By Pierre Comtois
GROTON — It was one of the most closely guarded secrets of past months as one of the town’s most respected small businesses became host to one of the nation’s most popular television shows.
“The Herb Lyceum was chosen as host in an episode of Bravo’s ‘Top Chef’ program, which was all filmed on location,” confirmed Lyceum owner David Gilson. “Our kitchen was completely transformed by the producers to accommodate the show’s contestants as they picked herbs from our farm and greenhouses and used them in preparing their meals.”
According to Gilson, absolute secrecy was required by the show’s producers to avoid any interference or delay in their tight, 12-hour schedule. Filmed last June, the show provided its own security to keep visitors away from the closed Lyceum.
Gilson and the Lyceum will be featured in an episode of the popular reality show with Gilson, as a descendant of Mayflower passengers, also appearing in a special Thanksgiving episode filmed at Plimoth Plantation.
Gilson and the Lyceum was chosen as one of several Boston area locations for “Top Chef” by accident when producers of the show met with his son, William, a chef himself and owner of the Puritan & Company restaurant in Cambridge.
“The ‘Top Chef’ people went to see William at his restaurant, and in discussing the show with him, discovered that he was a Mayflower descendent,” said Gilson.
Referred by his son, Gilson met with the producers about being featured in their Thanksgiving episode. That was when they also found out about the Lyceum and decided to make it one of the featured locations in their current season.
One of the features of the Lyceum that attracted the producers was its “farm-to-table” approach to dining.
“Farm-to-table is popular now with meals made from fresh-picked produce or specially grown organics,” said Gilson. “But we’ve been doing this for a long time, long before the term was even defined. We feel that aspect is an important part of the dining experience.”
Indeed, Gilson’s farm-to-table concept was first developed by William Gilson when he was still a teenager. It was his idea to begin a restaurant at the Lyceum using herbs grown on site.
But the Lyceum itself did not come into existence from thin air. It was a dream of Gilson’s that the owner has worked on for many years.
“I was director of pupil services at the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District and had a landscaping business on the side,” recounted Gilson. “I just couldn’t see myself spending another 20 years working primarily indoors.”
It was in 1988 that Gilson’s life was changed forever. While building a ceremonial stone wall for the Smithsonian Museum, he met an herb grower who told him about his operation. Soon, Gilson had bought out the grower and moved the operation to his family’s Groton farm. He opened for business as the Groton Herb Lyceum.
“Over the next 10 years, we’ve grown the Lyceum to the point where it is the second largest grower of potted herbs,” said Gilson. “We kept growing until at some point, realized that the general public didn’t know much about herbs so we turned the barn into a school to teach people about them. That’s where the name Lyceum comes from. We concentrate on how herbs can be employed from culinary uses to landscaping.”
That was about the point where Gilson’s son, William, stepped into the picture.
Interested from an early age in cooking, William suggested to his father that they open a restaurant as part of the Lyceum. Long since gone on to culinary school and an apprenticeship in Boston, William currently operates his own restaurant. But the one he began at the Lyceum continues to operate with meals served by reservation only on Fridays and Saturdays.
That is the way Gilson likes it, saying he prefers to offer use of the farm for weddings, family get-togethers, and other small gatherings, although he also enjoys bringing strangers together at a single table to enjoy a good meal and each other’s company.
That experience will be shown on “Top Chef” and featured during the current season’s January episode.
Filmed in the Boston area, season 12 of “Top Chef,” while headquartered in a nondescript building in Woburn, traveled to many familiar spots around the state, including Fenway Park, Plimoth Plantation, the Cheers bar, a cranberry bog and the Groton Herb Lyceum.
Part of the show’s appeal is its “quickfire challenge” in which chef contestants choose samples of local foodstuffs and prepare meals of their own invention with them. One episode of the new season will spotlight cranberries and an elimination round will include preparation of a Thanksgiving dinner at Plimoth Plantation using only foods, methods and utensils available in the 1600s.
It was during one of those quickfire challenges that contestants visited the Herb Lyceum, bringing with them a small army of trucks and cars loaded not only with chefs and crew but all the equipment needed to transform the farm into a Hollywood-style home away from home.
And all of it done in complete secrecy so as to preserve the surprises in store for viewers of the show when it finally airs.
“It was a great experience,” said Gilson. “The two young ladies that I dealt with were professional, accommodating, sensitive and extremely organized. They had to know their timelines and scheduling in order to be finished with filming and gone by 4 p.m. when we were expecting a wedding party to arrive. They were just phenomenal to work with.
“It was great to have the endorsement of the producers of the ‘Top Chef’ show that the Herb Lyceum is an important facility for hosting special occasion events,” said Gilson. “It’s nice to be endorsed by people who’ve been all over the country, in every kind of culinary and agricultural venue, as one of the best right here in the city of Lowell’s own backyard.”