Barton Seaver leads me up a flight of stairs toward the roof of his Mount Pleasant rowhouse.
As we climb, I daydream about the type of equipment the prominent chef and cookbook author uses for grilling seafood. Will it be a double-insulated, hyperefficient Jambo pit? Maybe one of those super-long, heavy-gauge offset rigs that barbecue competitors tow to contests.
We come to the top of the stairs, open a set of French doors and walk out onto the roof. There, tucked in a corner, shining in the withering midday sun, sits the chef’s smoking and grilling apparatus: a beat-up 18-inch Weber kettle. Like your dad used. Except smaller.
I stare in disbelief and recall that old saw about “assume.”
“That,” I manage, “is all you use?”
“I have a small smoker,” he says, patting a covered rectangular box the height of your average 7-year-old. “I can’t remember the last time I used it.”
After heading the kitchens of such restaurants as Cafe Saint-Ex, Hook, Tackle Box and Blue Ridge, the 33-year-old Seaver now lectures worldwide on sustainable seafood as a National Geographic Society fellow. In May, Sterling Epicure published his first cookbook, “For Cod and Country,” and he’s already working on a follow-up, about grilling.
I’m here to grill seafood with him. Actually, he’ll be the one grilling. I’ll be taking notes.
The unassuming kettle reflects Seaver’s unassuming approach. Flavor, he says, is not so much about what you put on the fish but what is in the fish itself. “You just want to stay out of its way,” he says.
Still, when I tell him he can’t actually concoct a recipe — I just want him to grill or smoke, showing me technique more than anything else — he reflexively winces. Telling a chef to not cook is like telling a quarterback to throw without a ball. “All right,” I say once we’re back in the kitchen. “I brought some stuff just to play around with. Herbs. Peaches. Jalapenos. You can do a sauce for the oysters.”
He brightens, immediately spoons some butter into a pot, lets it slowly melt as he dices a peach, adds a scoop of smoked paprika to the melted butter, stirs, adds the peach and stirs some more. “See how it’s thickening,” he says. “You want it to sort of emulsify. Here. Taste.”
It’s vaguely sweet, rich with butter and beautifully smoky. Although I don’t say anything, I think it could use some salt.
He holds up the halibut steak I brought. “Poor quality,” he pronounces, noting the lifeless droop of the belly flaps hanging from it.
Seems a good time to ask what to look for in a fish. Go to specialized markets, where they know what they’re selling, he says. Look for clear eyes with no milkiness, and a clean, bright sheen to fillets. For whole fish, poke the flesh. If it’s fresh, it will bounce back. And stay away from fish wrapped in plastic, which “takes away your control to assess quality.”
In a glass bowl, Seaver mixes water, a little sugar, some salt. “I like to brine fish,” he says, immersing the halibut. “Helps keep them moist.”
Back upstairs, he tosses six fist-sized hickory chunks onto a hot charcoal fire on one side of the grill. He prefers chunks to chips because they burn longer and help him better control his fire.
He allows the chunks to flame and burn down a little before placing six oysters, which he had scrubbed clean, directly over the fire. When they begin to open, he takes them off one by one, holds them in a cloth and pops off the top shell with a small knife. He puts them back on the grate and spoons a little of the peach sauce over each one. He leaves them there for about two minutes, until they bubble, then removes them to a platter. We slurp.
They are fabulous. The brininess of the oysters provides all of the salty flavor that I had thought was lacking in the sauce, creating a beautiful balance. I have been wrong all day, and I couldn’t be happier.
He adds four or five more wood chunks to keep his fire steady, but he allows it to burn down for about 10 minutes because he wants it at about medium.
“Your cookbook has a lot of different cooking methods,” I say. “Your heart... .”
He points to the grill. “Right there,” he says.
He oils the halibut steak and a swordfish steak, which he salts because it was not brined, and sets them on the grill as far away from the fire as possible. He puts the lid on and opens the vents about halfway. After a couple of minutes, smoke escapes from the vents. Seaver bends down and smells it. “I just love this,” he says.
“You don’t direct-grill?” I ask.
“I prefer to smoke,” he replies. “Direct-grilling takes some of the moistness out of the fish. Slow cooking keeps it more moist. And you get more wood-smoke flavor, which I like.”
“When do you turn them?” I ask.
“I don’t,” he says. “You lose some of the fish’s juice when you turn them.”
Again, I say nothing. Direct grilling is a classic technique. More to the point, it’s how I do it: direct grill for a couple of minutes on both sides, then, if the piece of fish is thick, move to the cool side. I like the grill marks and the char flavor.
But Seaver maintains that the flesh of a fish should never come into contact with the hottest part of the fire. If the fish has skin, he says, place it skin side down over the coals with the lid open. After a couple of minutes, turn the grate — not the fish — to the cool side and slow- roast with the lid on. “It’s easier to pick up the grate and turn it than it is to move the fish itself,” he says.
I’ve had just about enough of this upending-my-assumptions stuff.
Seaver then talks about creating an “undulating, circular heat.” Admiring the smoke, he adds, “Doesn’t that look delicious?”
After about 10 minutes, he pulls off the lid, and under the swirling smoke the swordfish has turned a light tan color and the halibut a faint cantaloupe hue. They are beaded with moisture. He pokes an index finger between the skin and the flesh of the halibut to show how it gives slightly.
With a spatula, he slides the steaks from the grill effortlessly, with no sticking. He serves the fish grilled side up, to show the marks that formed on the underside.
We sit around platters of cooked seafood on a small rooftop table. There are still a couple of oysters left, and now the swordfish and halibut.
He pokes at the fish, and moisture oozes out. He picks at it to show its flakiness. “That’s what you get with smoke,” he says.
I take a forkful of the halibut, and I don’t miss the grill taste that comes from direct fire. The light smoke flavor transports me to campfires in the woods as a kid. Seaver is right; the fish is incredibly juicy. I will continue to direct-grill for the char, moving the fish (or the grate) to the cool side for some smoke, but the lesson isn’t lost on me. The smoke-entirely technique has expanded my repertoire.
Seaver looks at the ebbing fire. Perfect, he says, for a slow, low smoke of a whole rockfish, which he had scored and seasoned with herbs earlier. He adds salt to the fish, sets it at the far end of the grill and lets it bathe in a light wood smoke for 40 minutes.
In the meantime, we feast on the sublimity of simplicity. I’d assumed it would taste this good. Finally, I’m right.