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Chris Schlesinger: 'Early Riser'

Chris Schlesinger was born and raised in Virginia, where he first developed his love for barbecue, spicy food, and live-fire cooking. He opened his first restaurant, East Coast Grill, in 1985, and tripled the ever-popular spot’s size (and shifted its focus from barbecue to seafood) in 1996, the year he was named Best Chef: Northeast by the James Beard Foundation. He is the coauthor with John Willoughby of several cookbooks including the James Beard Cookbook Award-winning The Thrill of the Grill and, most recently, Let the Flames Begin.

During the summer after I dropped out of college, my sister came home one afternoon and told me that all the cooks at the restaurant where she waited tables had walked out.

She said that if I wanted a job cooking she was pretty sure they couldn’t turn me down. I said I wasn’t interested -- I had things to do, like catching Red Sox games on television and surfing -- but my grandmother, who we were staying with down in Virginia Beach, overheard the exchange. After a few stern words from her, I was off the couch and on the way to the restaurant.

It didn’t go exactly as my sister predicted: they didn’t hire me as a cook, not immediately. Instead, the chef pointed me toward the dish room, a closetlike area with a sink stacked full of soiled plates and grimy silverware. He told me to grab a beer and clean the dishes. So I did, and I had a blast; it was an unexpected rush bringing order to the chaos. And it was even more fun afterward, when the shifts were over, and the nighttime waitresses and ragtag kitchen crew and I sat around putting back beers.

It wasn’t more than a few weeks before I’d graduated from dish washer to cook. I hadn’t been the most focused kid in school, but when I found the kitchen, I found the place I knew I wanted to be. It was hot and hectic during service, but when you were in the groove, it didn’t matter, it was a constant buzz. Back in those Virginia Beach days, no one got mad when you drank beer all through service, and having a job where I could surf in the morning and then work and sip on beers at night seemed perfect to me.

With my dad’s encouragement, I got a little more serious and made my way from that restaurant on the beach to the Culinary Institute of America. Back then, the CIA wasn’t like it is now: it was a trade school, even if it was a distinguished trade school. It took guys like me and molded them into efficient and eminently hirable cooking machines.

I parlayed my degree into some decent work down at a couple of hotels in Florida -- hotels that just so happened to be near good surfing spots. I took my chef status seriously, sure, but surfing and hanging out were still important to me. I was a much more peripatetic guy at the time, though it’s not unusual for people in this profession to travel around a lot: the skills are portable. After Florida, I made my way to Cambridge, Massachusetts. My sister lived up there -- done with waitressing, she was in graduate school at Tufts studying city planning -- and it was where my dad grew up, but I wasn’t looking to put down roots. I was just passing through. We went out to dinner one night, and that was the night I stumbled onto Harvest.

Harvest had been open for about four or five years when I started cooking there in 1980. It was different than any of the other places I had worked: it wasn’t tied to classic sauces and staid French cuisine. The owner, Ben Thompson, wanted it to be a very cutting edge, esoteric restaurant. He backed up that demand by making sure the kitchen could cook anything. Jim Burke, the chef, would place a phone call to France and buy whatever the guys on the other end of the phone were selling. A cook would be dispatched to the airport to pick the stuff up and haul it back into the kitchen, where we’d open up the boxes and try to figure out how to use it. This was anything but normal in American kitchens of that era. At that time, kitchens were bastions for macho men who took a workingman’s pride in what they did. The temperamental, artistic side of cooking had no place in them.

Harvest was the first kitchen -- and remains one of the only ones -- where I’ve worked where cooks would make trips to the library to find out more about what they were cooking with and how they might cook it. We played around with roe scallops and all kinds of great seafood, plus a bunch of ingredients that sound incredibly common today -- haricots verts, baby vegetables, kiwi fruit -- but at that time were considered exotic, the very building blocks of nouvelle cuisine in this country.

Not wanting to be left behind, I started spending more time with cookbooks and reading about food. I wanted to be able to keep up with the conversations the other cooks were having while we were prepping. It was the first place I’d worked where the cooks talked more about the food they were cooking than about which one of the waitresses they wanted to sleep with. I was eschewing morning trips to the shore to surf because I’d been up late with my co-workers eating and talking, coming up with crazy new things to try in the kitchen.

And it wasn’t just the cooks in the back of the house -- the waiters and bartenders and managers were all just as enthusiastic about what the restaurant was doing. Our collective enthusiasm for food spilled over into our personal lives: We cooked for each other in our apartments; we ate at other cutting-edge restaurants together. There was a palpable sense among the people who I worked with at Harvest that we were ushering in a new age in American restaurants.

I remember never having seen or even heard of a premeal briefing before Harvest. A premeal briefing, as I discovered, happens right before guests arrive: it’s when the chef goes over the menu for the night, explaining the dishes and the specials to the waitstaff, and maybe offering a taste from the wine list so that they are well-prepared when a customer asks about it. That’s standard practice at any good restaurant today, but it was initiated back then during the creative boom of the early eighties.

Since the sous chef at Harvest at the time was slightly uncomfortable talking in front of people, he asked me to take on the premeal. I am, as anyone who knows me can attest, a natural ham. And at that time I hadn’t been up in the North very long and everyone thought my southern accent was hilarious. So I would get out there and ham it up, really mangling the French names of the cheeses and having a good time with it.

Those good times carried over into the kitchen, where we cooked a lot of very good food. We butchered all our own meat, made our own pickles, stocks, and patés; if there was an ingredient that we were curious about -- head-on chickens, for example -- we had it available the next day. It was a cook’s paradise in that way. The repetitious drudgery of most kitchens, where there was always a veal chop done this way and tenderloin with some overly buttery French sauce, was entirely absent.

There was a new challenge every week if not every day at Harvest, and a host of new dishes and techniques to learn and master. Much of what we cooked was simple and light and delicious -- and some of the best food I’ve ever had a hand in making -- but we were also the perpetrators of many culinary atrocities in the name of nouvelle cuisine: smoked scallops with strawberry sauce, smoked kiwi beurre blanc, raspberry quiche. It went with the territory; the boundaries of nouvelle cuisine were still being mapped out.

And we were always pushing those boundaries. One night we’d gotten in a whole wild boar from West Germany, a fierce-looking critter shipped to us with a full head of hair and plenty on its haunches, too. It was a spectacle to behold -- fatty, meaty, and feral -- and we treated it as such: we decided to cook it on a spit outdoors, out on the deck, in front of the guests. They were not as pleased as we were, however. Customers would come up and stare, their faces barely hiding their revulsion. The outdoor cooking station was my domain at the time, so I was the one who had to hear, again and again, “You shouldn’t be cooking that thing.

I was undeterred by their reactions, even egged on a little bit. That is, until we got busy and I turned away from the spit for a minute. It was probably less than a minute. However brief the interruption, when I turned back I saw that the spit had stopped turning and some of the boar’s hair had caught on fire. And it didn’t take any time for the fire to ignite the fat that was dripping off the animal; in an instant the spit-roasted wild boar had turned into a conflagration of skin and meat and hair. I stepped away in horror as huge red flames crackled and sizzled around the animal. One of the cooks raced for the fire extinguisher and put it out, right there, in front of the guests. Oh, was that humiliating.

But those were the sort of disasters we were courting -- we were constantly pushing the limits of what we knew. Sometimes you’d go down in flames. More often, though, we were cooking excellent and exciting food.

I had been at Harvest for two years when I got an offer to go and cook at a Marriot in Hawaii. Two years was a long time for me to stay in one place back then, but I wasn’t itching to leave. I liked my co-workers, whom I saw as peers instead of fellow hooligans for the first time in my career. I liked the progressive and professional environment in the kitchen at Harvest. And they liked me. In fact, they liked me enough to offer me a better position and a raise.

But I was torn. I had always wanted to surf in Hawaii. The hotel was on Maui, and for the few nights after the offer came in, I drifted off to sleep at night with visions of the best surf spots on the island dancing in my head. With one of these phone-it-in cook’s jobs at a corporate hotel, I’d be able to surf as much as someone who has to earn a living could.

I called my dad and asked him his opinion. Without a moment’s hesitation, he replied, “Go to Hawaii.” It was out of character for him to say so, but if he thought me going to surf and screw around in Hawaii was the right thing, I was behind it.

My friends at Harvest sent me off warmly, and I headed to Hawaii, to what I thought was going to be paradise for a surfer chef like myself.

But after a couple of great mornings of surfing, dismal days in that horrible hotel kitchen, and empty nights of mai tai swilling, I was miserable. Harvest had changed me: food was important. Doing a good job -- not just doing what was acceptable -- was important. I had stumbled into a community of creative, thinking cooks and waiters at Harvest, and it was a community that I needed to be a part of. Every restaurant on the planet had beer and waitresses. They weren’t the draw anymore. And the surfing up in Massachusetts wasn’t all that bad when I got around to it.

As for my father, he gave me the perfect advice: If I hadn’t tried Hawaii out, I probably would have felt like I was missing out on something. But now I knew for sure where I needed to be. A few months later, once I’d saved up enough for the airfare, that’s just where I went.

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