Reinventing the Thrill of the Grill -July 2017

by: Amanda C. Lydon

photography by: Janie Dretler

I have a moderate to severe fear of grilling, or at the very least a post-traumatic wariness. At my first cooking job after college, I began as most young cooks do, on the hot and cold appetizer station. The restaurant was a French bistro with Latin influences, so the station’s stresses were limited to shucking enough oysters, or heating and arranging pre-made duck tamales over a warm spinach and bacon salad.

The hardest part was mastering the squeeze bottle to make the perfect squiggles of chipotle vinaigrette on the steaming tamale (it was the 1990s). After a few months, our pretty, petite chef might have thought she was doing me a favor by “promoting” me to cover the grill station on the regular cook’s night off.

Jim, who normally worked the grill, was a mostly silent, methodical cook. He was an aspiring drummer, lank-haired and thin. All of the best-selling dishes came off the gas-fired grill: a half chicken smeared with tangy achiote paste, cilantro and lime; a brined double-thick pork chop with mango salsa; a hanger steak with watercress, guava barbecue sauce and a pile of spicy potato frites.

No matter how busy he got, Jim moved between the grill and fryer economically, and he was never frantic. His was a beast of a station, and at the end of every service, Jim calmly smoked a cigarette through half-closed eyes still wearing his filthy apron, smeared with paprika, kosher salt and grease. In the unspoken hierarchy of line cooks, he was the unlikely king.

I shadowed him for a few shifts, probably made it through a few slow nights before I worked the station alone. That night, for some mystifying reason, the kitchen offered a grilled half lobster as a special. I’m sure I made some meek protest, raised as I was to capture and release houseflies instead of swatting them, but I was young and eager to please.

The first time the chef called out an order, I reached into my lowboy refrigerator for a live lobster and held it down firmly on the cutting board in front of me. Then, steeling myself, I inserted the tip of my chef’s knife in between the lobster’s eyes and plunged the blade down through the body and tail. Half of the wriggling crustacean went on the monstrous gas grill behind me, the other half back in the cooler until it was ordered. My cutting board was soon covered in pools of saline lobster innards, and swabbing the board dry soaked through one of the precious folded kitchen towels from our measly allotment, hoarded in my reach-in at the beginning of service.

As their acrid shells turned scarlet and black over the flames, each lobster twitched its swimmerets and flailed around desperately. Sweat dripped down the small of my back. The ticket machine kept spitting up white dupes, the chef kept calling out orders and I kept killing and cooking, in a sort of robotic horror.

In line-cook parlance, the grill station went down hard that night, overwhelmed as I was by the mess of raw proteins and the chaotic volume of orders coming into the kitchen. At the end of the night, our ritualistic scrubbing down of the stoves and our stations didn’t remove the deflated, sick feeling in my chest. Another cook ended up covering the rest of Jim’s nights off.

After that long service, I plan a festive dinner on the grill like a defensive driver: my mantra is just to avert disaster, i.e. I take care to design a meal that’s enjoyable to execute, and I will never again grill anything that kicks while it is cooking.

Twenty years later, the resurgence of aromatic, wood-fired restaurant cooking, including Straight Wharf ’s own enormous wood grill, has been therapeutic in restoring my pleasure in preparing food for a live fire. A friend recently gave us a wheelbarrow-load of apple wood for a present, which made for months of happy winter experimenting with the intersection of smoke and temperature.

In summer temperatures, the control freak in me likes to plan dinner on the grill with a cold first course. The Seattle landscapes in chef Renee Erickson’s “A Boat, A Whale & A Walrus” evoke something of Nantucket coastal cooking. Her recipe for chilled melon soup (which I made last summer with Bartlett Farm’s fragrant melons) was a delicious surprise, far exceeding the sum of its parts: yogurt, olive oil, lime, fresh mint leaves and a little cayenne.

Serving the soup in small cups leaves the other hand free for slurping oysters, grilled with a dollop of smoky red chili butter and lemon. They’re easy to shuck ahead of time, resting flat on nests of foil or even mounds of fresh seaweed: from there, they take only a minute or two on the grill to cook through.

For the main course, I tried to replicate the spirit of a restaurant family meal, when we might cook something a little too spicy for the dining room. In her story about jerk chicken for The New York Times, Julia Moskin quotes Jerome Williams, a Jamaican cook who says, “It’s not a sauce, it’s a procedure.”

So although I had to forego grilling the chicken over the traditional allspice (aka pimento) wood, I felt authorized to substitute apple wood and add in a little ground coffee to the marinade for extra umami. Know your audience and adjust the capsaicin heat accordingly. “It has to be hot,” concluded

Williams, “but it cannot only be hot, or you will get no joy from it.”

To temper the habanero heat, I served the skewers of dark-meat chicken alongside a tart, herby salad of rice and heirloom beans, crisp cucumber and fennel. If you want to ratchet up the heat, put up a jar of pique, a pineapple-scented hot-vinegar sauce early in the summer and let it ripen. A curry and green-chile-flecked mayonnaise makes a Jamaican variation on the ubiquitous Mexican street corn, with crumbles of fresh cheese, cilantro and toasted coconut chips.

And last, a simple flan with rum and vanilla bean is delicious at any temperature. I love them chilled, in oversized ramekins, with warm pineapple cooked over the dying fire. Even for the grilling-averse, there will be joy. ///

Amanda Lydon was a professional chef for 15 years in Boston and Nantucket. She is a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.

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