Hill Country's Elizabeth Karmel on Hill Country Chicken, Gas vs. Charcoal, and Why Girls Need a Guide to Grilling

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Elizabeth Karmel of Hill Country, and soon, Hill Country Chicken.
Chef Elizabeth Karmel grew up in North Carolina, raised on barbecue and good Southern cooking. She worked for Weber Grills for years before launching her grilling and barbecuing website, Girls at the Grill. She has authored three grill-centric cookbooks and often writes on the subject for cooking magazines and newspapers. She recently partnered with St. Francis Winery to put out an online guide to pairing grilled dishes with wine called the St. Francis Girls' Guide to Grilling. She is the executive chef of Hill Country, as well as the soon-to-open Southern restaurant Hill Country Chicken.

We caught up with Karmel about her plans for the new restaurant, gas grilling versus charcoal, and why she thinks "girls" need particular help with firing up the grill. Tune in tomorrow for the second half of the interview, in which Karmel gives expert grilling tips and talks about the blossoming barbecue scene in New York.


Tell us a bit about your new Southern restaurant, Hill Country Chicken. What will be on the menu, and when will it open?

We're not ready to talk about it just yet, but we should be open sometime this summer. We're chugging along. We'll be in the space in about a month, so at this point, the opening will be towards the end of summer.

You've recently collaborated with St. Francis Winery to write a "Girls' Guide to Grilling" and your website is called Girls at the Grill -- do you feel like women somehow need particular help with the grill?
I'll tell you how it started. Basically, I fell in love with the outdoor grill. I just took to it, and experimented, and every time I would make something on the grill, nine times out of 10, it was better than any other cooking technique. So I always say: If you can eat it, you can grill it ...

When I moved from North Carolina to Chicago, I met all these women who bemoaned the fact that they couldn't cook. Growing up in the South, learning to cook is like learning to tie your shoes -- it's not big deal, just something you did. My momma and grandma cooked all the time. But now I had all these girlfriends bemoaning the fact that they couldn't cook. And I realized that if I could get them to buy a gas grill, which is super-easy to turn on, and teach them just one or two things, all of a sudden, they'd be giving dinner parties in a month's time. Women can embrace the outdoor grill as an everyday cooking appliance. We are the primary food providers in this country. Regardless of whether it's from the microwave, from scratch, or ordering takeout, it's our responsibility, as women, to get people fed.

So I had this gut feeling that I could get women to use the grill as an alternate heat source, to embrace it. And it's not about pushing him out of the way. Do you know why men kept the grill for themselves all these years? Because it's a lot of fun! So that's how I started Girls at the Grill ...

And I do think women need a nudge to the grill. Traditionally, it's a male-dominated hobby, not an everyday way to cook food. It used to be about fire management: building a fire, hard, messy and dirty. But most gas grills out there are better than home ovens.

How so?

In terms of heat consistency and ease of cooking. And because you really only need to know a few things to be a great grill master. To that end, I'm all about the tips and mantras. I've taught a lot, and I've noticed that people like small amounts of information that they can really get their heads around. So one of them is: Grilling is really 10 percent skill and 90 percent the will to grill ...

It's so much about confidence. If you know the difference between direct and indirect heat and when to use them, all you need to make great food is olive oil, kosher salt, and black pepper. And the pepper is really optional. That's assuming you get the highest-quality raw ingredients you can find. Because even though I write cookbooks and want everyone to buy them, what I really want people to do is to learn to cook intuitively. A beginner can get intimidated by recipes. Even if it's simple, they look at that list of ingredients and their eyes glaze over.

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