Nonsense, says grill guru Steven Raichlen. With just a little innovation and smarter operations, grilling can replace all other forms of preparing food. He ought to know. With a series of best-selling barbecue books, a television show, and a signature line of grilling utensils, Raichlen is the grill authority.
His path down charcoal road began in 1994, which he likened to hearing God's voice saying, "Follow the fire." Raichlen visited 25 countries on five continents before eventually publishing The Barbecue Bible. "Grilling is not rocket science. It's done all over the world in primitive ways," says Raichlen, who's seen makeshift hubcap grills in Third World countries and open fires in the desert. Since then, he has gone on to write 26 books, defeat chefs Bobby Flay and Jacques Pepin in barbecue battles, and launch Barbecue University at the Greenbrier in West Virginia, where participants can earn grilling diplomas in a three-day crash course.
In the Raichlen household, every meal is grilled. When it comes to eating out, Raichlen doesn't make judgments on others' barbecue. "I celebrate regional variations," he says. "People always ask who makes the best barbecue, and I don't do that." For Memphis, says Raichlen, what stands out are the dry rub and mustard glaze.
"The fascinating thing about grilling is that it's different every time," he says. "When you cook in an oven and set the temperature, it remains at a constant heat and the outcome is the same each time. With grilling, every time you build a fire it behaves differently."
Raichlen is currently on a multi-city tour teaching audiences how to tame those fires and have a successful grill experience. The "Tools and Techniques Tour" includes information from The Barbecue Bible, as well as its counterpart, How To Grill. "[My] books are like food porn for guys who like to grill," he says. "Lots of them feel like they should know how to grill, but you're not born knowing it. You need to learn it."
To reinforce these tenets, Raichlen's tour programs demonstrate techniques similar to those found on his PBS show, Barbecue University, including the 10 Commandments of Grilling and the griller's mantra: "Keep it hot. Keep it clean. Keep it lubricated." Raichlen's seminar also features the 53 gadgets in his new Best of Barbecue line, which includes a three-pound grill press and a clip-on grill headlight.
While some of the cool gadgets may be a little extreme for amateur grillers, Raichlen does advocate the essentials, such as tongs and basting and grill-cleaning brushes. He says the main objective of the tour is to teach people something they didn't know. For men: It's okay not to know how to grill. For women: Their stumbling block is usually lighting the fire. Raichlen first teaches gas-grill safety. He recommends gas grills for women for easier grilling. For both sexes, the most common mistake is covering the grill with food, which makes maneuvering difficult.
"Every time we fire up the grill, we remember the moment when we moved from animals to humans when we began cooking our food," says Raichlen. "If you've been grilling the way your daddy taught you - to scorch everything until it's blackened - you will realize that you can control the food. The food doesn't have to control you."
Steven Raichlen's "Tools and Techniques Tour" at Viking Culinary Arts Center, 119 S. Main, 6th floor (578-5822), 5-7 p.m. Wednesday, June 22nd
by Janel Davis