“Grilling, to me, is a way of life, and it has been ever since I was a kid. I attribute this primarily to my father. At this stage of my life I often wonder what his reaction would be to my accomplishments. Dad was happy to see me set out on my career path with early restaurant jobs, but unfortunately he wasn’t around to witness what came later. There’s one thing, however, that I’m quite sure of — he would be amazed, and, even more, amused that anybody could make a living from grilling.
The fact is, though, that he is largely responsible for it. He taught me his secrets and showed me the heart of grilling, a cooking method at once easy and complex, endlessly fascinating and rewarding. He lit a fire that burned so deeply and brightly inside me that I turned it into a lifestyle.
How did it happen? Well, imagine this scene. I was eight years old. It was summer, we were at our beach house, and every night was grill night. Even at that young age I was trained to bring out the rusty old grill, pour in the nasty charcoal, squeeze the old-school lighter fluid all over the briquettes, light a match, throw it at the grill, and run, looking over my shoulder at the fireball shooting up into the sky. It’s a wonder I was never severely burned.
Smelling of lighter fluid, dirty from the charcoal dust, I would sit and watch the flames flicker over the briquettes and then die, and I’d look closely to see if there was any white on any of the charcoals. Dad had taught me if even just one briquette way down at the far end had a little white ash on it, my work was done, because eventually the whole batch would catch. Like many of my father’s precepts, this one went against the common backyard wisdom of the day. But I had observed the phenomenon many times and knew it to be true. So when I was at my friends’ houses and saw their dads impatiently squirt on more and more lighter fluid in their attempt to get all the coals lit, I would smile quietly, feeling smug and superior. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t sometimes splash more juice on the charcoal for the fun of it, then jump as the flame followed the stream back up to the can. But at other times I would just watch as the fire crept slowly across the grill from briquette to briquette.
Periodically my dad would stroll out to the back deck, drink in hand, to ask me what I thought about the readiness of the fire. We’d concur that it would probably be another ten or fifteen minutes, and he’d return to the house. After a few more minutes he’d come back out with the steaks on a platter and go through his precooking ritual. He would carefully put the platter down and stare meaningfully off toward the horizon, then glance at the clouds in the sky, wet his finger, and hold it up to test the wind direction.
I never asked why he did this, sensing that it required a deep understanding that would become clear to me at later age. And indeed I would eventually come to appreciate that artifice of this type is one of the main tools of professional chefs everywhere. The more mystical, the more peculiar, the more arcane the task, then the more skilled the cook has to be. So Dad could not just look at the coals and put the food on the grill. No, no. He had to assess and overcome the mysterious combination of wind, clouds, and barometric pressure, an undertaking that required all his years of experience combined.
When Dad gave the okay we’d slap the steaks on the grill and cook, sometimes adding small pieces of driftwood to the fire for smoky flavor. The fire was always hot, and before long the steaks were black on the outside and basically unchanged on the inside. At that point we’d scoop them into the platter and, very proud of ourselves, bear them inside, where we’d brag to my mom and sister that we had once again conquered the wilds and uncertainties of the back deck to deliver yet another perfectly grilled meal.
It was so easy — there was never any fuss, mess, or tension, and it always turned out great. True, the food was sometimes a little burned or a little raw, but we always ate it and it always tasted good. This calmness, this total willingness to deal with pretty much whatever comes off the grill, this unflappable acceptance and good-humored approach to the always challenging vicissitudes of live-fire cooking — all of this is at the heart of being a skilled griller. Dad never said this in so many words, but the knowledge passed from him to me as surely as if the words were chiseled in stone.
With Dad’s attitude as inspiration, my infatuation with live fire began in earnest. And, unlike many other youthful enthusiasms, it just kept on growing. By the age of twelve I had pretty much assumed all grilling responsibilities for the family, by sixteen I was courting the disdain of my pizza-ordering buddies by cooking dinner just for myself on the grill, and when I got to culinary school years later, I routinely eschewed the dorm kitchen and fired up the outside hearth even in winter.
But it was not the fire alone, mesmerizing though it was, that drew me to grilling. Essentially, prior to starting my professional cooking career, I was living the grilling lifestyle. To me, summertime, the beach, and grilling, all go together, with a mental association so strong that even if you only have two of these elements, the third is inferred. So when I think of grilling, what automatically pops into my mind is a life that involves wide, sandy beaches, cutoff jean shorts, cold drinks, plenty of laughs, good pals, best friends, an absence of formality, and a lot of really good, tasty, solid, unfussy food. This mental attitude toward grilling is present to some degree any time a grilling fire is lit anywhere in the world, but at heart it is quintessentially American. What I mean is that grilling can be a kind of apotheosis of what is best in our national spirit. It is by its very nature fun and casual, its ethos is laid back and wholly unpretentious, and it is always surrounded by good fellowship.
So up until I was twenty-two or so, living the grilling life was my main relationship to live-fire cookery. Then, during my time at the Culinary Institute of America, I added another aspect to the appreciation of grilling: the technical side.
That is to say, I discovered that my dad did not invent grilling. I learned that it, along with braising, sautéing, and so on, is a bona fide cooking method, with practices and procedures laid our by Escoffier and other great experts of Western cooking, and I realized that grilling too is governed by traditional culinary laws. I already knew, for example, that there are right and wrong ways of sautéing and braising, that you need to get the fat in the pan very hot to sauté properly, and that your braise does not come out right if you let the liquid boil rather than simmer. I had also learned, through endless trial-and-error experiences, that these dynamics, rules, and principles went a long way toward dictating the quality of the outcome. Now I understood that the same was true of grilling. So to my formidable base in the goodwill alacrity approach to grilling, I added another paradigm: the classic French technical approach.
The next step in my grilling education came during my misspent mid-twenties, when I was able to parlay my skills as a line cook into a means of traveling around the world. As any of you who have been in the restaurant business know well, line cooks come and go, but a good one is always welcome. So, in addition to taking major time off for the epic surf trip that I had planned since I was sixteen, I also did numerous stints in restaurants located in warm climes with overhead waves. Barbados, Costa Rica, Peru, Hawaii, Southeast Asia, Mexico — they were all part of the travel epoch of my third decade.
During my travels I came to understand one more perspective on grilling, the outlook of cooks from cultures where most of the everyday cooking is done over live fire. Vertical grilled tacos al carbon in Mexico, red snapper and mahi-mahi on beaches in Costa Rica, smoky jerk chicken in Jamaica, the ubiquitous satay of Southeast Asia — from these and many more such casual tropical meals came my inspiration to cook with plenty of spices and to create stronger, bolder, louder, brighter flavors.
So these are the three legs that support my grilling inspiration: the good-humored, casual approach taught to me by my dad; the serious technique based on classical French dogma; and the never-ending resources of hot weather cultures, where cooks have many more centuries of grilling experience than we do.
These all came together in 1985 when I opened my first restaurant, the East Coast Grill, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since I was in charge, it fell to me to train, teach, and help other cooks understand live-fire cookery in the same way that I did. At that point I began to pay more attention to the techniques that I had picked up over nearly twenty years of grilling so that I could pass them along. I have kept refining my understanding over the nearly two decades since then.
By now I think I’ve got it down pretty well, and I want to convey it to you. What you have before you in this book is my effort, along with that of my coauthor, Doc, to share with you the joys, good times, and many ways to create tasty food that we have encountered along the grilling trail. It’s all here, and it’s all fun. So let the flames begin!”
-Excerpt and images courtesy of the Internet Archive, “Let the Flames Begin,” by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby, 2002
‘Let the Flames Begin’ Book Cover Design, by erbedesign
“The approach was to create a cover that presented the subject matter in a visually upscale and fresh manner that would stand out among other barbecue cookbooks and would reflect the gourmet nature and alternative approach to the book’s recipes.”