SCHOLARLY is not the first word you would apply to a creative, talented chef like Jasper White. But in culinary history, he does rate at the top of the class. Ask him how many oysters Charles Dickens ate on his visit to Boston's Parker House in 1842, and Mr. White could probably tell you the exact number - down to the very last half shell.
Oysters is a favorite subject of this chef-owner of the acclaimed restaurant Jasper's, and the author of ``Jasper White's Cooking From New England (Harper & Row, $27.95). His extraordinary cooking abilities with New England foods has won him a national reputation as a trailblazer in imaginative American cooking. Under his direction, traditional, regional foods such as cranberries, corn, maple syrup, venison, and game bird develop new flavor and meaning.
``I really sort of backed-into this idea of regional foods,'' White said in a recent interview. ``It was simply that I was trying to find the very best quality, the freshest foods available.
``That meant I used mostly food from the area around me, here in New England, when I opened the restaurant seven years ago. And as I started cooking with the wonderful fresh seafood, the lobsters, wild berries and beach plums, and abundant local farm vegetables, I got interested in the way people had been cooking their foods all these years,'' he says.
A close look at his menu reveals an interest in the cooking methods of American Indians and early settlers. His dishes also reflect early immigrant influences from the cuisines of the Portuguese, Chinese, Irish, and Italians.
Mussels with Curry, Jonnycakes with Poached Egg and Osetra Caviar, Cape Cod Littlenecks with Pickled Ginger, and Chicken and Oyster Pot Pie are just some of the seafood items on the menu.
White gained much of his knowledge about oysters by studying menus from the early 1800s. ``Today we eat only one tenth the number of oysters consumed 100 years ago,'' he says. ``Oysters were a tremendous fad in the mid-1800s in both Europe and the United States, and people ate not a half-dozen, but 40 or 50 oysters at a sitting.'' He says Dickens was thought to have eaten as many as 100 at one sitting.
Today, some of Jasper's customers come just for the oysters, and they say they're the best in the country, he says. ``I agree. Our Belons are wonderful right now, but the season is short.
``Many of our American oyster beds are not what they used to be, because of pollution, overfishing, and other reasons,'' he adds. ``Mine come from Pemaquid Point in Maine, from Rod Mitchell's Maine seafood company.''
White talks with ease about his sources for food - a subject skirted by chefs until recently. (Restaurant chefs would never tell where they got their best products because of the competition.)
``Mitchell will find the best local fish in the Gulf of Maine and have it here in my kitchen the next day,'' he says. ``He has a passion for his work. He has a degree in marine biology, but he'll put on his scuba diving gear if necessary - hunting for sea urchins, Pemaquid oysters, perfect striped bass or sturgeon, looking for scallops as big as dinner plates.''
White says he also likes Maine rock crab. ``It's even sweeter than blue crab,'' he says. ``It's actually a byproduct of lobster because it isn't fished directly. It gets into the lobster traps by mistake.''
Pan-roasting lobster is one of his favorite methods for cooking this ever-popular crustacean. Although it's served in the shell, he has the meat removed from the claws for easy eating. ``I spend $1500 per week on lobsters,'' he says.
About 75-85 percent of the dinners served at Jasper's are seafood, says White. But when he and his wife, Nancy, opened the restaurant 8 years ago, they had not planned for a seafood restaurant. ``It just worked out that way,'' he says. ``I couldn't be happier. I love seafood of all kinds but it's more difficult in a restaurant than serving roasts of meat.''
Jasper's gets their tuna from a Japanese company up the coast in Rocky Neck, Mass., that is known for supplying the best fish for sushi bars. Their Nantucket cape scallops come from Steve Connolly's Seafood Company.
``We use a lot of bottom fish, too, and have had some beautiful halibut lately. It's expensive but excellent,'' says White. ``I get wonderful smoked fish from Ducktrap River Fish Farm in Maine. It's the very best smokehouse in the country.''
Jasper's is also known for its Smoked Brook Trout with Horseradish Cream and Potato-Rye Toast, and for its smoked fish in chowders and other dishes. White also serves ``fingerling'' trout that are ``very small, almost like smelts,'' he says. ``In Colonial days they netted them, and [they] were tremendously popular. I liked them too, and put them on the menu even though they were available only a short time. Julia Child came back a second night she liked them so much,'' he adds.
His emphasis on freshness carries over to other menu items as well.
``I use a lot of organically grown foods, but this is not a mission with me,'' White says. ``For me the real reason to buy from a certain grower or supplier is because it's the freshest and the best quality.
``We do our own bread. Paula Sullivan, our baker, comes in early in the morning. We serve the New England Anadama bread, blueberry muffins, a brown bread which is a little sweet, and plain white breadsticks covered with coarse salt. And we use Kate's butter from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, which is really the best butter around,'' he says.
Because some restaurants are lowering their prices due to economic pressures, White has slightly altered his menu. ``I can't lower prices at the top end of the menu because I am committed to the best quality, but I enjoy adding dishes with a more moderate price,'' he says.
``I've added dishes like codfish cakes using fresh cod, and Yankee Pot Roast, and I make a boiled dinner with corned beef which I corned myself. People really liked the Pot Roast and Boiled Dinner meal on chilly or rainy nights.''
White's cooking techniques respect the traditional while making it new and wonderful. Some of his ``signature dishes'' are Indian Summer Chowder with Smoked Chicken; Pork Rib Chops with Clams and Garlic Sauce, Pheasant Broth with Escarole; Red Flannel Hash, Chunky Lobster Stew, Brown Bread Pancakes, Pumpkin Cr`eme Brule'e, and Apple-Butterscotch Tapioca Pudding.
He regularly brings his creative talents to his menu.
``Yesterday we had shad roe in the kitchen,'' he says. ``Remembering the annual outdoor shad festival bakes in Connecticut, I thought about the pleasant smoky atmosphere and thought `it may not be in any of the New England recipes, but why not a slightly smoky flavor for the roe.' It worked. It was lovely,'' he says.