5 Courses with Jason Heard of East Coast Grill
by Louisa Kasdon
| July 23, 2012
Photo: MICHAEL DISKIN
It says a lot that when Chris Schlesinger decided to sell East Coast Grill (1271 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, 617.491.6568) — after 27 years and umpteen high-octane cooks on the line — the guy he turned to was exec chef Jason Heard. When Heard took over as chef-owner this spring, regulars were worried. Would it signal a change in concept for the Inman Square landmark? What would happen to its Scoville-scale-shattering Hell Night? We checked in with Heard to hear about his background — and his plans for East Coast’s future.
How did you become “the one”? I was working in Key West, and one of the waitresses where I worked became my wife. She said we had to move back to the real world, and to her that meant Boston. In 2008, we bought a house in Cambridge. . . . By chance, East Coast Grill was on my walking path, a block away from home. I took a grill job. People left. I moved up. More people left. I moved up again. And again. Last November, Chris took a close look at my résumé and asked if I’d like to buy the place. I thought he was kidding or drunk. I sort of blew it off. A few weeks later, he asked if we’d gotten our finances together. We began calling everyone we knew and got the money together, and by April we were ready to move forward.
You’re a Southerner? I’m a military kid. My dad was a Green Beret officer, and we moved all over the world. I was born in Texas, lived in Georgia, Hawaii, and Germany. There is a lot of insanity when you grow up going to four different high schools and living in 10 different places. But my father wanted us to blend in wherever we lived, so we always ate local food, never “American food.” My dad was in Korea and brought back kimchee. We lived in Hawaii. I fell in love with Hawaiian whole-pig roasts. And then we moved to Germany, where you shopped every day for whatever you were going to eat. You went to the bread store to buy bread, the cheese store to buy cheese. Everything was fresh every day. Germany is where I first had street food. When we moved back to Georgia, I ate my first rattlesnake.
Uh, rattlesnake? Yup. The Claxton Rattlesnake Roundup is a big event every year. It’s a little oily but good. They nail the rattlesnakes to trees, take a stick — maybe that’s enough detail. The Center for Disease Control shows up and takes all the venom, the boot makers show up for the skin, and the rest is food.
Have you made any changes yet? So far, the only thing we’ve done differently is to open for lunch on Saturdays so that people who can’t
get in for dinner can still eat at East Coast Grill. You don’t mess with success. . . . Most of the staff was here before I ever crossed the Mason-Dixon line. I’m hoping we can outlast Chris and still be here 27 years from today. People were afraid that it would be different. But today when I look out across the restaurant from the cooking line, I’m seeing fewer and fewer people asking, “Did you change the tuna?”
Is Hell Night still part of the plan? Absolutely. I like heat too. But I don’t believe in dumping a load of chiles in someone’s food just for the hell of it. Heat shouldn’t be about burning your face off. It has to do something for the dish, not take away from the dish. . . . Hell Night can’t be about getting sick and calling the ambulances. That’s TV ratings stuff. Not cooking.
Louisa Kasdon can be reached at email@example.com.