In restaurants, open kitchens offer a view of the cooks at work. But if you really want to get to know a chef, look no farther than his or her backyard barbecue. Restaurant cooking is about pleasing the customer; at home, over a grill or a smoker, it’s personal. Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial opening of outdoor cooking season. For professionals, the holiday can offer a rare respite from the kitchen, time to spend eating and talking with family and friends. So what are chefs cooking up in their own backyards these days? We asked a few of Boston’s best.
chef and co-owner, Mei Mei
Irene Li, a three-time James Beard award semifinalist for “Rising Star Chef of the Year” who is building a reputation as an advocate for food justice, at first says she is “not really a barbecue person.” Then she shares the following anecdote: “I turned 20 the same year my mom turned 60 and my dad turned 70, so we threw a 150th birthday party together and roasted a pig and a giant sea bass over the sandbox I played in as a kid.”
This year for Memorial Day, Li is going smaller-scale, making a dish that reflects the aesthetic of restaurant Mei Mei. She brings together seasonal ingredients and flavors from Asia by grilling soft-shell crabs and wrapping them in lettuce with fresh herbs, pickled vegetables, dollops of mayonnaise flavored with fish sauce, and a squeeze of lime. “The little differences in the crunch of lettuce, the crunch of shell, and the crunch of pickled veg kind of tickle my brain in just the right way,” she says.
Favorite barbecue memory: “My mom loves to grill. She’s taken barbecue classes and reads up on it all the time. Her specialty is chicken wings marinated in a concoction made of all the little takeout sauces she’s collected from Chinese, Indian, Thai, and other restaurants. And because she’s a doctor, she stores the marinade in a urine sample cup in the fridge.”
chef-owner, The Smoke Shop, Tremont 647, Sister Sorel
As a grand champion on the competitive circuit and proprietor of The Smoke Shop, Andy Husbands has real barbecue credibility. But the master is keeping it elemental for the upcoming holiday, using the classic “3-2-1” approach to smoking spare ribs — 3 hours naked, 2 hours wrapped in foil, 1 hour dressed with sauce — that Husbands lays out in “Pitmaster,” his recently released fourth cookbook with partner Chris Hart. The racks will be cooked in homage to Husbands’s dad, who owned punk-rock clubs in Seattle in the ’70s and invited a cast of colorful characters to every barbecue.
“He always made his country-style ribs, and he didn’t care about perfecting the recipe,” Husbands says. “He just thought being together was what it was all about.” (If you’re one of those people who does care about perfecting your ribs recipe, Husbands will be running barbecue classes at The Smoke Shop this summer.)
Favorite barbecue memory: “My father was not really known for his cooking, and he would grill those ribs until they were charred and almost burnt. Then he would glaze them with some sort of sweet, thick, and smoky sauce that would burn even more. Hewould just keep basting and charring for what seemed like forever. These were probably not tender, award-winning ribs, but I remember them as some of the best.”
executive chef, Bistro du Midi
Josue Louis spends his workdays focused on refined Provencal cuisine at Bistro du Midi, but his holiday menus lean more toward the down-home food his parents grew up eating in Haiti. “I love grilling fish heads for my mom and dad,” he says. “My mom always kept the head for the adults, because the kids didn’t appreciate it, but everyone eventually learns that sucking every bit of meat off the bone is an unwritten rule.”
The trick to Louis’s fish heads is his version of epis, Haiti’s omnipresent marinade and seasoning base, which consists of bell peppers, Scotch bonnet peppers, onion, garlic, celery, parsley, thyme, cloves, vinegar, olive oil, and Maggi seasoning. After pureeing the ingredients and rubbing the fish heads thoroughly with lemon and vinegar, he dunks the heads in the epis for a day or two before grilling them on a hot fire. The versatile marinade works with just about anything you could dream of throwing on the grill.
Favorite barbecue memory: “I remember seeing my dad and older cousins always behind the grill at cookouts sweating profusely while pumping out food. I was fascinated by their ability to make everyone happy with food and humor, but I always try to spend as little time behind the grill as possible!”
Memorial Day had special significance for Mary Dumont as a kid in New Hampshire. Both of her parents’ birthdays fall around the holiday weekend, so the cookouts were major affairs. “My older brother is a chef too, and we took over the barbecues at a pretty young age,” she says.
Dumont turns to lamb for early-season barbecues. “It’s something different than burgers and hot dogs,” she says. She loads up ground meat with herbs and spring garlic before grilling patties and serving them on sesame buns with crunchy pickles and tzatziki. She may be too busy to make them over this holiday weekend, though: Her new restaurant, Cultivar, is slated to open at the Ames Boston Hotel next week. But the menu there will have some luxurious grilled dishes, Dumont says, thanks in part to a custom dry-aging program she built with Dole & Bailey, a fifth-generation butchery operation in Woburn.
Favorite barbecue memory: “When I was younger, we had a house on the beach, so all the family would get together and grill and have a great time. It would be an all-day, all-night affair with a big bonfire and fireworks. We loved doing stuffies and lobsters with the barbecue too. And there was a fine dusting of sand on everything.”
Matt Jennings underwent a sleeve gastrectomy last year, and has written about the struggles that led him to that decision. Since the procedure, he has lost 130 pounds and says the days of his body being a “trash compactor” are over. “We’re cooking more lean proteins and crushing veggies at home,” says Jennings, whose first cookbook, “Homegrown,” comes out in October. “My two sons are just getting to the point where they are willing to eat food that isn’t white, so it all feels really good right now.”
‘I remember seeing my dad and older cousins always behind the grill . . . I was fascinated by their ability to make everyone happy with food and humor.’
The new approach translates to barbecue as well, and Jennings’s grill plans include lots of spring vegetables and one of his standbys: stuffed striped bass. “We buy 2-pound stripers or black bass and french out the spine and guts,” he says. “Then we stuff them with braised greens, veggies, and sausage for the grill.”
Favorite barbecue memory: “I was lucky to spend some summer weekends in Nantucket with my grandparents. We’d all go fishing for bluefish. . . . Some we’d grill right away, and the rest would be portioned out for smoking, making pate, or freezing.”Sam Hiersteiner can be reached at email@example.com.