Chef shows in a small space what matters most
|In summer, Steve Johnson, chef-owner of Rendezvous in Cambridge, lives on a boat with a small kitchen. He concocted a similarly small space to demonstrate to a class how to grill clams, saute mushrooms (pictured), and make vegetable stew. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)|
CAMBRIDGE — With his cut-off white jean shorts, flip-flops, and blue cotton T-shirt, Steve Johnson is doing a good job of looking like he’s been on the deck of his houseboat. Only he’s in the Formaggio Kitchen warehouse not far from the Alewife T station, demonstrating how to cook in the sort of tiny galley kitchen found aboard most boats. When you are on a boat, a small kitchen is not the sort of thing anyone complains about. Still, limited space on land or sea can prove challenging for anyone wishing to cook creatively.
Johnson, chef and owner of Rendezvous restaurant in Cambridge’s Central Square, lives on his houseboat moored in the Westport River in the summer and has become a master of small kitchen cuisine. He catches his own fish, rakes for clams, and buys produce from local farmers and markets. This class, “Houseboat Cooking,’’ is based on his own experiences, and is equally relevant for boaters and those who simply enjoy summer cooking and grilling in New England.
Johnson starts the evening with small Wellfleet clams on a charcoal grill just outside the warehouse. He says it is just what he would do on board. The clams are tossed with a broth of white wine, olive oil, marjoram, thyme, salt, and water left from cooking potatoes earlier. The addition of Maras pepper, a dried Turkish pepper, adds subtle heat and a refined flavor. Fluke ceviche with salsa verde, then mackerel with Vietnamese cucumber salad follow. A medley of spring vegetables is light and peppery with a hint of garlic.
The chef describes his houseboat, a 32-foot Sea Rover. “The inside is really small, but the outdoors is really big,’’ he says. For anyone with a tiny kitchen, that can be an obstacle to putting out inventive, delectable meals. With a three-burner propane stove and a small charcoal grill, Johnson is a master of creating fresh dishes, even with little elbow room. “It’s all about organization,’’ he explains to the class of 15 on a recent Thursday evening. “You can’t really forget anything.’’ To simulate the experience, he’s created a galley kitchen in a rather spacious warehouse.
He describes salt marshes, clam flats, blue crabs that he chases, and a deck from which he watches various fish swim by. Johnson and his houseboat are in the middle of an edible aquarium. “I can catch four different species of fish in one day,’’ he says. Not that he’s bragging, because Johnson isn’t the type. Understated and calm, he exudes a Zen-like peacefulness not typical of chefs.
The restaurateur says he often spends 24 to 36 hours without ever setting foot on land, all the while creating dishes worthy of menu specials. Everyone wants to know the secret to making his food so flavorful. “Using really good ingredients, you can turn out some pretty tasty food,’’ he says. His houseboat pantry typically includes salsa, Tabasco, soy sauce, olive oil, rice, canned sardines, and “lots of crackers.’’ His other secret to small space cookery is to discard as little as possible; for instance, saving cooking water to use later as stock.
He favors oily fish, such as mackerel and sardines, each with distinct, intense flavors. He has just finished making an anchovy vinaigrette, with capers, shallots, lemon juice, thyme, and olive oil. Johnson mixes it with Yukon gold potatoes and calls the salad “a non-tomato version of tuna Niçoise.’’ The anchovy’s saltiness and lemon’s citrus blend in a summery, refreshing way to create a dressing that is versatile enough to be mixed with a salad or served as an accompaniment to fish.
“This is at the other end of the spectrum and luxury from restaurant cooking,’’ Johnson says. And while the preparations are simple, he makes intensely flavored sauces and marinades. In fact, you would never know he was working with limitations.
No wonder the slogan on his “Westport Houseboat Association’’ T-shirt reads, “We don’t need to go anywhere.’’
Bridget Samburg can be reached at email@example.com.