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Cooking Over Fire

Globally Inspired Grilling Heats Up

Jody Eddy

Grilling in American restaurants has gone global as standard hot dogs and hamburgers take a back seat to ethnic enticements inspired by the grilling traditions of cultures from around the world. Chefs are fulfilling their increasingly sophisticated restaurant guests’ demands for more adventurous menus with the versatile and healthful virtues of this ancient technique, incorporated for millennia into nearly every culinary lexicon. There are countless reasons for the growing appreciation of globally inspired grilling but Hoss Zaré, Executive Chef of San Francisco’s Persian-inspired restaurant Zaré at Fly Trap and the newly opened Grill & Grain sums it up most succinctly when he says, “Any time you talk about cooking over fire, you’re talking about real flavor.”

The emerging interest in globally inspired grilling is in sync with a universal restaurant shift occurring throughout the country. Arnold Wong, Executive Chef of San Francisco’s E&O Trading Company explains, “There’s an innate sense of nostalgia around grilling, especially for Americans who embrace the rituals of barbecuing. It lends to a more relaxed atmosphere. It’s the way things are trending from food trucks to more casual dining in general.” Denise Tran, owner and Executive Chef of the Vietnamese restaurant Bun Mee in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights district adds that, “The major benefits of grilling are enhanced flavor, healthier preparation and faster prep time.” She’s also quick to note that there’s a more fundamental reason her restaurant, whose menu includes banh mi sandwiches stuffed with succulent grilled meats, grilled five-spice chicken with caramel aioli, and a grilled prawn salad with mango and pickled daikon, revolves around the grill: “I wanted our customers to see and smell their meat cooking on the grill. This is how it’s done in Vietnam.”

Boosting flavor

Marinades and spice rubs play an integral role in the aroma and flavor of grilled meats and vegetables. They also provide an endless avenue of experimentation for chefs. Zaré, who uses a gas grill at Fly Trap, says that marinades are essential in his restaurant because, “I discovered that the flavor that I’m missing from not having charcoal can be made up for through marination. It helps to achieve caramelization and intensifies the flavor.” He continues, “One of the techniques that I use is to marinate meat in yogurt. Yogurt is an acid to tenderize it. This also gives the meat a beautiful caramelized color and flavor.” Another technique he employs at Fly Trap is inspired by a lesson learned long ago in his native Iran, “One of my favorite techniques to watch as a child was to take lamb and put sliced onions on top of the meat. Then they used to tap it with the back of the knife to tenderize it. Why onion? Because the acid breaks down the muscles.” Even though he appreciates the power of a marinade, Zaré is quick to point out that, “One of the problems is [that] people mask the original ingredient. It should always remain the focal point.”

At Park’s BBQ in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, the nation’s first Korean restaurant to serve USDA Prime & Wagyu beef on its menu, Jay Kang says that one of the ways the restaurant enhances flavor is to “roast its salt” before rubbing down the protein. The restaurant’s bulgogi dish is a customer favorite. The sliced beef is sprinkled with traditional Korean spices, a fiery kick of pepper, and a slick of soy sauce and sesame oil before being sprinkled with sugar. This last step caramelizes the protein during the grilling process. The experience of eating most of the dishes at Park’s is enhanced by the fact that customers grill their meat themselves. Kang says: “It’s fun to cook your own dinner at the restaurant. You can control the doneness of your meat as you desire; rare, medium, well done. Korean food is all about pleasuring all five senses. Along with the grilled meats, there are colorfully prepared banchan (side dishes), the sizzling sound on the barbecue grill, the fresh vegetables like ssam (vegetable wrappings) so you can make your own taco with rice paper or lettuce.”  

Simplicity and adaptability

No matter what type of meat is being grilled, Zaré says there are a few fundamental rules to adhere to, “If you have a thick cut of meat, you want a mellow grill, just mark it on the grill then cover it and slowly cook it over a low temperature. If you have a thin cut, you want to cook it at a high temperature quickly.”

Once a chef has mastered basic grilling techniques, Wong says: “Grilling allows an easy way for people to experiment. You don’t have to grill this, sauté that, create a special sauce for it. The general idea behind grilling is whether you’re throwing together a marinade or running it with sides [at E&O the satay program featuring a variety of meats and vegetables served with rice is extremely popular] is that fundamentally, it’s easy. The flavor is very adaptable. You have a simple product; whether it be a cut of meat or a vegetable, it says, ‘do something to me.’”

It’s not all about meat

And as Wong points out, grilling isn’t all about meat. At Bun Mee, Tran says “the grilled corn dish is a crowd favorite.”

At Fly Trap, Zaré says that one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes is my “baba ghanoush.” The dish is prepared at Fly Trap in the traditional way, but Zaré shares a secret: “The eggplant is sometimes grilled too much, making it too smoky and people don’t want to eat it after one or two bites. What I do for mine is I grill the eggplant halfway just to impart flavor and then finish it in the oven to mellow it out.”

At E&O, Wong explains that: “We have a 100 percent wood-burning oven.” The chef, a San Francisco native, switched from almond to oak wood when he started at the restaurant because he says: “Even though almond is a cheaper wood by about 20 percent than oak, it has a lot more oils in it so it would taste almost sooty, kind of petroleum like.” Wong says that the wood-fired oven creates one of the restaurant’s most addictive vegetarian options: “Basket cooking is a great technique. We basket whole edamame on the top of the grill. They get a little bit of char on the bottom and then steam from the moisture created. We sprinkle them with shiso fumi furikake and toss them with a little Maldon salt. The wood flavor in the pod is amazing.” Grilling vegetables is a stellar way to perk up the vegetarian options on a menu but Wong is quick to point out that no matter how popular grilled vegetables become, “In our restaurant, we’re mainly going to grill seafood and meat because this draws the bottom line. It’s expensive to grill and we’re not going to draw people in with grilled corn. We have to make it count.”


Globally inspired grilling is extremely enticing for restaurant chefs for countless reasons, but in spite of its virtues, there are also drawbacks to consider. Zaré explains that first and foremost: “The problem is the cost. It ties the hands of the chefs.” He explains, “With a wood-fired grill you have to have a separate hood by law in California. You cannot have the same hood for gas and charcoal. You double your cost.”

Aside from the cost factor, Chef Zare also expressed some concerns about kitchen fires when cooking over wood, but he was quick to dispel another grilling myth: “Every once in a while, someone publishes a piece that says you shouldn’t eat a lot of grilled foods because of the carcinogens, but I think that at the end of the day, unless your technique is bad or you’re charring the crap out of your food, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Technique is key to understanding what you’re doing to the food.”

Should an adventurous chef decide to incorporate globally inspired grilled dishes into their restaurant menus, the myriad rewards far outweigh the risks. Kang says, “The diner’s curiosity about new dishes is increasing. They are no longer afraid to try out new food or order food that has an awkward name. There are many people out there today who have fallen in love with things such as beef tongue or tripe.”

Tran backs him up: “I think the popularity of food and travel network shows about cooking expose diners to international dishes. I believe that as a result, people are becoming more adventurous and looking for more creative and delicious cuisine than the typical American barbecue. Grilling is also a fun, healthier and tastier method of cooking.”

Zaré adds,We become so caught up in cooking technology that we forgot how beautiful these old techniques really were. Restaurant guests are now craving this all over again.”

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