Women at the grill: Cooking with fire and finesse

Grilled cobia with black rice and sauteed tomatoes. Styling by Tonya Morris / Contributed by Chris Hunt
Grilled cobia with black rice and sauteed tomatoes. Styling by Tonya Morris / Contributed by Chris Hunt

Matt Moore’s new book, “The South’s Best Butts” (Oxmoor Houser, $24.95) features pitmasters from Texas to Maryland. The majority are men, but there are a few women in there; testimony to the fact that men aren’t the only ones who know their way around cooking over open flames and radiated heat.

Helen Turner, owner and pitmaster of Helen’s BBQ in Brownsville, Tenn., is one of the women who grill. Born in Brownsville, she learned to grill by watching the men cook at a BBQ joint known as Curly & Lynn’s. Twenty years ago, she became owner and pitmaster and rechristened the restaurant Helen’s.

She works her magic in a cinder-black pit fueled with hickory and oak. She tends the fire and she manages the restaurant. She likes to run her grill at 300 to 325 degrees, which is hotter than a lot of other pits. Moore’s book offers her recipes for pork butt, slaw, smoked bologna sandwiches and smoked Polish sausage.

Here in Atlanta, we have plenty of our own women who grill.

Jenn Robbins learned some secrets for cooking over flames in the big grilling country of Texas. “You have those Texas pitmasters using hardwoods like mesquite and pecan. It gives you an appreciation for the flavors that come from burning charcoal.”

Her first kitchen job was working for Kent Rathbun at Jaspers in Austin where she cooked on a wood-burning grill. In Atlanta she’s worked with big gas broiler grills and wood-burning grills including her time at steakhouses, Avalon Catering and with Ford Fry.

What she loves best is cooking outside over an open flame or with a ceramic cooker like a Big Green Egg. These days she's also trying out the KUDU, a grilling system based on South African braai-style cooking with elevated grates over an open fire.

Robbins is now the chef and owner of After Market Culinary, offering prepared meals for delivery and at local farmers markets. You will find her at lots of local culinary events, standing over one grill or another, heating up her housemade tortillas, cooking off chicken things marinated in a sweet tea brine or grilling any vegetable you can imagine. “Broccoli, turnips, sweet potatoes – they all get a turn on my grill.”

When she gets a fire going, she will smoke not only the main event, but something she wants to work with later in the week. “I’ll dig through the fridge and see what else I can find to put on there. Meats for a stew, beans for another meal, they all are perfect for the grill.”

And she bakes on the grill. Her original inspiration was a middle of the night foray to the grocery store during a barbecue festival. “I walked by the cookie dough and thought, ‘I’d love some cookies but I don’t have an oven. Oh, yes, I do!’ We smoked them with the brisket at about 220 degrees. They were delicious. Now I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a double chocolate or a mudslide type cookie on the grill. And peaches. Put them on the grill at a low heat before you make them into a pie. People love it although most of the time they can’t put their finger on what it is that makes the pie so delicious.”

Robbins appreciates grilling not only for what you can do when the fire is at its hottest, but what you can do as the fire begins to die down. “If you can capture the smoke, you can smoke butter or oil, and those are very versatile for vegetarian and vegan cooking. You want to smoke a neutral oil like vegetable or canola, not olive oil. You want the heat to be about 225 degrees and you smoke the oil or butter for about 30 minutes.”

Robbins’ tips for grilling:

• If you’re using lump charcoal or hardwood, the easiest way to start the fire is to use a chimney starter and newspaper stuffed in the bottom. That will get the flames started.

• Have a cotton towel on hand and a squeeze bottle of oil to season the grate. “It’s the same as seasoning a cast iron skillet. Seasoning your grate cuts down on the food sticking. Even a cut down t-shirt will work. Use something you don’t mind discarding since you’re not going to want to wash it. Get oil into the cloth and then rub down the grates. Never use spray nonstick cooking oils.”

• Gas grills are great for cooking a large volume of food very quickly. “You can crank up the heat and you don’t have to worry about maintaining the heat like you do with charcoal. You can grill for hours and hours.”

• Charcoal grills are inexpensive, easy to access and lightweight.

• Ceramic cookers like the Big Green Egg maintain temperature really well. “Once the lid is closed, it becomes a wood-burning convection oven. That makes it really versatile. You’re not only cooking from the bottom, but from the top. That’s why they work well for baking, too.”

• The new braai-style cookers like the KUDU use open fire cooking. “Instead of cooking in a pit, this grill elevates the fire. With its arms, you can place grates near the heat or swing them away. And you can raise and lower the grates. So you can pan fry potatoes at the same time you’re cooking a steak. Essentially it lets you cook many different things at the same time but at different temperatures.” Robbins particularly likes the smoke dome. “The dome is built to withstand the heat and helps you control how much of the smoke flavors what you’re cooking.”

Tonya Morris, chef de cuisine at Buckhead's Southern Art, grew up in south Florida. "We grilled all the time because it's just too hot to cook inside. As a kid, if I wanted a hot dog, I put it on the grill. You stand outside and smell the fresh air – it's my favorite way to cook. We'd cook fish, mangoes, sausage, anything we could put on the grill. And in hurricane season? Your grill is your go-to stove."

Part of growing up was competing with her dad to see who could grill the best ribs. The family still hosts Fourth of July and Super Bowl parties where they roast a whole pig in a pit in the ground.

So it’s to be expected that she also loves the flavor that comes from grilling. “There’s a beauty in caramelizing meat and vegetables and fruit on the grill. We grilled watermelon yesterday. It was delicious.”

Picking out the right kind of meat, choosing which seasonal vegetables to grill, all are part of what she enjoys about the process. Mushrooms and leeks in winter, mango and guava in summer – she’s ready to grill them all. But she recognizes that cooking over an open flame is not a natural skill for all cooks. “You have to watch and nurture it.”

Morris teaches classes at Southern Art and through her private chef service, Cheffy’s. In particular when she’s teaching women to grill, she wants them to know it’s ok to come out smelling like smoke. “Don’t be afraid of the fire and the heat. Put on a good old apron and pull your hair back.”

Morris’ tips for grilling, especially fish:

• When working with charcoal, add fruits and vegetables to the coals to build flavor. “When the coals are about half gray, add in some carrots or oranges, scraps from the onions you used for the meal, that kind of thing. It takes away from the oily taste you can get from charcoal.”

• When you’re oiling your grates, use tongs to hold the cloth to apply the oil. Then let the grill get good and hot before putting anything on it. If it’s not as hot as it should be, the meat will stick.

• When grilling fish, stick with fresh fish, never frozen.

• If you’ve marinated your fish, be sure to drain it well before grilling. “You don’t want that oil dripping into the fire. You don’t need the meat to be dry, just not dripping wet.”

• Marinades can be very simple. You want something with a little acid, which can even be beer, and then a bit of seasoning. Nothing with butter and nothing too oily.

• If you want nice grill marks, start with a hot grill, then put down your food at an angle. If you’re cooking fish, wait until you see it turn white around the edges, then rotate it to make cross-hatched grill marks.

• Don’t walk away especially when cooking something like fish. “If you walk away you can be sure it will flame up!”

• Baste while cooking, using some of your reserved marinade.

• To know when it’s done, just break off a piece and try it.

• When cooking fish, it doesn’t have to rest after coming off the grill, like you would rest a steak or other grilled meat.

• Dive in!


Try these recipes and tips to kick off grilling season.

Watch: Chef Jenn Robbins demonstrates how to spatchcock a chicken:

Atlanta chef Jenn Robbins shows how to spatchcock a chicken (Video and edit by Armani Martin/AJC)

There's a whole universe of tools for your grill, some tried-and-true, some new. Check out our digital gallery at my ajc.com/food for ideas on what you might want to add to your collection this year.

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