Collectively, one of the few atavistic urges accepted and encouraged in our society is cooking over an open flame. Even in today's world of the celebrity chef and high-tech kitchen apparatus, outdoor grilling remains part of the soul of most culinarians. Thus, despite the manic world of the restaurant kitchen, on their days off, some chefs opt to spend their time at home cooking in front of their outdoor grills. Sharing this passion for grilling are three of Charlotte's notable chefs: Gene Briggs of Blue Restaurant & Bar; Bruce Moffett of Barrington's Restaurant; and Marc Jacksina of Halcyon, Flavors from the Earth.
Briggs learned how to grill as a child. "My parents would cook out all summer long," he explains. "We always had a big garden and we would use everything that we could from there. As I got into this business, I started using techniques and food that I learned at work."
Learning at the elbow of a parent was Moffett's experience as well. He reports that he watched his mother grill and then experimented on his own. "I grew up in Rhode Island and we always spent summers at a lake house. A small hibachi was part of our summer gear. We used charcoal and the grates were always cast iron. Sirloin steaks, swordfish and corn were the most common things we grilled."
But not all professional chefs learned to grill at home. For some, knowledge came from working on the line. Even though Jacksina comes from a food family, he first learned to grill in restaurant kitchens. "My first position on the hot line was the grill station, and my first Friday night was a near disaster," remembers Jacksina. "Between the number of covers that we did that night, the fact it was a grill-heavy menu, and my relative no-experience on a grill gave me a crash course in hot spots, flame-ups, timing, burn treatment and, most importantly, patience."
With experience and the knowledge of food comes an insight into grilling that many amateurs may not appreciate. Since chefs work and experiment with a variety of proteins and vegetables on a daily basis, they come to know the ins and outs of dealing with foods over a flame as well as how foods react and taste when cooked over different fuels.
Briggs prefers grilling over charcoal, but for convenience, he frequently uses basic gas grill. He says that at home, he enjoys making his three daughters' favorite grill food: barbecue ribs (see recipe on this page). Jacksina also prefers charcoal, and while his dream grill is the Char-Griller Outlaw, he says his grill works fine for the amount of time he has to use it. His favorites to grill include "beef and veggies for straight over the coals grilling, and pork for real low temperature cooking/smoking." Jacksina also includes local fruit in the mix: "The one thing I really love off the grill is in season North Carolina and South Carolina peaches." Grilling peaches allows the sugar to caramelize and brings out the sweetness.
Moffett owns a Char-Griller which only burns charcoal. But his dream grill is a custom-made wood-burning grill (like many restaurants use) built into this patio. He adds, though, that "The Green Egg might be fun, too." Moffett never uses gas unless he has to, and he prefers to grill whole cuts of meat, such as an entire rib eye or a bone-in pork loin. He says, "I start the meat over the direct heat to set a sear and then I move it to the side and bring down the grill lid and let it slow roast."
Jacksina says that he enjoys smoking pork on his grill — not a smoker. He doesn't own a smoker. He states, "That's the thing I love about smoking proteins. It's much more about fire than it is the meat. In restaurants, we treat fire as a tool, take it for granted, increase and decrease the temperature with the turn of a knob. With charcoal and wood, you have to plan, have patience, have a conversation with the flame, and learn its temperament, as each fire is different."
Before Halcyon opened last year, Jacksina and sous chef Brett LeVan "laid out some serious barbecue" with Boston butts from Caw Caw Creek. "We fired up some hickory wood around 7 a.m., and spent the day discussing favorite dishes and food memories, food theories and techniques while tending to the fire and enjoying some beers." And that's really what grilling is about: that appreciation of food to flame.
Yet not all foods welcome the open flame. Some cook too quickly, others dry out or fall apart. Moffett says vegetables can soften and shrink, and thus fall through the cracks. If oil is used on them, they will blacken with smoke. Briggs adds that fish can be tricky but recommends always having a hot and clean grill top. While he lists red snapper among his favorite summer grilling recipes, he notes grouper as being the most challenging since it is easy to overcook and become dry. Moffett agrees with Briggs' fish assessment and recommends buying "firm fleshed fish that won't disintegrate if it sticks a bit to the grates." Jacksina suggests that lean fish can be a problem for the inattentive cook: "Too much oil or marinade can cause flame-ups, or if an oil has a low smoking point, the flesh can get an oily smudge."
What are the best grilling tips from these professional chefs? Briggs recommends "keeping the grill clean and burning off the leftover bits on the grates every time you are done using it. Also, it's a great idea to go to the local farmers market the morning you plan on grilling; there, you will always get a lot of great ideas and exceptional products." Jacksina has three suggestions: patience, limiting the flipping and movement on the grill, and giving the proteins at least five minutes to rest (more for smoked meats).
And Moffett gives some practical advice: "Make sure your grill is a safe distance from the house. I had a friend who melted his vinyl siding."