Chris Schlesinger: the Pigtrip Interview
This one's long overdue. Shortly after All Star Sandwich Bar opened last year, I sat down with the chef Chris Schlesinger, who also owns the legendary East Coast Grill, to talk barbecue.
Pigtrip: Growing up with barbecue in Virginia, how often did you trek to North Carolina and points further south?
Schlesinger: Barbecue for me was whatever we ate locally. Every so often, my father used to arrange a pig pickin' at our house, and the guys he hired would show up around dusk and start working on the pig. They'd be sitting around and drinking beer while tending the pig, and I used to watch them and even help out a little. Well, when I woke the next morning I'd see the same guys stitting in the same chairs drinking the same beer. And they'd chop up the whole pig, and the skin would be really crisp, and that was what barbecue was. I remember whenever we'd fly back to the airport, the first thing we'd do was check out a particular barbecue place my father was fond of. He was really into food and always had his favorite spots for different things, like Howard Johnson's for the hotdogs. But I didn't usually travel that that far for barbecue until I was already in the restaurant business. That's when I went to Memphis in May. We actually had a team that competed. I met John Willingham there—he was a two-time Memphis in May winner—and he was instrumental in helping us with our pit. He did mine and also Robert's over at Redbones.
Pigtrip: What kind of smoker do you have now?
Schlesinger: We have a J&R smoker, and we've been really happy with it.
Pigtrip: Did East Coast Grill and Jake & Earl's [the small, BBQ-only joint next door that closed in 1996 to make way for ECG's Lava Lounge] both open at the same time? What were the early menus of ECG like?
Schlesinger: East Coast Grill was open for about five years before we opened Jake and Earl's. In the early years we were doing pretty much the same thing we're doing now at East Coast Grill. A lot of grilled meats, with a little bit of seafood, though not to the extent that we're doing now. It's a little embarrasing to say this now, but in the very early days, we were actually boiling the meats to get them cooked, then finishing them up on the grill.
Pigtrip: Who was the "Jake" of Jake and Earl's? I thought I read in one of your books that it was someone's dog, and I've also heard it was Jake Jacobs [who worked at Jake and Earl's and later opened Jake's Boss BBQ in Jamaica Plain].
Schlesinger: The Jake part was named after my one-eyed dog, and the Earl was my partner's father. We used to always hang out for hours after work at Jake Jacobs's original place down in Roxbury. So Jake Jacobs, the Living Legend of Barbecue, didn't join us 'til later on.
Pigtrip: I've heard you say more than once that the Boston area is establishing itself as one of America's premeire cities for BBQ.
Schlesinger: Well obviously, there's Memphis, Kansas City and Texas and the Carolinas that are the real hotbeds of barbecue, but once you get past those areas, there are probably more barbecue places cooking with wood here than anywhere in the country.
Pigtrip: I read that the Rendezvous in Memphis uses charcoal, not wood.
Schlesinger: Actually, in Memphis as a whole, it's predominantly charcoal.
Pigtrip: Lemonade, sweet tea, beer or wine: what goes best with barbecue?
Schlesinger: Beer. Definitely beer.
Pigtrip: If you were going to have wine with barbecue, what would it be?
Schlesinger: I'd say the Rhone varietals would go best. Maybe a Syrah.
Pigtrip: Do you think you'd ever open a BBQ-only place, kind of like Jake & Earl's or the Way Back Eddy?
Schlesinger: Probably not, since we've already done that, so we'd most likely do something a little different.
Pigtrip: Your latest new place is the All Star Sandwich Bar. Why sandwiches?
Schlesinger: During the low carb craze, I got away from eating bread. After a while, I started to miss sandwiches, and I was just tired of seeing wraps. Sandwiches are also a uniquely American art form. Other cultures have countless varieties of meats and vegetables inside a dough filling, but a burrito isn't really a sandwich any more than a sandwich is a burrito. Plus, I think having the sandwich shop is a nice addition to the area.
Pigtrip: Are the smoked meats coming from East Coast Grill?
Schlesinger: Yes, we do those here.
Pigtrip: I tried the chili and the flavors were amazing, but I was surprised it wasn't hotter.
Schlesinger: Yeah, we're working on that. We want it to be nasty—the kind of chili that's so hot you can't even eat it.
Pigtrip: Speaking of hot, I'm holding out hope that I can buy a bottle of Inner Beauty in the supermarket again someday. What are my chances?
Schlesinger: Not very good. We wound up selling the licensing rights because we realized that it wasn't really a lot of fun being in the hot sauce bottling business. But you can always get it here, and I'd be happy to give you the recipe for it. [The recipe is included in Schlesinger's Big Flavors of the Hot Sun].
Pigtrip: Do you have any new cookbooks in the works? Would you ever do a Hell Night cookbook?
Schlesinger: We're working on some grilling books that are geared to an international audience. I'm still working with John Willoughby, who's in New York now, working as the executive editor of Gourmet magazine.
Pigtrip: What's your favorite barbecue restaurant in the area?
Schlesinger: Most of the barbecue I eat is at parties and get togethers we have at my house down in Westport. But to be honest with you, I don't really eat a lot of barbecue. Every now and then, what I'll do around here if I'm feeling really hungry is take a little of the smoked shoulder, mix it with some of our beans, and some cornbread, and mush it all together and eat it like that, and it's really good.
Pigtrip: Is it harder to cook good barbecue, or keep good barbecue?
Schlesinger: In the South, at most of the traditional barbecue joints, they typically open only on the weekends, or maybe from Thursday through Sunday. They cook a certain amount and sell it fresh, and when they run out, they run out, just like we do over at the sandwich shop with our beef on weck. In a restaurant environment, it's not practical to do it that way, so we have to stay ahead and hold it. We still manage to keep it tasting fresh, like adding vinegar to the shoulder only as it's ordered. But holding the barbecue is where the real challenge is.
Pigtrip: What's the future of barbecue? Will we ever see a place with two pork shoulders to choose from, one traditional and one with an exotic rub? Or four different spare ribs to choose from?
Schlesinger: I think to a great extent you're seeing that now. You're seeing a lot of different international styles of barbecue becoming popular, kind of what we're doing with our Latin brunch. It's the same smoked shoulder and ribs, and we're still using wood and slow smoking them, but the flavor profiles are completely different.
Pigtrip: Andy Husbands, a former chef at East Coast Grill and now of Tremont 647, has gone in the other direction, going more traditional. His competition team, IQue, is doing really well.
Schlesinger: [Leans closer to microphone] I want to say, on the record, for the first time in print: I taught Andy Husbands everything he knows about barbecue. [smiles]