East Coast Grill’s Chris Schlesinger: Cooking Essentials & Putting a Chef to the Test

The news broke in mid-January that Chris Schlesinger is selling his famed East Coast Grill to head chef Jason Heard, general manager Robin Greenspan, and another manager, James Lozano.

For those from out of town and the few locals unfamiliar with Schlesinger: He opened the Grill in 1985. He quickly established a reputation for cooking on a wood-fired grill – innovative at the time – and has authored numerous books on cooking and adding heat to food.

What’s next for Chris Schlesinger? ‘I’m planning my first summer off since I was 15,’ he says. ‘It’s a brutal business.’

His restaurant also attracted ambitious chefs over the years, and helped launch several careers. A James Beard award in 1996 for best chef in the Northeast confirmed what locals already knew.

Schlesinger is adamant about the new owners’ commitment to maintaining the traditions of the restaurant while bringing new energy to it and introducing new ideas. After all, he acknowledges, he has spent relatively little time behind the stove for more than a decade, as he pursued book projects, opened additional restaurants and built the business.

He insists that nobody is better equipped to take over the Grill than the trio of cooks who have spent years learning the business and the techniques that go into every dish.

As for Schlesinger, you can find him this summer in southeastern Massachusetts pursuing a journey of gardening improvisation [‘Garden designers come by, take a look, and ask me, ‘What the fuck have you done?’], working on a few consulting gigs, and assisting with the transition of the Grill to its new owners.

A veteran of several restaurant ventures, it looks doubtful Schlesinger will attempt a new eatery anytime soon. As he told WBUR’s RadioBoston recently, “When I had one restaurant, I wanted two. When I had two, I wanted one. You have to build a big organization to do that.”

A follow-up to his latest cookbook, co-authored with local writer John Willoughby in 2010, looks equally uncertain. “Do people use them any longer?” he asks. “With everyone going online, cookbooks need more than recipes. They need a personality.”

The same could be said for restaurants, and the Grill is known for its hospitality and the enthusiasm of its staff. “As Dolly Parton says, ‘It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,’” Schlesinger explained to RadioBoston. “A lot of hard work goes into making it look casual and make people feel comfortable.”

Schlesinger also recalled the genesis of his devotion to grilling and spice. On a vacation to Barbados years ago, he ran out of money. “We had to start eating local food. Probably the spiciest thing I’d eaten ’til then was Tabasco sauce. It was such an impressionable experience. A lot of the world grills on an everyday basis.”

His Hell Bone features a Scotch Bonnet chili pepper and yellow mustard; the best combination of heat and full flavor, he insists. While the Hell Bone has earned a permanent place on the lineup, “an unbeatable salad with avocado, hearts of palm, pumpkin seeds and cilantro vinaigrette” has vanished, complained one diner on Chowhound.

                                                * * *

Chris Schlesinger sat down recently with CambridgeCooks to dish on matters of the kitchen. He talked about why salt still shines, the importance of technique over recipes, and the key aspect to treating your food, no matter how you cook it.

Cooking essentials, and what he looks for in a chef:

CC: What are a few things that a cook needs to know?

CS: Technique is more important than recipes. Nobody here cooks with measuring cups.

You need the essentials: Roasting, sautéing, grilling, pan frying. Braising is great, and vastly underrated.

We test our cooks on A) How you salt. B) How you test for doneness.

Salt: You wouldn’t believe how much we use here. It’s such an important flavor enhancer. In general, people use too little of it; they undersalt.

My understanding is that it contributes to high blood pressure in a small percentage of the population that’s salt sensitive. We consume way too much in general, but there are probably a lot of other culprits [affecting our health]. I’d rather give up alcohol than salt.

Pepper: The key is the freshness of the pepper. I like to use a coffee grinder to pulverize it. When I need cracked pepper, I use the heal of a sauté pan.

[In a NY Times column a while back, Schlesinger and co-author John Willoughby wrote about the spice]:

“Pepper might be called the little black dress of Western cooking, but for a long time it’s been a pretty shabby outfit. Smart cooks are selecting among exotic options like Lampong, Sarawak, Malabar and Tellicherry. Freshly ground, these are as different from supermarket pepper as saffron is from sawdust.

 “Tellicherry pepper is widely considered the finest variety. But both it and Malabar make excellent all-purpose peppercorns and seem to go particularly well with beef.  Sarawak seems to go well with lamb and chicken.

“When you bite into chunks of coarsely ground pepper, they explode with flavor and heat. For the biggest chunks, crack the peppercorns by rolling a heavy sauté pan over them, back and forth, while bearing down. For a somewhat finer texture, pulse the peppercorns three or four times in an electric coffee grinder (particularly useful when grinding large quantities). Or use a good pepper grinder at its coarsest setting.”

‘A lot of the world grills on an everyday basis.’

[CambridgeCooks Note: The problem, of course, is finding a good pepper grinder. Even one recommended by Cooks Illustrated is adequate at best. Have any readers found a great one (preferably non-electric)?  Also, expect to pay $14-$18/lb. for Tellicherry peppercorns. You can find small quantities at Harvest Co-Op or Christina’s Spices. Penzeys Spices in Arlington is another good source.]

Doneness: Most people don’t cook their food long enough. You’ve got to manipulate it [to determine when it’s done]. At home, I cut into it, or use a thermometer, poke it, look at it. I come at it from different angles. For roasts, I still poke it with a skewer and run it alongside my lip [to feel how hot it is]. I bend a piece of fish or a chicken thigh [to see if it’s done].

I encourage people to cut into their food. Some people warn that you’re losing essential juices when you do this, but you’re not losing that much. It’s not a balloon.

Fear of Mistakes: Everybody is caught up in recipes. You read the old French food books, and they give you ingredients and technique but no measurements. I like them for technique, not for the morality: ‘This is right. This is wrong.’ It’s hard for me to watch people being scared of doing it ‘wrong.’

Number One Tip for Grilling:  Have one portion that’s really hot, and one that’s not so hot: Create different heat zones.

Advice for Cambridge apartment dwellers prohibited from grilling on their porches: Use a black pan on the stovetop instead. It’s all about the crust rather than the smoke. So long as you use high heat. Get a hard sear on it.

Are better pans worth the price? It’s not about the pan. You should see ours. Sure, they are better quality. But it won’t necessarily produce better food.

— Lee D. Goodwin

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