From national trends to firesticks, learn how people are enjoying open-flame cooking
On a quiet, overcast Thursday afternoon, we are standing around a wood pellet grill lifting the lid up and down, touching the digital control buttons and discussing the elaborate meats or meals such a grill could make. The grill isn’t on. In fact, none of them are, and there are dozens of them, lined up in rows in the middle of Home of Economy’s main floor. They are the first main item you see when you walk in during the warmer months. The line-up is visually impressive. The number of accessories and cooking aids next to the grills is exhaustive. We are there to figure out why.
For the past few years, the line-up of wood pellet grills taking up floor space at the Grand Forks store has continually expanded. The grills are in high-demand, now more than ever. Some of the grills surrounding us are sold. Others will most likely be sold soon. People want the new models and they want the old models. Wade Pearson, president of Home of Economy, says that grill sales have increased year-over-year for several years now. “Of all the things we do and sell, we love the Traeger’s the most,” he says with a smile, talking of the massively popular wood pellet grills that make up the main pellet offering at the Grand Forks store. Pearson became a wood-fired grilling aficionado when they started carrying them. Today, he is someone who talks about temperature variances in meat by the single degree. He’s created his own secret recipes. He cares about the places wood is grown before it is turned into wood pellets. He’d cook on anything given the chance, but he currently prefers the versatility and temperature control abilities that come standard with a pellet fired grill that works like an oven.
Pearson admits he is part of a growing trend that involves people searching for the best, most efficient or even enjoyable ways to master the timeless art of cooking over an open flame. Wood-fired pellet grills have acted as a vehicle to reviving the art, in Grand Forks and other communities across the country. The rise in Traeger sales and other grill options is linked to a greater phenomenon, Pearson says. “People are more interested now in doing things for themselves or making something for themselves. It is all very rewarding,” he explains. “It isn’t really about the food. It is all about doing it yourself.”
The majority of the team at the Grand Forks store have learned just how rewarding the act of grilling can be. Most at the store have a Traeger or have cooked on one. Every Thursday the team puts on grilling demonstrations. At certain points throughout the year they put on bigger cooking events. Pearson is proud of the alligator they’ve smoked. Of course, Pearson says, the demonstrations are to showcase what the grills can do and get people interested. But, ever since people started learning on their own through internet videos, firsthand experiences at the lake or in backyards from friends with grills, the grills have simply sold themselves. “Many times, people just need to catch a smell of the grill and the pellet smoke,” Pearson laughs. Apart from the sales aspect, Pearson and his team simply have fun grilling, and maybe more so, talking with others in the broader grilling and open-fire cooking community.
“People take a lot of pride in this stuff. They like to tell us what they’ve tried or done,” he says. “Creative expression is what it is all about.”
Pellet Grill Basics
Most pellet grills use an auger to move pellets from a hopper into a tube. In the tube, a hot rod ignites the pellets and starts a fire. A fan works to stoke the flames. A temperature gauge controls the number of pellets and the fan to keep the temperature consistent like an oven. It is nearly a set-it-and-forget-it scenario.
Technology Meets Grill
New versions of many popular grills come standard with WIFI connectivity and mobile apps. Once connected, the apps allow meat probes to tell a phone what temperature a pork shoulder or ribeye steak is at. Some hardcore meat smokers put a brisket on in the middle of the night, set their phone by their bed and check the temp throughout the night without ever touching the grill.
During most grilling demos, the team tests different varieties of pellet woods to find out which is most preferred. Pecan has been the most popular every time. Hickory is a close second, followed by mesquite (very strong flavor) and then alder (very mild).
Secrets of Reverse Searing
Pearson has mastered the technique of reverse searing high-quality cuts of meat like prime rib. The technique gives the entire cut a uniform doneness. After cooking a cut low and slow (roughly 180 degrees), the griller than sears the meat right before serving. The practice provides a tantalizing crust and brings out the meat sizzling hot and perfectly done throughout. Pearson smiles when he talks about the process.
Becoming A Hibachi Grill Chef
Hibachi grill chef, Jack Sparrow (it's like a performance name), has made a career of mastering the intricacies of controlling a fire and the people that gather around it to watch him cook. To become a Hibachi chef, he had to train for several months to understand how the flat-top heating surface works best. Hibachi chefs are also performers and comedians. Learning how to juggle fire sticks took multiple months, he says.
Jack works in the back of the restaurant when he isn’t grilling. All of the chefs prepare their own food. When he enters the grilling area, his food cart looks like a griller's dream with meats and ingredients stacked neatly. Everything he needs is on the cart, nothing else.
As they cook, they laugh and joke and tell stories. The food slides across the grill, flaming at times, simmering at others. Most people barely watch the food. Jack is too busy performing. Like all Hibachi chefs, he works to make the entire sit-down an experience that isn’t possible at other places. Grilling, he says, is only part of being a Hibachi chef. His greatest skill, apart from knowing how long to slice and dice a mix of rice, salmon chunks, steak medallions and chicken strips all at the same time, is clearly in his ability to bring people’s guards down. As he cooks, people are smiling and laughing and oohing and ahhing as he shoots grill flames three feet in the air and then checks his eyebrows jokingly to ensure they are still there.
“I would say the thing that brings people coming back for Hibachi would be the fun and joy they receive as I tell my stories and do my various tricks. The experience they get definitely makes the food taste even better,” he says.
Advice On Grilling
“Have fun while you cook. Like at the Hibachi, try some different tricks while you cook, although maybe not the knife tricks. Try preparing dishes to look super nice.”
Challenges of Being A Hibachi Chef
“I think as for making the food and preparing it, it's not as hard as people think. However, being able to entertain my guests and regular customers is the biggest challenge. I always look to find more tricks for my show.” G
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PHOTOS BY: RUSS HONS PHOTOGRAPHY
From Issue 3, 2019