A Chef in His Getaway Galley

Published online: Sep 01, 2010 News JULIA MOSKIN - www.nytimes.com
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On a recent sunny Friday, Steve Johnson steered his skiff up the mouth of the Westport River, just down the coast from New Bedford. As terns wheeled overhead, fantasies of exotic summer destinations fell away. Who needs Bali when you've got a houseboat tied up in an estuary off Rhode Island Sound, and a mess of just-dug clams for lunch?

From May to October, Mr. Johnson, the chef and owner of Rendezvous, an unpretentious, solidly excellent restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., keeps a tiny 1971 Sea Rover houseboat named Blue Sky moored here. One night a week after dinner service at Rendezvous, he races down to the skiff and motors out under the stars to his saltwater home.

There, for a day at least, life and food become simple. He connects with the fishermen and farmers who feed his restaurant, and his cooking becomes elemental, centered on the ingredients that he is literally awash in.

The houseboat itself, which he bought 10 years ago, is no longer mobile. The former engine housing is now a sleeping area and the rest of the cabin is not much bigger than a chest freezer. The whole craft looks like a slightly expanded blue-and-white bath toy.

But with Mr. Johnson's 30 years of culinary experience, it also serves as a kind of teaching lab for how to make great food in a primitive kitchen. Mr. Johnson's appliances consist of a cooler, chilled by frozen jugs of Poland Spring that provide drinking water as they melt; a three-burner propane stove with high B.T.U.'s; and Weber's smallest model grill, the Smokey Joe.

"There are so many limitations: in heat, in refrigeration, in space," he said. "You learn to pare down to the basics."

It helps when your basics - at this time of year, clams, striped bass, berries, tomatoes, corn and potatoes - are gathered from a place where agriculture and seafood flourish.

One of the most popular late-summer dishes at Rendezvous was invented here: fillets of bluefish - buttery and clean-tasting - over fragrant rice, topped with a spicy, herbal cucumber salad. It's dinner for four out of one saucepan and one small skillet.

Westport is on what Massachusetts natives call the South Coast, just below Cape Cod, a few miles east of Newport, R.I., and an hour and a half from Cambridge. This was the state's most prolific dairy county until the 1970s, when locals say you could still hear cows mooing from the clam beds, and there are still potato fields, apple orchards and even a few grapevines in the area.


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