The BBQ Refresher Course

Top Chef veteran Kevin Gillespie on what you need to know before tailgating season

Chef Kevin Gillespie is prepping to open a new BBQ joint, Terminus City, in Atlanta, but he’s still reluctant to outwardly acknowledge his expertise. “I guess I have to be a bit of an expert or I’m going to lose a lot of money,” he laughs. If his food is any indication, his business is going to take off. The 31-year-old Top Chef veteran and Atlanta native has been cooking for fifteen years since he first started fixing up fried chicken in rural Georgia. He went on to work at the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta and Michael Tuohy’s Woodfire Grill, and later opened up Gunshow, a dim sum-style restaurant that quickly turned into a local favorite. His most recent work venture consists of a partnership with Angry Orchard, a hard cider that offers more flavor to his BBQ. 

We asked Gillespie for a pre-tailgate season refresher course. Like his brisket, his advice did not disappoint.

Take the Temperature with Your Hand

Let’s assume we’re talking about charcoal or woodfire grills and, more often than not, charcoal. It’s going to provide you with real even heat; it burns really, really hot. The thing that most people misconstrue is that they believe more is better. In this case, it’s not true. You don’t need a ton of charcoal in a grill to get it really, really hot. The general rule of thumb with the proper grilling temperature—and we’re talking steaks, burgers, kebobs—is that you should be able to hold your hand about six inches above the cooking surface and, if you can count past five, it’s not hot enough. If you can’t count to three, it’s too hot.

The vast majority of things that are grilled don’t need to be cooked over high heat but over about medium high heat. You want dark brown grill marks, not black.

Air Out Your Meat

If you take something that’s ice cold, straight from the fridge—let’s say it’s a steak, for example—and you put that on your hot grill, that temperature contrast is going to cause an adversity. The interior of the meat will remain ice cold while the outside becomes overcooked. There’s physics involved in how temperature flows. It’s always better to start with something that’s as close to room temperature as possible before it goes on your grill; that’ll provide for even cooking.

Meat has about a four-hour window that remains safe, outside of refrigeration. It will only take about an hour for it to warm up to room temperature, maybe less depending how big it is. You’re not really putting yourself in harm’s way.

Give Your Marinade a Mission

Marinades are tricky because they do one of two things: They tenderize or they infuse flavor. Sometimes they do both. But you have to understand when one does one thing and when one does the other. A marinade that tenderizes is your dad’s “pour zesty Italian over your steak and let it sit for an hour.” What’s actually happening is that the acid in the marinade is physically consuming the protein molecules in the meat and it’s breaking the cellular structure down, thus making it softer. A marinade that just adds flavor would be a mixture of olive oil and a bunch of fresh herbs, garlic, onions, salt and pepper—all that really does is infuse flavor. However, what it mostly does is coat the exterior in flavor; it’s not really absorbed in the interior of it because it’s a fat-based liquid trying to be absorbed in a water-based protein.

Marinades that are the most affective are actually water soluble brines that can infuse the meat. The idea is that I take all of the same things that we were going to put in a brine—salt, pepper, spices, herbs, garlic—and I make it into a paste. Then I smear that all over the outside of the food when it comes out of the refrigerator and let it sit for an hour. What happens is that the salt is going to draw the moisture out of that piece of meat and that moisture is going to blend with the salinity. It’s going to make a thoroughly seasoned piece of meat.

Pick a Side

I’ve always thought BBQ should have a little bit of brightness. You’re talking about heavy meat, more often that not, coming off the grill, so that means we want something with acidity, some freshness, some brightness, and maybe even a little bit of chill on them. Salads are great, but also think further outside of the box: chilled fruits, relishes and pickles. Those all go really well.

Treat the Grill Like an Oven

Once people become a little bit more comfortable with the idea of grilling, I always say stretch it and mix it up. Don’t be limited to only setting the meat on the grilling surface. You can put heavy cookware—like cast-iron pans—on top of a grill, especially on top of that heat, and all of the sudden you can fry or sear something; you can braze things. Experiment. Remember that, in the right situations, a grill is a really, really large stovetop. It’s an oven; it’s everything you would ever need. Don’t limit yourself to what you think is classically cooked outdoors. Almost everything you cook indoors, you can cook outdoors on a grill.