Elizabeth Karmel is one of America’s top grilling experts, executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market in New York and Washington, D.C. and NYC’s Hill Country Chicken. She’s also the founder of Girls at the Grill, a web site full of recipes, tips and resources for novice to experienced grillers. Who better to partner with Williams-Sonoma as outdoor entertaining is in full swing?
I asked Karmel all about her love of barbecue, her entertaining philosophy and why more women are firing up the grill than ever bef0re. Keep reading to hear her story.
Your first experience cooking barbecue yourself wasn’t until you left North Carolina. What inspired you?
It was all taste memory. I just really craved it one day after moving to New York, so I got a Boston butt and cooked it indirectly until the fat rendered out, and I made the vinegar sauce I grew up with: apple cider vinegar, ketchup, a little dark brown sugar, white pepper, black pepper, chili flakes and salt. Basically, the recipe I created that day, with a little of this and a little of that, is pretty much the same one I use today. It’s so much simpler than everybody thinks.
Why is there more interest in barbecue and southern cooking now?
It’s a cravable food. People love it. There are people who’ve been spreading the word about how easy it is to do in your backyard.
How did you start cooking in restaurants?
I came into the restaurant business through the back door, not the front door. I developed recipes for cookbooks and magazines, and then I was asked to teach a class on barbecue at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. There was no outdoor space, so I had to figure out how to do it indoors utilizing a stovetop smoker. The class was so popular I was approached to start a restaurant.
What did you want to offer customers at Hill Country Barbecue Market?
One of the things I said was that if we open a Texas barbecue restaurant, we can’t put pulled pork on the menu. It’s difficult to do one thing well and impossible to do all things well. I’ve taken the recipes I grew up on and tweaked them to have a Texas bent, or tried to make a recipe that other people grew up on taste just like their mothers made it — multiplying the flavor by a thousand. The key to our success is that there is a real emotional connection to our food.
What’s your philosophy on cooking and entertaining?
I want to communicate and connect with people through food. I really want them to feel like somebody they love is giving them a hug when they take a bite of my food. It’s pure, simple, authentic and homemade. I’m very straightforward and gracious in the way I entertain. My portions are much larger than average — I don’t want anybody to go hungry! And I use the best possible ingredients I can find.
How did you decide to focus on grilling?
I truly believe grilling and barbecuing on an outdoor grill is the best way to prepare food, bar none. Open fire promotes caramelization, so you don’t need much extra fat or sauces to cover up the food. It’s a perfect way to bring out the inherent goodness of high-quality ingredients.
What’s the story behind Girls at the Grill?
Growing up, everybody I knew cooked — food was huge in my family. I would meet people who didn’t cook, and I thought, if I could get them to buy a gas grill and start grilling whatever foods they like with the grilling trilogy — olive oil, salt and pepper — in a month they’d be having dinner parties because it is so easy to be successful. I’ve seen this happen with both men and women, and nothing excites people more than doing a great job and getting compliments from their family and friends.
Grilling has historically been associated with men instead of women. Why do you think that’s starting to change?
First of all, not every man likes to grill. But I also think the advent of gas grills changes things because now you don’t have to build a fire; it’s as easy as flipping a switch and you’re cooking. Sales statistics show the decision of which grill to buy has always been heavily female, and I talk to so many women who do all of the grilling in their families.
Wonderful. It’s been a joy and an advantage and I have not felt at any time that it’s counted against me — in fact, the old barbecue guys used to tell me their secrets because they didn’t think I was a competitor!
Gas or charcoal? Why?
I encourage everybody to own both — I’m an equal opportunity griller. I think charcoal is great on weekends and holidays when you have more time, but there’s nothing like gas for convenience and consistency of heat.
What do you love about cooking and entertaining outdoors?
It’s the closest thing to a vacation without leaving your home. I do it all year round.
Any grilling tips for women (or men) who are just getting started?
This is the most important tip out there: it’s 10% skill and 90% will to grill. Don’t be afraid, just do it. Also, know the difference between direct and indirect heat and how to use it. See more grilling tips from Karmel here.