Heirloom-quality grills connect fathers, children through the years

Chef David Rose, a Big Green Egg Ambassador, grilling at an event. COURTESY OF CHEF DAVID ROSE
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Chef David Rose, a Big Green Egg Ambassador, grilling at an event. COURTESY OF CHEF DAVID ROSE

High-priced, sturdily-built grills like the Big Green Egg enhance family bonds, especially for dads.

We were the first family that I knew of to get a Big Green Egg. My mom, Harriett Hollis, somehow learned about the unusual ceramic kamado-style grills and purchased one for my dad’s birthday in 1997.

“We had just moved to town and it had been a tough couple of years,” she said. We had moved several times, from Atlanta to South Carolina, then North Carolina and back to Atlanta again as my dad changed jobs. “I just wanted to get him something nice and unique.”

My dad, Rob Hollis, was bemused with the gift at first. What was lump hardwood charcoal? How long would it take to heat up? Was this just creating a lot of extra work for him? “I had actually asked for a grill,” he said. “But I was thinking a high-end, stainless steel type of thing. I was happy with the gift, but I just really didn’t know anything about it at the time.”

Like many others, my dad came around to the Egg quickly, and it became a centerpiece of our celebratory meals at holidays and parties. Since then, the grill has been a pillar of our family gatherings and a platform for connecting with my dad.

>> RELATED: Southern living means loving the Big Green Egg

No matter the type of grill, long-lasting bonds are created by fathers and their children over a mutual experience like grilling, experts say. Grills have become a common gift for Father’s Day, but they can be more than just a present for dad: Grilling is an opportunity to foster better communication, improve mental health and pass on family values.

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Chef David Rose learned the values of family, good food and hard work from his father, Aston. Rose was raised in New Jersey by Jamican parents, Aston and Carol, who were both chefs. COURTESY OF CHEF DAVID ROSE

Chef David Rose learned the values of family, good food and hard work from his father, Aston. Rose was raised in New Jersey by Jamican parents, Aston and Carol, who were both chefs. COURTESY OF CHEF DAVID ROSE
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Chef David Rose learned the values of family, good food and hard work from his father, Aston. Rose was raised in New Jersey by Jamican parents, Aston and Carol, who were both chefs. COURTESY OF CHEF DAVID ROSE

Family connection

In the fall of 1997, I was in fifth grade. I don’t think I’d ever cooked anything at that point in my life. But the curious grill became a point of pride, and I remember talking it up to friends at the time, happy to explain to others why my dad’s grill was the best around. I assumed that I’d grow up and have my own grill just like it one day.

According to David Lane, a professor of family counseling at Mercer University, my aspiration was not unusual. “It’s a way to say, ‘I identify with my dad, and I hold the values that he holds,’” said Lane. “We all do that when we grow up — we keep some of their values, and we discard some. But at the core of it, you kept some of the values that your dad imparted.”

For chef David Rose, the values of family, good food and hard work were passed down from his father, Aston. Raised in New Jersey by Jamaican parents who were both chefs, Rose now works as a special events chef, TV personality and brand ambassador. He competed on season 13 of "Food Network Star."

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Chef David Rose, a Big Green Egg Ambassador, grilling at an event with his nephew AJ. COURTESY OF CHEF DAVID ROSE

Chef David Rose, a Big Green Egg Ambassador, grilling at an event with his nephew AJ. COURTESY OF CHEF DAVID ROSE
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Chef David Rose, a Big Green Egg Ambassador, grilling at an event with his nephew AJ. COURTESY OF CHEF DAVID ROSE

“My dad is one of seven kids and my mom is one of 13,” said Rose, reminiscing about his childhood in the area where many of his relatives immigrated. Rose said he’s the only member of his family to be born outside of Jamaica. “I just remember having these huge barbecues, these huge cookouts with upwards of 50-60 people. Whether you’d have jerk chicken or barbecue chicken, steamed fish, curry goat … the profile of Jamaican food is just very flavorful and well-seasoned. So I was around my fair share of good food growing up.”

Not everyone has the benefit of learning to grill from parents who also happen to be trained chefs, but the act of grilling as a family can teach important lessons in subtle ways. “When we were an agronomist society before the Industrial Revolution, that was how children would learn,” said Lane. “Little boys would stand at their daddy’s elbow all day. You got up before daylight, had breakfast, then you started doing chores alongside your dad. And that was how you learned family values, work ethic, responsibility, discipline.”

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Paul Jimenez, left, with his daughter Juliette. The two have strengthened their bond through their mutual love for grilling. COURTESY OF PAUL JIMENEZ

Paul Jimenez, left, with his daughter Juliette. The two have strengthened their bond through their mutual love for grilling. COURTESY OF PAUL JIMENEZ
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Paul Jimenez, left, with his daughter Juliette. The two have strengthened their bond through their mutual love for grilling. COURTESY OF PAUL JIMENEZ

That rings true for Paul Jimenez, 44, and his 10-year-old daughter Juliette.

Like David Rose, Jimenez is already grooming Juliette for stardom in the food world. Their twin Instagram accounts, Big Paul on the Grill and Little Jules on the Grill, trace their journey together as they learn, cook and spend time at each other's sides. Paul cooks on a large Big Green Egg while Juliette uses her MiniMax, a miniature version a little less than 20 inches tall. One of their favorite meals to cook together is paella, a finicky Spanish dish made with rice, meat and seafood that requires good timing and strong cooking instincts. Grilling together has become a way for the two to bond after tragedy struck the Scarsdale, New York, family.

"It's become therapeutic for me and the family to be out there cooking so much because, unfortunately, my son passed away about five years ago," Jimenez said. Paulie, Jimenez's son, was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that forms in soft tissue, in October 2015. He died just two and a half months later. Before his diagnosis, Paul and Paulie built a stone table in their backyard for their grill, where Paul and Juliette do most of their cooking today.

“I have pictures of Juliette when she was 5 and she would always come over and want to help me cook,” said Jimenez. “She’s super smart and a fast learner. She just always wanted to get involved.”

“I just like spending time with him,” said Juliette.

Grilling legacy

Family blood is not an essential ingredient in bonding over the grill. Joe Sturniolo, 62, of Atlanta bought a new Kamado Joe grill a couple of years ago and gifted his old grill to his son-in-law, Bryan Cruce, as a housewarming gift. “It was perfect timing; we’d just bought a new house with a deck, and I was in the market for a grill,” said Cruce.

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Since then, Cruce and Sturniolo said they communicate often about grilling-related topics, though they have plenty else to talk about. Cruce and his wife, Katie, welcomed their first child (and Sturniolo’s first grandchild) in March. “Yeah, he kind of takes up a good bit of our time and conversation,” said Sturniolo of his grandson.

When it comes to high-priced specialty grills like the Kamado Joe and Big Green Egg, it seems that many are acquired as a gift. That often infuses the grills with unique sentimental value, and paired with their durability, they become family heirlooms.

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Bill Hollis, the author’s uncle, lounges alongside his Big Green Egg in what his son describes as his “outdoor man cave.” FAMILY PHOTO

Bill Hollis, the author’s uncle, lounges alongside his Big Green Egg in what his son describes as his “outdoor man cave.” FAMILY PHOTO
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Bill Hollis, the author’s uncle, lounges alongside his Big Green Egg in what his son describes as his “outdoor man cave.” FAMILY PHOTO

I finally got my own grill as a wedding gift in what’s become a rite of passage for our family and many of our friends. My dad’s older brother, Billy Hollis, got a Big Green Egg in the late ’90s. Two decades later, his son, Will Hollis, bought an identical grill with winnings from his fantasy football league. “Everything that comes off the Egg now tastes like victory,” he said. For both my cousin and me, owning these grills that we’ve watched our fathers use for decades is about more than a backyard status symbol.

“It’s a symbol of the values your dad tried to teach you about being responsible and taking care of your family,” said Lane. “It’s a good transition to adulthood. It’s time now, symbolically, to show that ‘I’m doing the things my dad taught me to do.’”

Chef David Rose said that he is still learning from his father, whom he often consults thanks to his dad’s “discerning palate.” “My parents are the litmus test for a lot of stuff I cook, especially if I’m experimenting or assessing different recipes,” said Rose. But the tables were turned for at least a moment when he gifted his parents their own Big Green Egg a couple of years ago and helped them navigate the ceramic grill’s learning curve. Still, Rose clearly looks up to his father. “He’s the O.G. He’s the original Mr. Chef Rose,” said the younger Rose with a laugh. “I definitely still ask him for advice.”

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Rob Hollis (left) with Henri Hollis, next to their family’s Big Green Egg. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

Rob Hollis (left) with Henri Hollis, next to their family’s Big Green Egg. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
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Rob Hollis (left) with Henri Hollis, next to their family’s Big Green Egg. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

For me, the grill represents two important values: family stability and the importance of gathering around food. We’ve eaten more than 20 Thanksgiving turkeys cooked on my dad’s Big Green Egg. My cousin Will has had the same experience. “My dad does turkey for Christmas every year, and it’s always great,” said Will. “I’ve learned a lot from him; we talk about grilling all the time.”

Most of our holidays and family celebrations, our main dish comes off of my dad’s 23-year-old grill, and it always seems to taste good — no matter what else is happening in our lives.

For many fathers and sons, their relationship doesn’t depend only on the grill, but it does help strengthen it.

WhenI dig into yet another plate of tender, slightly smoky, perfectly cooked Thanksgiving turkey, it makes me smile. It’s a delicious reminder that I have a great dad.