you thought food in Boston was all about New England clam chowder,
Boston baked beans, 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 -- Chris Schlesinger and Steve Johnson. In
addition to sharing the same philosophy on food and cooking, they
also share a friendship that began in high school in Virginia. Here's
what they had to say about hot food and their earliest memories of
Interviewed by Robin Insley in the
Fall of 1996
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 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.
did you make to The East Coast Grill?
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
salt and chiles. 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?
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?
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.
can you tell us about 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?
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
have you learned from Steve?
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
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
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
Restaurant and Red
Clay) 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
In your lives, what are you most proud of?
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
What advise would you give to aspiring cooks?
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?
is the only job I'm capable of doing. I can't think of doing anything
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.