THE CHEF: CHRIS SCHLESINGER; A Lesson Not Learned in School: Using What’s at Hand, by Sam Sifton, July 16, 2003

“In some families you can drop out of college and no one blinks an eye. Chris Schlesinger’s family is made of sterner stuff. When the young Mr. Schlesinger, the nephew of the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., walked away from Northeastern in 1975 to spend the fall surfing in Virginia Beach, his grandmother took a dim view of the situation. ‘You better get yourself a job,’ she told him.

From the point of view of lifestyle, which was the point of view from which Mr. Schlesinger was then surveying the world, restaurants seemed to offer the best situation. Restaurant employees work nights in the presence of food and alcohol, and can spend their days surfing or on the beach. He went to a local seafood place to apply. ‘Go grab a beer,’ the chef told him, ‘and then go wash all those dishes.’

Mr. Schlesinger did as he was told. ‘I loved it,’ he said. He has been in kitchens ever since, and when he eventually returned to school, it was to attend the Culinary Institute of America, from which he graduated in 1977.

Now the chef and an owner of the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., he related this anecdote while sitting on the deck of his airy beach house here on the shore of Buzzards Bay. ‘My dad was just happy I found something,’ he said, laughing.

There was a grill on the deck, a large Weber kettle, and the next day Mr. Schlesinger stood beside it, watching a charcoal fire the size of a watermelon ignite. He started cleaning the grilling surface with the back of a battered kitchen knife. ‘Usually I have a wire brush,’ he said, slashing at the carbon. ‘They cost $2.99 at the supermarket. But use what you have.’

Using what you have is a lesson Mr. Schlesinger did not learn in cooking school, but on a beach in Barbados in the late 1970’s on a surfing vacation.

‘We had no money,’ he said, ‘and so we started shopping cheap, which meant local, with the local guys, and cooking with them on the beach, and eating local fish and what vegetables they could find. Everything was incredibly spicy and flavorful and good.’

It wasn’t Virginia Beach tourist food, nor the classical European cuisine he had learned in school. It was much better than that, he said, ‘like discovering something totally new.’

With the grill clean and the fire getting hot, Mr. Schlesinger retreated to his small kitchen, which he uses principally as a staging area for grilling activities. He retrieved a couple of large rib-eye steaks, two inches thick and marbled with fat, from the refrigerator. Onto these he planned to rub a thick fiery paste of canned chipotle peppers, cilantro, garlic, cumin, mustard, coriander, salt, pepper and the juice of a couple limes. Using a mortar and pestle, he mashed these together. ‘You could use a food processor,’ he said. He mashed the mixture a few more times. The cilantro stems were proving resistant. ‘You ought to, actually.’

When he was done with the rub, he applied it to the steak, slathering it on thick and placing the steaks in a disposable roasting pan. Then he washed his hands and looked at his handiwork. Next to the roasting pan was half a stick of butter sitting on a plate, soft. ‘Let’s make some cilantro-lime butter,’ he said. He minced some garlic and cilantro leaves and put them in a bowl, added the butter and began to mash it with a fork. Squeezed a lime over the bowl and mashed some more. Ground some pepper into it. Mashed again. And then smiled. ‘Fat, fat, and more flavor,’ he said, and put the bowl beside the steaks in the roasting pan and took it onto the porch.

‘You want to put these over the hottest part of the grill,’ he said, placing the steaks on the fire. There was the sound of hard sizzling. Mr. Schlesinger did not touch the meat, but watched it as an animal trainer might watch a tiger standing on its head. ‘You can move them later,’ he continued, relaxing a little, ‘but you want to get a good, solid sear on them first.’

On the table next to his grill were some bananas in a fruit bowl, and Mr. Schlesinger put a few of these onto the back of the cooking surface, away from the fire but not from the heat. ‘You want a little sweet to go against the heat of that chipotle crust we’re making,’ he said. ‘I’ll let those roast off till they’re brown all over.’

After seven minutes, Mr. Schlesinger turned the steaks over. He had not touched them since he had placed them on the fire, and they were beautifully seared, chestnut brown around the edges where the fat had roasted down, with a tight crust from the rub. Four minutes later, he moved them off the direct flame. ‘That side’s seared,’ he said. ‘Now we’ll take it to medium rare.’ He fussed with the bananas a little, turning them this way and that. One had split its skin slightly, and was giving off a fragrant, lemony steam.

A quarter-hour after he had begun cooking, it was over. Mr. Schlesinger put the steaks on two plates and placed a roasted banana next to each one. ‘Let’s put some of that butter on these rigs right here,’ he said, and applied a pat to each steak. These melted in the heat of the meat and drizzled down the sides.

‘Go grab a beer,’ Mr. Schlesinger said. Soon there would be dishes to wash.”

-Excerpt courtesy of The New York Times, “THE CHEF: CHRIS SCHLESINGER; A Lesson Not Learned in School: Using What’s at Hand,” by Sam Sifton, July 16, 2003. (top) Image courtesy of Sarah, via Flickr, 1980s album, “Harvest employee picnic, Chris Schlesinger and Herbert at the grill,” September 30, 2012

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