If you thought food in Boston was all about New England clam chowder, Boston baked bean, cod fish and lobster think again. The Thrill of the Grill is alive and thriving in Boston. Recently, Starchefs got a chance to meet up with two chefs who have been major players in spicing up this area -- Steve Johnson and
Chris Schlesinger. In addition to sharing the same philosophy on food and cooking, they are also share a friendship that began in high school in Virginia. They also share the experience of owning the same restaurant (this past spring Chris sold one of his restaurants, The Blue Room, to Steve). Here's what they had to say about hot food and their earliest memories of one another.
Interviewed by Robin Insley
This past Spring you both caused quite a sensation in Boston when you, Steve, bought The Blue Room from Chris and you, Chris, closed Jake & Earl's (your first restaurant) and expanded the East Coast Grill.
Steve, did you make any changes to The Blue Room and if so what challenges did you face?
STEVE: Nick Sappig and Deanna Briggs (my two partners) and myself felt it was important to purchase a restaurant that had a following like the Blue Room. It was important to us to keep the old customers happy and not turn them away. We wanted then to make little changes to the restaurant.
We redirected the entry of the restaurant and redesigned the floor plan. We added banquette seating, tables and chairs. The focal point of the kitchen is now a nine-foot long wood burning grill. We changed the menu and the wine lists considerably. Now that I think about it, we basically changed everything about the Blue Room but its name.
We didn't change the name because we didn't want to make it any harder on the people than necessary to find us. Chris and his long time partner Carey Wheaton had done all this hard work over the years so people could find them. When Chris and I were in California a couple of times this past winter people would come up to us, and they knew all about the Blue Room and would tell us that they wanted to go to the Blue Room the next time they were in Boston. Nick, Deanna and I wanted to make sure that these people remembered the Blue Room the next time they visited Boston next and would be able to find us.
Cooking in the Blue Room is easy because the kitchen is a really good facility. Having the opportunity to cook over fire was one of the cornerstones of a restaurant I was looking for when I left my last restaurant (the Mercury Bar) because I wanted to have a wood grill. The Blue Room was exactly what I wanted to do.
What changes did you make to The East Coast Grill?
CHRIS: I tripled The East Coast Grill in size when I took over Jake & Earl's which was on the other side of East Coast Grill. I wanted to keep all of the old parts of the East Coast Grill -- the friendliness and casual nature -- but make the space larger. Now the door doesn't open to my customers anymore.
I just felt like I wanted to get back to the kitchen and cooking. I wanted the next thing I did to be something different. I'd experienced all the flavors. In terms of food, I added a seafood thing. I was just learning about fish and was getting into working with fish. Concentrating on getting the best, freshest local fish is something that is really appealing to me now.
You are both widely regarded for using exotic ingredients to create intensely flavored food. If you had to use only three ingredients what would they be and why?
STEVE: Lime, salt and chilies. I think somewhere in there though you have to have the title "First you take an onion". Anything in the onion family is the thing to have because it's the starting point for an infinite number of dishes. Onion most definitely at the top.
CHRIS: Lime, bacon and oysters. Shellfish because I have an interest in seafood. Lime because it's a good seasoning I use a lot. Bacon because bacon makes the world go round. I have to have bacon in there some place.
What do you like to see happening with food at a restaurant?
CHRIS: I like to see anybody interacting with the food who has a feel and genuine care for it. As long as this exists than that's what makes great food. The caring, energy and the creativity that a person brings to the food is the most important thing. This can be from a sausage vendor to a three-star chef.
STEVE: Food is suppose to be appealing on a primary level. I believe it's really essential that people just be able to like food from a sensory level not so much try to understand it on an intellectual level. From my rap with the cooks and the restaurant food I see there is not a lot of trickery in looking for ways to make food taste good and appealing. I don't want to see any window dressing or tricks.
You both have been friends since you two were in high school together in Virginia. Steve, what is the one most lasting memory you have of Chris?
STEVE: In the early days it was definitely escaping from school and going to the beach with Chris. Chris had a yellow mustang convertible. I remember cruising around with him in it, surfing and making sand castles.
Chris, what can you tell us about Steve?
Chris: Steve always was a bit different like he dressed a little differently. Steve lived in France for a long time and he taught tennis. I came into cooking early and went to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Steve came in later. I think Steve's traveling brought an interesting style to his cooking. He had a unique style that was evident at a very early age.
STEVE: My father's name is Vernon. He would always have these barbecues and have people over. He'd actually like to think of himself as a self-inspired chef. Anyway at these barbecues he would serve his famous "Vernon Burgers" which were his special creations. My dad to this day vows that his creating the "Vernon Burger" inspired Chris.
CHRIS: The Vernon Burgers! When I saw your dad create the "Vernon Burger" that started it! He had so much fun and took such pride in cooking that it inspired me to follow this profession.
What have you learned in cooking from Chris?
STEVE: If there is one thing I learned early on is don't cover the Weber! Seriously though I learned that your approach to food has to be friendly, straightforward and always be true to the ingredients. People always enjoy Chris' cooking -- it's exciting and they could eat it everyday. This says a lot about the basic level of appeal. When I started cooking I was really interested in the fancy food and French stuff. Chris always was determined to keep food personal and straight forward. That was a good lesson.
Chris also got me into cooking over live fire. About the time Chris started East Coast Grill, I was living in Vermont and was involved in a catering business. I was just starting out and I had to be really practical so I started cooking over the grill. Chris was building a restaurant then around a wood grill. I would visit him a lot. Seeing his work with the wood grill made me start to think about what I was doing with grilling up in Vermont. I realized that cooking over live fire made food taste better. In Vermont I was grilling out of total practically. The reasoning behind grilling came along after Chris started doing it; I realized there was a rule. Other restaurant cooking or gas cooking couldn't live up to the standards of cooking over live fire.
Chris, what have you learned from Steve?
CHRIS: Inspiration. I am always inspired with his respect, admiration and dedication to the raw product. I think he got this from France. He has endless appreciation for it. We both have places in Westport, Ma. Chris has a garden in Westport and he grows all these different kinds of lettuces. He tries to build relationships with the product, the food, and the people behind the product. The relationships he has built with the farmers and the fishermen shows the respect that he has towards the integrity of how food is grown, the spirit of it, who it's grown by, and all the factors that go into making it an enjoyable meal.
In your careers, who or what has influenced you the most?
CHRIS: Jimmy Burke and Bob Kinkead. They are the first generation of American chefs who came up from a cook's position. Jimmy and Bob are the type of chefs who got into the business because of the love of food but they came in at a time when being a chef wasn't a promising profession -- it was like being a truck driver. Jimmy and Bob really got into cooking out of love for cooking not out of a love for a career.
Jimmy's the first chef who taught me to have a respect for the food and whatever I was making to make it the best in the world. If I was making a stuffed lobster, make it the best stuffed lobster there was.
Bob was the first chef who had any confidence in me as a cook. Bob's the hardest working restaurateur and chef I've ever worked with. His creativity and dedication are legend.
The two of them are my colleagues, mentors and friends. Whenever things come up or I need some input I just call them and they put me on track.
Steve: Chris for reasons I already said. When I moved to New England in my mid-20s Chris had already gone to the CIA, had settled in Boston and was rolling here. Seeing what he was doing here was inspiring. It was a catalyst for my own work and my thinking about food. Chris' work assured me that it was possible to pursue a career in cooking.
On a practical level, Chris introduced me to a lot of people in Boston when I visited. He introduced me to Gordon Hammersley and within a year Gordon had a job for me at Hamersley's Bistro. I worked with him for six years. Gordon was a huge influence on my cooking. He's a really dedicated cook and has a fantastic palate with high expectations. Working with Gordon and Jody Adams (currently Executive Chef/co-owner Rialto Restaurant at the Charles Hotel) was an experience I will always be nostalgic for. Jody Adams had an enormous influence on everyone in the restaurant. Her skills and cooking made a huge impression on me. She was the first person I worked with who cooked with a tremendous amount of love that is a palpable ingredient, an ingredient a lot of chefs overlook. Barb Lynch, the Executive chef of Galleria Italiana in Boston, has the same thing. The meals, meeting people and Chris' earliest work was instrumental.
In your lives, what are you most proud of?
CHRIS: Being able to run a business where people like to work and where people can come in to relax and enjoy good fellowship with one another.
STEVE: I'm proud of all that has come together personally and professionally in Boston. Having a restaurant that I feel really good about, great partners and an opportunity to build it. A great nucleus of friends related to my early days who are still around like Chris, Doc (John Willoughby) and Carey Wheaton. Having my work develop and mature over the years and having work become more and more interesting and fun.
What advise would you give to aspiring cooks?
CHRIS: Work hard and work in the back of a lot of different places. Buy the Thrill of the Grill!
STEVE: Taste, taste, taste. Keep your eyes open.
If you two didn't become chefs, what else would you have done in your lives?
CHRIS: This is the only job I'm capable of doing. I can't think of doing anything else.
STEVE: This profession is uniquely suited for me. It demands bringing together a lot of different interests and skills. The further I get into it, the chemistry becomes so specific that after a while it's hard to imagine doing anything else. If I had to I would be a really bad tennis pro, carpenter or teacher.