Mastering the Grill

Diners prefer seeing grilled foods cooked to order.

Grilling may be the oldest cooking style known to man, but some chefs are flaming interest in charred foods by grilling out-of-the-ordinary foods in some unusual ways. With the trend of cooked-to-order food going strong, grills have become the go-to way to satisfy demand for made-to-order stations.

Grilling may be the oldest cooking style known to man, but some chefs are flaming interest in charred foods by grilling out-of-the-ordinary foods in some unusual ways. With the trend of cooked-to-order food going strong, grills have become the go-to way to satisfy demand for made-to-order stations.

Sizzling ideas: At Princeton University in New Jersey, Executive Chef Rob Harbison says Himalayan rock salt slab cooking, where hot rocks are used to sear foods, has been a hit at catered parties.

“Every time we use the Himalayan rock salt ‘grills’ everyone is shocked when they hear the sizzle and see the food cooking,” he says.

Princeton’s execution of rock salt cooking is simple, according to Harbison. Rock salt slabs are heated in ovens as workers are prepping other foods, and the slabs remain hot in serving areas for about a half hour. Harbison says using rock salt slabs is actually easier than lugging cooking equipment to dining room receptions.

“There is no additional charge when doing these types of functions,” he adds. “It is simply a different way of cooking. [The slabs] impart a great flavor with each use. The salt [flavor] is subtle but present nonetheless.”

Also turning heads at Princeton is what was an out-of-date Mongolian grill that was recently turned into an exhibition griddle for quesadillas. Harbison converted the grill when he and Unit Chef Gary Bowlsbey saw that sales were flat on made-to-order Mongolian grilled dishes.

“Guests enjoy talking to the chefs, ordering exactly what they want and watching their food getting cooked in front of them,” he says. “They pick from a choice of flavored tortillas, proteins and cheeses. Quesadillas have overtaken sales of the grill area. It’s trumping hamburgers and chicken fingers. I think [the draw is] the fresh ingredients and there’s no mystery of where the food is coming from. And they see solid and cleaner proteins that are not processed.”

The department is selling about 150 quesadillas a day on the 10-year-old grill, which can cook a half dozen quesadillas at a time, Harbison says.

“It’s a well-seasoned Mongolian grill and once you season those things they are pretty much like a non-stick pan,” he adds. “We are thinking of it as more of a plancha grill, so we’re trying to test the limits of it. We started [using the grill like this] a couple of years ago with a quick service-style burrito. It knocked the socks off the students here.”

The new quesadilla also is helping the bottom line, Harbison says. It’s priced about the same as the burrito, but it is less expensive to produce.

Craig Tarrant, district chef at Eurest Dining Services, a division of Compass Group, at Microsoft’s main campus in Redmond, Wash., also finds success with grilling in front of diners. He has four stationary flattops with two-ring gas grills that he uses for everything from cooking quesadillas to order to paellas.

“We focus on creating engaging atmospheres that connect customers with food,” says Paul Egger, senior services manager for Microsoft. “Exhibition cooking on grills really puts the culinary experience in front of the customers, as well as offers versatility in our menus.”

Tarrant currently menus two sweet and two savory crêpes that are cooked on the grills.

“One of the hot-selling sweet crêpes this fall was an apple cranberry crêpe topped with grilled sliced apple garnish,” Tarrant says. “Other crêpes include a bananas Foster, one with pumpkin and bacon, as well as an unsweetened leek, tomato and mozzarella rendition.

Back to basics: A new program for Microsoft is a concept called @burger, which will focus on burgers, hand-cut fries and shakes that will be similar to In-N-Out, according to Tarrant.

Since @burger isn’t scheduled to formally open until the spring, the concept is still being finalized, but Tarrant says the burgers will be cooked on a griddle with yellow mustard added after they are turned once. There also will be a secret sauce. The mystery spread will be similar to Thousand Island dressing prepared with mayo, ketchup, relish, a touch of extra vinegar and sugar.

The sauce, and toppings like American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, ketchup and grilled onions, will be available to mix and match as requested. Local ingredients will be used when possible on signature burgers. “The Handyman” burger will feature hand-cut fries between two patties. “The South Beach” burger will have no bun and two patties wrapped in iceberg lettuce.

Burgers also are on the grill at Virtua Voorhees, a recently opened hospital in Voorhees, N.J. But the house specialty, a rib steak sandwich, is one of the attractions that is drawing diners from outside the hospital, says Steve Vincent, director of food and nutrition services.

“We do get people off the street from local businesses,” Vincent says. “It’s very reasonably priced. The average price of a meal is $3.50.”

For the rib sandwich, Vincent charbroils a five-ounce steak to order. He tops the steak with two beer-battered fried onion rings and melted provolone cheese and places it on a torpedo roll that is slathered with garlic butter and browned on the griddle.

serve them with the beef chili gravy and add tostadas to the mix.”

Buffalo, Boar and Antelope—Oh, My!

Diners game for exotic proteins at Pittsburgh law firm.

 At Reed Smith, a Parkhurst Dining Services account, the biggest craze right now, according to Executive Chef Jeff Shaffer, is the café’s wild game burgers. This summer Shaffer started offering bison, boar and antelope burgers. He says his diners find the game burgers unusual, but since they are very familiar with burgers, the item became a logical way to introduce a possibly unfamiliar protein.

“It’s an exotic meat [showcased in] something [customers] can associate with,” Shaffer says. “But it’s still kind of on the edge. They aren’t seeing wild boar in the restaurants around town. And they like to try something exotic in their daily work life. [The taste of boar is] like pork but more gamey. It has a lot of flavor, but it’s not off putting by any means. [Antelope tastes] like venison but slightly less gamey.”

Shaffer adds that both buffalo and antelope are leaner than beef so they need to be cooked carefully.

“They will cook a little faster than beef,” he explains. “And they can dry out quicker than beef. It also helps that [the burgers] are so big.”

The half-pound patties are charred on the outside but remain moist in the center, Shaffer says. Still with the large size Shaffer keeps the game burgers’ cost down. He offers them at a competitive price compared to what customers would pay around town for just a beef burger. The burgers are priced at just under $10 with a side and a drink. The game costs him about 25% more than beef, but he finds it easy to source through a specialty purveyor. The meat comes already ground, and his staff then seasons it and forms it into patties. On an average day the department sells eight to 10 of the game burgers. Both the game and beef burgers come with a choice of toppings from traditional lettuce and tomato to house-cured bacon and pickles.

“Our grill is one of the most popular stations at Reed Smith,” says Shaffer. “Every day we offer a variety of hand-cut steaks, fresh fish, lamb and veal that we cook to order for our guests,” Shaffer says. “And the grill cook is great. He knows everyone by name. He knows Martha is coming for breakfast and what she’s going to have.”

That grill cook, Dave Vesch, has been at the account since Parkhurst took over about two years ago. He displays the proteins that he grills in a refrigerated case so that guests can pick the exact piece of meat they’d like. Shaffer says the veal chop is the department’s bestseller, and beef burgers sell well because they are made with all fresh, not frozen, meat.

“People know they can come and get a great burger,” Shaffer says. “It’s comfortable for people.”

Shaffer is thinking of adding more game to his menu—“maybe some ostrich or kangaroo. But we will start with the burger again, just to make it familiar.”


Vegan Grill

When Janna Traver, executive chef/assistant director for KU Dining Services at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, was developing a vegetarian dish for catering she came up with a vegan eggplant terrine. She even submitted it to NACUFS for its vegan recipe contest, where it won a gold medal.

“One of the things I like about grilling eggplant is that if you sear eggplant it will often absorb all the oil. By grilling the eggplant, I found we could cut the amount of fat in recipes by about three quarters because you just barely need to grill it. I really enjoy what grilling does to the texture of the eggplant because it doesn’t get mushy. After we did this we started playing around with grilled eggplant in other recipes.”

Vegan Eggplant Terrine

25 16-oz. servings

3 cups celery, medium dice,
1 cup olive oil
6 cups yellow bell pepper, medium dice
6 cups red bell pepper, medium dice
16 cups sweet potato, medium dice
2 tsp. cardamom
12 cups yellow onion, medium dice
1 1/2 gal. water
1 1/2 lbs. dry Israeli couscous
10 large eggplants
1 gal. Cinnamon-Scented Tomato Sauce (recipe follows)

Cinnamon-Scented Tomato Sauce:
Yield: 1 gallon
4 yellow onions, 8 oz. each
4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
4 cups canned roasted red pepper, diced
8 cups canned tomato strips in heavy sauce
1/4 cup granulated white sugar
2 tbsp. ground cinnamon
1 tbsp. kosher salt
2 tbsp. red pepper flakes
2 tbsp. fresh thyme minced

  1. Toss celery in 1 tbsp. olive oil. Toss yellow and red peppers together with 2 tbsp. olive oil. Toss sweet potato in 3 tbsp. olive oil and 2 tsp. cardamom.
  2. Toss yellow onion with 2 tbsp. olive oil. Place all vegetables on sheet pan. Cook in a 350°F oven for 10 mins. Toss and check tenderness. Continue cooking until tender.
  3. While vegetables are cooking, boil water. Reduce to simmer and add couscous. Cook until al dente. Drain, do not rinse. Hold in warmer for assembly.
  4. Slice eggplant lengthwise on slicer in 1/4-in. slabs. Brush one side of eggplant lightly with remaining oil. Mark on hot grill.
  5. For Cinnamon-Scented Tomato sauce: Peel and slice onions into 1-in. slabs. Lightly brush onions on both sides with 2 tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil. Grill onions on each side until nicely marked. Remove onions and course chop. Place remaining olive oil in 6- to 8-quart saucepan. Add chopped onion and red peppers. Simmer, stir until onion is translucent. Add tomato, sugar, cinnamon, salt, red pepper flakes and thyme. Simmer for additional 5 mins. Remove from heat and purée in blender until smooth.
  6. Toss cooked vegetables, 1/2 gal. Cinnamon-Scented Tomato Sauce, and couscous.


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