WESTPORT — Chris Schlesinger and John “Doc” Willoughby are doing what they do best: serving dinner to a dozen guests with food sourced within a few miles of Schlesinger’s backyard and cooked over an open fire. As they often do, the pair are making a grilled feast that focuses on the sea, farms, and artisanal producers in the area.
On the menu are Westport quahogs with butter, garlic, and lemon juice in a dish called Clams Johnson (named for Rendezvous restaurant chef, longtime friend, and fellow Westport resident Steve Johnson); baby beet salad with local greens and thimble-shaped cow’s milk cheese called Hannabells from Shy Brothers Farm; grilled bluefish with a tomato, smoked paprika, and chourico relish; and grilled sweet potatoes glazed with molasses and butter.
What makes this scene different from most other parties the pair might host is a crew and cameras. For an upcoming WGBH cooking show, the authors and grilling experts are preparing an only-in-Westport meal. And for many viewers who watch “A Moveable Feast With Fine Cooking,” a collaboration of the public TV station and Fine Cooking magazine, this may be their first taste of the surprisingly rich culinary products from this region.
In the first season of “A Moveable Feast,” Australian chef and TV personality Pete Evans travels around the United States exploring local foods and ingredients. On each of his 13 stops, Evans works with a team of well-known chefs to plan a menu, source the ingredients, cook, and serve a meal, all in a one-day, “pop-up restaurant” style. Groups range from under a dozen to over 100.
The Westport dinner is very casual. “It’s our style,” Schlesinger says. At East Coast Grill, which he owned for 27 years before he sold it in 2012, Schlesinger was one of the first chefs in the Boston area to cook over a hardwood charcoal fire. At home, he says, if it’s grilled, “it’s quick and it tastes good.”
Schlesinger and Willoughby have honed that style through eight cookbooks they co-wrote, with another book on grilling slated for spring.
The “Moveable Feast” menu draws heavily on Buzzards Bay seafood. Clams are cooked directly on the grill just until they open; then they’re tossed in a skillet with butter and lemon. “The thing about clams on the grill is you don’t have to know anything,” Willoughby says. Of oft-maligned, rich native bluefish, also grilled, Schlesinger says, “When you get it fresh, it’s great. And it’s certainly characteristic of New England.” The relish of tomato and chourico (which Schlesinger, like many locals, pronounces “shareese’’) represents the Portuguese tradition of combining fish and meat in a dish, which the chef applauds for being both sustainable and local.
Schlesinger and Willoughby have taken Evans on a close-to-home tour to source ingredients: the Back Eddy restaurant for homemade Portuguese sausage (Schlesinger once owned this restaurant), Orr’s Farm for salad greens, and Westport Rivers Vineyard for a pinot noir rosé. Along the way, the chefs ran into a farmer who wanted to show off the day’s greens harvest. So his baby beets became part of the meal. Perhaps the most local of all are quahogs that the three harvested from Schlesinger’s boat just hours before the meal. The men were joined on the outing by their black Labs, 2½-year-old litter mates Sally and Zipper.
“There’s a bunch of farm-to-table razzle-dazzle out there, and the real farm-to-table thing here,” Schlesinger says of Westport, a seaside community of 14,000 along Buzzards Bay, where he has owned a house for 20 years. “It represents New England in a quiet and unassuming way that I love.” He now lives here full time.
Adds Willoughby, who also owns a home here, “It still has a lot of farms and dairy land.” Willoughby was executive editor of Gourmet magazine and is now editorial director for magazines at Boston Common Press, which publishes Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country. “I have mixed feelings about telling people about [the Westport area].”
With its herb and vegetable gardens, fire pit ringed with boulders for lounging while you cook, and a view past the marsh to the open ocean, Schlesinger’s home makes an ideal backdrop both for his cooking style and for the TV feast.
Evans, who has a successful restaurant and television career in Australia, says that hosting “A Moveable Feast” is a “dream job” that allows him to truly get to know the county and its cuisine. “We usually hear the bad stuff: mass-produced food, fast food, processed food, cattle that are treated badly,” Evans says. Traveling for this show, he sees the best of American food, and considers it on par with such culinary destinations as Spain, France, Italy, and Denmark.
Of the Westport stop, Evans says, he came to the location “green.” “I wanted to be surprised.”
“To be able to go out on a boat with a rake and collect dinner with your mates was magical.”