Boston’s Frank McClelland has the secret to the perfect char
Author Jolyon Helterman
The delicate medley of radishes, onions, carrots, garlic and pea tendrils roasting away on Frank McClelland’s makeshift grill is starting to look a smidge blackened around the edges, but the chef nods approvingly.
“Another six or seven hours should do it,” he says, plopping another heaping tangle of tendrils on the fragrant hardwood fire.
We’re in the middle of a field on McClelland’s farm in Essex, Massachusetts, incinerating batch upon batch of veggies for use at L’Espalier, McClelland’s four-star French restaurant in Boston. There, the oily charred vegetable bits—or “ash”—will be tossed with tapioca powder and aromatic spices (like juniper berries and sumac), dried in a low oven and pulverized into a concentrated paste that can be brushed onto seafood, meats and vegetables for a subtle smokiness.
That subtlety is key. Any steakhouse can conjure a char on an aged porterhouse, but that gutsy flavor profile is harder to achieve when working with, say, fragile Dover sole. Separating the production of the char from the cooking of the protein itself allows the smokiness to be deployed with greater nuance and control.
Indeed, the very next night the ash appears at L’Espalier in a delicately smoky beet garnish for foie gras, as the ethereal backdrop to a buttery dish of warmed Wellfleet oysters and brushed onto a mild-flavored beef tenderloin with bone marrow, cèpes and fermented garlic. While you can technically char anything edible, says McClelland, the sugarier the vegetable, the better the ash. “I play around with the recipe a lot,” he says, “but I always try to keep the onions at about 50 percent.”