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Networking: Chris Schlesinger
Owner, East Coast Grill & Raw Bar, Cambridge, Mass.
April 05, 2011
QUOTE: "I tell the guys all the time, ‘If you want the good product, you pay your [fishmonger’s] bills on time. These people are your partners.’ "
Twenty-five years as an independent in the restaurant business is quite a feat, but Chris Schlesinger quickly and humbly attributes his longevity to good luck. Oh yeah, and a lot of high-quality food at good prices with hospitable service. “It’s about the fundamentals,” says the owner of East Coast Grill & Raw Bar, which has become an institution in the Inman Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Mass. “We’ve always aspired to be what a restaurant can be in culture and society — a place to relax and have a good time and get treated right.”
There aren’t many restaurants that have a dual focus of barbecue and seafood, but the menu at East Coast is a reflection of his favorite flavors, having grown up near the Virginia seaside. Schlesinger, 55, may have ditched “chef” from his title but he still prowls the bustling hotspot daily, making sure it lives up to its well-earned reputation. WRIGHT: In what ways has the restaurant industry changed, for good or bad?
SCHLESINGER: The people are way more professional. The industry has matured. When I got into it, in the mid ‘70s, if you couldn’t make it in college, you went into restaurants. And there were only two culinary schools in the nation. I used to read Vietnamese cookbooks. Now the kids coming around have lived in Vietnam, they speak Vietnamese. They’re more professional. Kids at 16 are thinking they want to be professional chefs. It’s gotten a lot more serious and the quality has improved. How have the last two-plus years been, with the struggling economy?
I don’t think it has changed for the worse at all. Customers are appreciative of good food and they’re discerning.
We were down for a couple years, and we were back up last year. It’s bumping up a bit but it’s not back to where it was. [Ten years ago] there was a value in businesspeople going out and spending as much as they could. It was pure gluttony. But that’s not cool anymore. It’s a sign of the times. You won Boston.com’s “Munch Madness” last year. What was that like?
We had a big advantage, in the later rounds. We’ve been in business for 25 years, so hopefully voters had some good experiences. That was great, we’re really proud to maybe not be the best, but to be the favorite. We’re not the place that puts food up on a pedestal. It’s about the people. Where is the bulk of your seafood from?
Mostly local. We work with Island Creek for shellfish. We try to stay seasonal, so lots of groundfish. But we do mahimahi and tuna year-round; those are notable exceptions. We do squid and shrimp in season. We’ve been running Maine shrimp this season, with the rest [of the shrimp] out of the Gulf. We’re proud to support the Gulf — we think the seafood is totally safe. How have your sourcing practices changed over the years?
Very little. I tell the guys all the time, “If you want the good product, you pay your [fishmonger’s] bills on time. These people are your partners.”What’s your take on sourcingsustainable seafood?
It’s very complicated and I don’t agree with a lot of the [non-governmental organizations]. To reduce a complex issue like overfishing to “buy this, don’t buy that,” is an oversimplification. If you put two scientists in a room together even they won’t agree. Fishing as a way of life is something that should be treasured and guarded. I’m on the fishermen’s side. They’re right up there with golfers as far as telling the truth, but I’m with them.