Heart & Soul
By Lisa Readie Mayer
When Ben Eisendrath was a young boy, he liked to help his dad at the grill. Not just cook at the grill; actually make them.
His dad, Charles Eisendrath, was a foreign correspondent for Time magazine in the 1960s and 1970s. The young family lived in England, France, Turkey, Chile, and Argentina before they returned to the U.S. and the senior Eisendrath began teaching at the University of Michigan.
“We were exposed to international cuisine at a very early age,” says Eisendrath. “My dad particularly loved the open-fire grilling in Argentina.”
|Infierno 96 at Danny Meyer’s Marta in New York City.|
When Charles searched in vain stateside for an Argentinian-style, wood-fired grill with a height-adjustable cooking grid, he set out on a mission to create one himself. He brought his sketch to a local metal shop, and peered over welders’ shoulders calling out instructions while they brought the grill to life. It took 14 prototypes before he was satisfied that he got it just right, but in 1978, the hand-made, stainless-steel cooker dubbed “The Grillery,” was finally born.
Funny thing happened; after the Eisendrath’s dinner parties, friends started requesting their own Grillery. Then friends of friends would call, then the local newspapers wrote about it, and even culinary legend James Beard requested one and deemed it “Magnificent!” By 1982, Charles patented the grill and turned the production into an official, albeit very small, business. Young Ben was enlisted to gather firewood for cooking, and earned his allowance by stamping serial numbers into the stainless steel on each grill.
|L to R: Charles Eisendrath and his son, Ben, enjoying the Asador Dual 42 “CRE.”|
By the time Charles decided to stop making The Grillery in the late 1990s, he had sold his wood-fired appliances to countless friends and food enthusiasts. “People from all over tracked him down. He was known as the crazy professor who made grills,” Ben says.
In the meantime, after studying environmental science, literature and psychology at the University of Vermont, Ben was swept up in the dot-com movement and took a job at AOL, directing product design. But after 10 years, and with AOL at a crossroads, Ben felt it was the right time to trade in his high-tech world and try to turn his dad’s shuttered hobby into a real grill-manufacturing company.
“I approached my dad and said, ‘Hey, can I have those drawings?’” Ben recalls. “They were literally greasy, shop drawings.” Ben recreated them in digital form on the computer, and in 2007 made it official, using his savings to get Grillworks up and running and the first units built. “I thought there had to be other purists out there like us, who would want a grill fueled by an open wood or charcoal fire,” he says. He was right.
Grillworks soon built a following of outdoor cooks searching for a quality residential grill that could deliver a live-fire cooking experience. The original Grillery model is still made and is now the company’s entry-level price-point at $3,500. The rock-solid freestanding unit is built with a 304 stainless-steel tubular framework and a 20-in. cooking deck that can be raised or lowered via a crank-wheel mechanism in proximity to the wood or charcoal fire in the grill base.
|The Infierno 96 outside Blue Hill at Stone Barns.|
A signature V-channel cooking rack captures juices and drains them into a detachable trough that spans the front of the grill surface. Rather than dropping into the fire and causing flare-ups, the juices reduce and concentrate in the trough and can be returned to food as a basting sauce.
Grillworks’ residential lineup has expanded to include three more freestanding units in 26-, 36- and 42-in. sizes, each with split grilling grids, allowing one side to be swapped out with different optional cooking surfaces for expanded versatility. The company’s Architectural System Grills are designed to be built into an indoor or outdoor kitchen island or other custom enclosure. “We work a lot with retailers, designers and specifiers on outdoor kitchen projects,” Ben says.
Although Ben initially focused on the residential market, Chef Dan Barber ordered one for the kitchen of his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns just north of New York City. That inspired the development of a commercial grill series and blazed a trail into professional kitchens all over the world.
Called “a cult favorite among chefs” by The New York Times, Grillworks grills are used by renowned and award-winning restaurateurs such as Tom Colicchio, José Andrés, Michael Chiarello, Seamus Mullen, and Danny Meyer in the U.S., as well as throughout Canada, Europe, and even in the United Arab Emirates and India. Celebrity barbecue authority Steven Raichlen has a 20-in. Grillery in his backyard and cooks on a 42-in. Grillworks in his barbecue television series and cooking school. The grills are also in some Whole Foods stores.
The heavy-duty commercial models are built to withstand the heat and continuous use of a professional kitchen. They range from 36-, 42- and 54-in. freestanding grills lined with firebrick, to built-in units customizable with rear fire cages and other features, to supersized Infierno Professional Grills up to 154 in. wide with five independent cooking stations and a near-$90,000 price tag.
|Two Dual 48 Architecturals.|
Grillworks has experienced 50% annual growth the past five years, according to Ben. All grills are NSF and UL approved and made-to-order in the company’s northern Michigan facility. The company now employs 20 welders, about half of whom are master craftsmen who learned their skill in the custom car industry and are now dedicated to working on custom grill projects.
“We’re still very small – our grill production is in the hundreds each year – but we’ve had huge growth, particularly lately on the commercial side of the business,” he says. “We are becoming known for our restaurant installations, but we still make awesome home grills. That’s our roots. Our work with chefs has helped to improve and evolve our residential line.”
Indeed there is a symbiotic relationship between Grillworks’ residential and commercial offerings. “Often people will see one of our grills in a restaurant and want one for their home,” says Ben. “Or they might have traveled and experienced this kind of cooking, and they’ll go online and research Argentinian-style grilling and find us that way. A lot of business also comes to us by word of mouth, friend to friend.”
Regardless of how they arrive at buying a live-fire grill, most of the company’s residential customers are pretty experienced grillers, according to Ben. “They’re not coming to us directly from a ‘knob (gas) grill,’” he says. “They’ve usually experimented with charcoal- and wood-grilling before.”
Next up for the company is the new Infierno Blanco, a line of live-fire ovens that can be installed, indoors or out, as freestanding units or island built-ins. Unlike most wood-fired ovens that incorporate the fire within the domed cooking chamber (a category known as “black ovens”), Grillworks’ ovens are “white ovens,” and contain the fire in a separate chamber below the cooking oven.
The fire evenly heats the oven’s cavity and soapstone hearth floor without sacrificing any cooking space for the fire, Ben says. Temperature ranges between 200 and 900 degrees enable a wide range of indirect roasting, baking, smoking, and even cold-smoking techniques.
|36 Architectural with offset wheel option in a residential kitchen.
Photo Courtesy: ©2017 Elizabeth Roberts BTW. Kate Sears Photography.
Ben says the first oven, marked with serial-number 1, is installed at Husk Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, and the second and third are promised to other restaurant kitchens. The line will be in full production in 2017 and available for residential installations, as well.
So why are these resurrected, old-world, wood-fired cookers having such a resurgence in today’s high-tech world? It’s about seeing the fire, according to Ben. “We have had a genetic love of fire ingrained in us since humans existed,” he says. “There is a social aspect to this way of cooking. It’s engaging. Whether you’re entertaining in your backyard, or a chef displaying your skills in a restaurant kitchen that’s in view from the dining room, it’s a show that’s fun to see.”
And what of Ben’s skills? “I can hold my own at the grill,” he says with a laugh. His favorite wood-grilled dishes include bone-in, thick-cut, standing rib steak, salmon on a bed of dill, and baby back ribs. “The flavor from the wood is unbeatable,” he says. “My parties are well-attended.”
The road to live-fire-grilling mastery, as Ben and even the most accomplished chefs will attest, requires some trial, and even more error. But with practice, they say users will be able to tell from the smoke, sound and smell, how hot the fire is, when and how to feed it, and where to position food on the cooking surface.
“Wood-fire cooking is truly an organic experience,” Ben says. “Natural foods deserve natural fuels, and these are the ultimate grills for cooking over natural fires. A wood-fired grill or oven becomes the heart and soul of the kitchen, whether it’s in a restaurant or on the patio.”