I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. I’m hoping what I learned from Chef Steve Johnson of Rendezvous will be just as informative to you regardless of the time and place you read this.
|Mache from the Rooftop Garden|
It was a cold day with snow on the ground and I was thankful when the kitchen staff let me in. Shortly after I warmed up, Chef shows up and asks me if I’d like a cappuccino. Who could refuse?
We ended up at the bar and struck up a conversation about his citrus trees growing in the restaurant. He discussed the difficulties with the bugs that were a constant battle. He was only able to yield one grapefruit that was zested for use at the bar. He segued into how he had this amazing Meyer lemon jam from a friend's tree. "It was one of the best things I tasted that year." At that moment, I knew this was going to be a fun conversation.
Chef Johnson was flattered that he was being interviewed on the heels of Chef Jose Andres and Harold McGee. I expressed to him that my interest in people of the food world was not based on popularity but what I could learn and share with others.
He began to talk about how On Food and Cooking influenced him. He bought the book shortly after it came out and it was his bedside bible. “I took the book to the beach with me on summer vacation … while my friends were reading paperback detective novels. Once I started reading the book I couldn’t put it down. Twenty years ago, I was completely fascinated by what was inside that book.”
“This is it. It’s exactly what I’m looking for. I understood better the science of cooking and the why behind the how. You take those two building blocks and it completely advances your knowledge. For me, that book is one of the top five influences on my career.”
What inspired you to move to France in ’76 and become a chef?
He discovered an interest in language early on and found he had a knack for it. He took a French class in the eighth grade and it blossomed from there. Eventually, he targeted a college with an abroad program that put him in Montpellier his junior year.
“It was that point in time that I came into contact with all these flavors. [There were] … approaches to food and ways to think about food that I never encountered before. It was an awakening for me for sure.”
He was fully immersed in the culture, which in France meant food. Chef also came to understand that he preferred to work on his feet. When he returned to the U.S., he got a job washing dishes in a restaurant. His parents were not pleased.
He worked his way through the ranks and chose jobs with skills of interest. “Little by little I fashioned myself a culinary education designed around trying to recreate in a professional setting my experiences as a young person in France.”
How did food impact you as a child?
“I was born in a rural small town in Central Ohio in ’56. …in that part of the world, people ate differently than they do now. My mother’s father had an enormous vegetable garden and we ate out of it a lot. He was very generous. When he went to visit neighbors, he would bring a basket of vegetables as a gift and he was a very popular man in our town… “
“I enjoyed spending time in the garden. I thought it was a wonderful place. I was impressed at an early age by the way he gave food that he grew himself as gifts to other people and made them happy. A very early lesson in how food can be a vehicle to give pleasure to other people. In the heart of every cook, there’s that sentiment or motivation.”
What are you working on? What’s new?
“My approach is I’m a tinkerer. I’m not a big concept guy. I like to go to work, put on my apron and fiddle around. That’s how I go about my business.”
“My ingredients mostly come from local and seasonal sources. There are no big wow discoveries.”
He frequents the farmers' markets, finds what looks interesting and works his magic. He also goes through seed catalogs, tries out what strikes his fancy and utilizes what works.
“I’ve fallen in love with Maras, a pepper from Eastern Turkey. I spend a lot of my time week in and week out trying to find out new ways to use this ingredient. It has a smoky kind of quality to it much like ancho peppers, but they’re not smoked. I get rough cut milled that still has oils in the flesh. It has a moderate heat to it. I use it to make chicken soup and sautéed squid. I’ll use it for anything.”
What’s the oldest piece of equipment in the Rendezvous kitchen that’s irreplaceable?
“Two 24” double handled cast iron skillets. We use them multiple times every single day.”
His crew was cooking some pears when I arrived. Just prior, pork shoulder for the cassoulet. Later on they plan to saute mushrooms.
“They’re indispensable. One piece of equipment beyond a chef’s knife and a pair of tongs would be a cast iron skillet. Hands down. I have friends who moved into a cottage and I gave them a cast iron skillet for Christmas. It’s the most obvious first gift.”
What profession would you pursue if you were not a chef?
“Late in life I came to appreciate the marine environment. I am fascinated by the natural world. I don’t want to say marine sciences because it sounds too lofty… I might have been a deck hand or a marine biologist.”
The Winter Bounty
In the middle of the interview, I got a tour of the Rendezvous rooftop garden. We managed our way up a metal ladder and a set of cinder blocks posing as stairs with snow crunching under our feet. I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw.
Like any garden, there are tools, compost and an owl.
The flat rooftop has full sun exposure. I was fascinated by his irrigation system that was simply condensed water from the restaurant’s air conditioning units.
“By using these vegetable crates from deliveries, lining them with cardboard and setting them in the puddles… Roots pick up water as they need it. We run these units from Memorial to Labor Day. When the sun is the hottest throughout the middle of the summer, I have an abundant supply of water. April, May, Sept and October… natural rain supplements. It takes care of itself.”
“November through April, I compost with earthworms. When it was a warm day, I gathered earthworms from the bottom of the crates and put them into the compost pile.”
He showed me wintered over mint, chives, sage, thyme, lavender and horseradish. Crates were strategically placed to take advantage of the limited sun of the season.
"This is mache. It’s a lettuce. It’s extremely hearty. It’s not uncommon to see it growing in the snow. It’s a slightly bitter green. Also referred to as corn lettuce.”
He fashioned a greenhouse so the rosemary bushes would survive the winter. Their size over the years made it difficult to transport them seasonally up and down the ladder. It was built with windows from a local restoration salvage house. It was strategically set over a vent from the restaurant that heats it throughout the winter. The biggest plants were celebrating their fifth anniversary. The melting snow and occasional rain was enough to keep the plants watered throughout the winter.
“So we use this rosemary to flavor the roasted chicken broth. Also use it to flavor the pizza dough that we use for grilled pizzas and flatbread for bar snacks. We make this pizza dough in large batches two or three days a week.“
“[The garden] ...got bigger last year and it will probably get bigger next year. Herbs work best because they are most tolerant of conditions. I grow some cherry tomatoes up here for fun so I can snack while I’m up here.”
I learned a lot about Chef Johnson that day. The food he serves is a glimpse into how he was raised and his adventurous pallet rooted in his Southern France experience. A tinkerer who developed his own rooftop irrigation system and greenhouse with resources that would otherwise be wasted. A gardener who grows his own ingredients influenced by his grandfather’s generous spirit. A Francophile in touch with flavors of the Mediterranean sewn into the cuisine he serves. Chef Johnson has made Rendezvous a restaurant of its namesake. A wonderful place to meet up and get some downright solid food made by someone who truly cares about making people happy. I must get back there and see what's new.
Rendezvous in Central Square
502 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139