The Salt and Pepper Chef
Chef Rebecca Charles Reflects on Color and Her Pearls
For seasoned chef Rebecca Charles, solid cooking technique trumps trendy ingredients when she’s giving a new line cook a shot in the kitchen at either of her Pearls—Pearl Oyster Bar, opened in 1997 in New York’s Greenwich Village, or Pearl Kennebunk Beach, opened in 2017 in the town’s lower village not far from where she and her family spent summers. The prospective hire gets a piece of protein, some salt and pepper, and instructions to impress her.
Charles has a colorful no-nonsense manner that makes you want to park yourself on an oyster bar stool and listen to her tell stories about cooking professionally for 40 years as she pops open Maine mollusks by the dozen. She sat down with edible MAINE editor Christine Burns Rudalevige to chat about the role color plays in her life as a chef. The conversation has been edited for length and flow.
What’s your favorite color?
I had an art room growing up. There was an easel and paints and markers in every color of the rainbow. But I don’t have a favorite. I don’t have a favorite anything, really because that entails liking one to the exclusion of all else. Why limit yourself? Learn about them all! I have been reading this book called The Secret Lives of Color—you know, as both of my restaurants were closed this winter—and the backstories of most colors are fascinating, but I don’t feel the need to pick just one.
What about color on a plate of food? Do you have combinations you prefer to use?
Color on a plate is important to me, but again, not to the exclusion of how the flavors taste together. It’s got to be reasonably placed on the plate. Take a piece of pork, for instance. There is a slight pink when it’s sliced, and you can get a bit of golden brown in your sear. But it’s still basically white, so you need a pop of color, but it’s got to be a flavor match too. Use something like rainbow carrots. Orange carrots can be pedestrian because we all know them. But rainbow carrots still go well with pork, and they add great yellows and really dark crimson reds to the plate. You want to make the plate pop a little, but you also want the flavors to sing together.
But with other dishes, I wouldn’t care if they were colorful if they are cooked perfectly. To me, a charred steak, rare to medium rare, is beautiful as it is. Of course, I’d always take shoestring fries with it, maybe some red watercress. That is how we serve it at Pearl. What else do you need? Maybe a little bearnaise…
Has food gotten more colorful since you started cooking professionally?
Food in this country was mediocre when I started cooking in the ’70s. It was continental, a rehash of a variety of European cuisines. But since [then], so many more people have gotten into the business and the internet has made [previously] hard-to-get global ingredients more widely available. Trendy cooks get competitive about using them. I've started a few trends in my time; like I have been credited with starting the lobster roll craze—outside of Maine, that is. [But] I don’t like trendy ingredients because you really need to know the origin and the history of your ingredients so that you don’t put stuff on a plate that has no relationship to the other things on the plate.
Experienced chefs have an innate understanding of what goes with what. You can fake it when you start out cooking using tried-and-true combinations, but it takes maybe 10 years [to gain] enough experience to really understand which ingredients complement, contrast, and work together. You need to build a solid foundation to make great dishes seemingly out of thin air.
So, technique and time in the kitchen help a line cook pass your salt and pepper test?
The salt and pepper thing just illustrates my point about simplicity. If you look at the menus of my restaurants, you'll see that both the food and the ingredients are simple. To me, it's about method. I want to know somebody can properly season and grill protein to temperature. I want to know they can cook vegetables correctly because overcooking them makes the texture wrong and degrades color. Overcooked vegetables fill me with sadness.
Speaking of sadness, how do you think restaurants will fare as we dig out from the pandemic?
I’ve always been straight with people who ask me how my restaurants are doing. So I’ll do that now and tell you that I’m not sure if we are going to survive. I am a person who likes to see things through, and I just can’t see what’s around the next bend in the road for independent restaurants. Ask me at the end of the summer; maybe I’ll have a better idea then. I hope I do.
Editor’s note: If you’d like to know more about chef Rebecca Charles
and the colorful Maine-centric food she’s famous for,
pick up a copy of her book, Lobster Rolls & Blueberry Pie:
Three Generations of Recipes and Stories from Summers
on the Coast of Maine (HarperCollins, 2003).