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Wish They All could Be East Coast Grills


Just beyond the merry-go-round, in one of the many grassy picnic sections of Griffith Park--home each weekend to a hundred kids' birthday parties--stands a man and his fire.

Over by the ice cooler, several toddlers beat up on a grinning green dinosaur pin~ata, but the griller, Chris Schlesinger, chef of Boston's East Coast Grill and co-author of five cookbooks, including James Beard Award-winner "The Thrill of the Grill" (Morrow, 1990), calmly watches the fire for the perfect moment to begin cooking his specialty of the day, hot dogs for a bunch of 2- and 3-year-olds. It's a heck of a way to promote a book.

Schlesinger, tan, with short-cropped blond hair, standing casual in a pair of flip-flops he grabbed out of his suitcase not long after getting off a plane an hour before, looks in need of a beer. He settles for a Diet Coke.

This chef doesn't prod or poke at the fire in the style of so many anxious home grillers hoping to impress the fire into submission with their deft handling of a pair of tongs. He does, however, build what he calls a two-level fire, pushing the wood charcoal to one side of the kettle drum so that when the moment is right, he will have several surfaces on which to grill his hot dogs--hot, medium and low.

"Hey, bud, how're you doin'?" Schlesinger asks a 2-year-old named Devin. "Would you like a dog?"

Devin, who is going through an intense Emeril phase via daily viewings of the Food Network, looks up at the chef with awe, then smiles at his dad. Yes, he'll have a hot dog, and by the way, he seems to signal to his dad, this guy is cool.

With hot dogs making the rounds, Schlesinger, who is the nephew of Harvard historian and Kennedy speech writer Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as well as the grandson of social historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and feminist Elizabeth Schlesinger, gets down to the slightly more serious grilling of an Alaskan halibut fillet.

Schlesinger has two halibut recipes in his newest book, "License to Grill" (Morrow, $27.50), written with his longtime co-author, John Willoughby. But without a kitchen at his disposal and having just endured a cross-country flight, the chef resorts to an easy but dependable solution. He takes out a canister of his own Inner Beauty spice rub--his Inner Beauty habanero hot sauces are famous among chile-heads--smooths it all over the fish and throws the fillet on the grill. No ceremony about it.

"Do you recommend using one of those special grates for fish?" Devin's dad asks.

"Nah," Schlesinger says. "I just do it right on the grill. I figure if you do it right, you don't need that all that."

"How do you make sure it doesn't fall through?"

"Start with a really hot, lightly oiled grill, a clean grill," Schlesinger advises. Some people like to talk sports, Schlesinger loves to talk grilling. "Then when you put down the fish, don't move it around a lot. Some people start moving the fish right away and say, 'It's sticking.' Let it sit for a while so it'll get a skin on it and you can flip it."

"I didn't know that," Devin's dad says. "I'll try it."

Schlesinger seems satisfied, happy that there might be one less anxious griller in the world.


Question: You surf. You're tan. You've written cookbooks on grilling, on salsa, even on salad--in other words, California food. What are you doing living and cooking in Boston?

Answer: It's where all my friends are, and, I think, at the heart of it, I'm an East Coast guy.

Q: Yet you're attracted to foods that at least on the surface don't seem like East Coast food.

A: Well, part of it is that I grew up on the beach. I'm a beach bum guy. The ocean was the backyard at our house, so I grew up surfing. That was in Virginia Beach. Then I lived in Florida, Hawaii, places where I could get close to the waves.

In fact, I had my first serious brush with ethnic food when I was 20 and living in Barbados for the winter. We were living in a small town on the north coast, and we ran out of money, so we just started eating what everybody else ate, which was a ton of seafood and a ton of chiles. I got turned on to the Scotch bonnet pepper down there, and I got turned on to rum too. I think once you start eating spicy food, you don't really stop, so when I came back I was psyched about hot food.

The type of food I like is Chinese food, Thai food, Salvadoran food. When I started cooking at the restaurant, I tried to put together an understanding of why I liked all these seemingly disparate cuisines. I realized that most of the flavors I'm drawn to come from warm-weather places. I think the closer a place is to the equator, the more flavorful food gets. Plus the culture of eating is less formal than the culture of European eating, and I think that appealed to me.

Q: You say in your new book that your father was a classic dad griller. Tell me how he influenced your cooking.

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