—the proceeds of which went towards the relief effort.

Chef Solomon explains his spirit of giving back to the community and corporate responsibility can be traced back to a 1970s commercial showing a Native American shedding a tear when confronted with modern-day pollution and littering. To this end, Mr. Solomon’s fine dining spot was the first certified green restaurant in Boston and, though it’s still the only one in Brookline, the chef said that is a competitive advantage he’d like to see eliminated, as he is in talks with other area restaurant-owners to make their businesses ecologically friendly.

Other past community involvement includes galas for the Lupus Foundation at Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline for around 150 people and other organizations, for up to 350 people. The Fireplace also was represented at the Boston Chowderfest and had a booth at last year’s inaugural Life is Good music festival in nearby Canton, which had 10,000 and 40,000 attendees, respectively.

When asked when he knew the restaurant was working, when it had found its niche, he replied: “I’m still waiting for that moment.” Indeed, Chef Solomon said he worked nearly every day for about the first six years of the restaurant’s life, while he thought he would only need to do so for around two. In fact, he spent 14 years planning The Fireplace, for which he created a business plan while pursuing an M.B.A. at the University of Michigan in 1991-92.

He went to Ann Arbor to “learn about the numbers” side of the restaurant business, so he “wouldn’t have to rely on someone else to tell him how [his] business was doing.” Before Michigan, though, Chef Solomon had already applied business acumen—specifically marketing and management skills—to running Pizzeria Uno locations in New York City. Further back, during college, he worked summers at Goldman Sachs, then had a stint on Wall Street. He left right before 1987’s Black Monday crash because he didn’t like the stock market work, wasn’t very good at it and was often daydreaming about food.

After his M.B.A. he worked as a sous-chef for Todd English back on the East Coast, then trained the staff at the celebrity chef’s Figs restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts, then the location in Chestnut Hill ( now closed). Upon seeing how run down he was during this experience (he had pneumonia and strep throat at the same time at one point), his father offered to send him to culinary school. The younger Solomon chose The Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and, though slated to be there for six months, ended up staying two-and-a-half years.

His other experiences with chef-impresarios include time working with Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Napa Valley and opening the latter’s restaurant Bouchon in midtown Manhattan. Chef Solomon has also studied with New Orleans-based Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme.

Chef Solomon’s food roots are much humbler than haute cuisine and celebrity chefs, he clarified. He began by working as a kid in Cambridge at Paco’s Tacos at Harvard Square (where his Dad was a professor) handing out flyers. He distinguished himself in this modest job by reciting a jingle (which he repeated for me) to convince customers to come back and visit the store. So, when one person didn’t show up for work one day, the owners brought him in the kitchen to make burritos. He said felt he had arrived and, from that moment, was hooked on the food business.

Back to the present, the force behind The Fireplace says he wants the next ten years of his restaurant to see an increase in on- and off-site catering, an aspect he didn’t advertise much the first six years because he wanted the place to establish itself. It doesn’t sound as if Chef Solomon or The Fireplace will be slowing down in the events department either, as he told me he continues to encourage local musicians with performance slots on Jazz Wednesdays and Latin Thursdays, including precocious, Brookline-bred saxophonist Grace Kelly (who attended the Driscoll School). Mr. Solomon informed me he is in the process of booking her for dates in October through December. He says he loses money from the evenings, but has a commitment to the arts, so he hopes to see more customers come in for and support one of the few live music nights in Brookline.

At the end of our near-one-hour interview, Chef Solomon concludes by saying he’s “living a dream” by running this restaurant and having a great family—a wife he loves and a terrific son (who attends the Runkle School). He also loves being in Brookline, what with its diversity, sophisticated, intellectual neighbors and beautiful greenspaces.

He deems opening The Fireplace was a big accomplishment, but “that people came back and liked it…that’s gravy.”

– Andrew Palmacci