When two of the South’s most buzzed-about chefs—Atlanta’s Ford Fry and Charleston, South Carolina’s Sean Brock—began planning their new restaurants, both asked for the same thing: wood-burning grills from the Washington, D.C.–based Grillworks. Brock wanted one to anchor the kitchen at the new Husk Nashville. Fry wanted two to fill out the twenty-four-foot hearth at his King & Duke.
Ben Eisendrath, who fielded both calls, is the second-generation head of Grillworks. His father, Charles, was a foreign correspondent for TIME magazine whose work in the wood-grilling mecca of Argentina inspired him to build his own stainless-steel version of the Argentine parrilla. He began selling his grills to the public in the early 1980s. And although he kept his operation decidedly small-scale, maintaining his day job as a professor at the University of Michigan, he earned such high-profile fans as talk show host Johnny Carson and culinary icon James Beard before he shut the business down almost two decades later.
It did not stay closed for long, though, before Ben, who had earned his allowance stamping serial numbers into his father’s grills, brought the company back to life. He moved the headquarters to his hometown of Washington, D.C., made some cosmetic changes to his father’s original design, and set to work expanding the company’s offerings. “My father had two sizes, large and small,” he says. “I started going through the list of ideas that I’d always had in my head: more crank wheels, independent surfaces, rotisseries, and so on.”
Then and now, the most basic model is the Grillery, a family-sized cooker with a hardy stainless-steel frame. With it, the home cook can grill both over live fire—using the attached crank wheel to lift the adjustable grate above the flames—and over smoldering coals. Meanwhile, a channeled grate funnels off the savory juices that would typically drip into the fire, causing acrid flare-ups. Pooled in an attached pan, the fatty juices form the base for a simple jus or basting liquid. Larger models, with the multiple grates and other new features pioneered by Ben Eisendrath, expand upon the same structure.
Grillworks entered the commercial world several years ago, after Dan Barber, of New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, called Eisendrath to ask if he could build a custom grill for the restaurant. “I hadn’t planned to do commercial kitchens because it didn’t sound interesting,” Eisendrath says. “But when Dan started talking about the crazy things he wanted to do, suddenly it sounded like fun.” Together, they developed the Infierno, a massive, multi-shelved affair that set the stage for restaurant grills to come.
Today, a raging fire burns all day in the kitchen at Husk Nashville, dropping coals under two grates that sear about ninety percent of the restaurant’s proteins, says manager Dan Latimer. Meanwhile in Atlanta, the chefs at King & Duke take full advantage of their grills’ adjustable surfaces to roast an impressive variety of meats and vegetables over varying degrees of fire. And the grills do more than just feed the customers. “They look really cool,” Fry says. “When guys walk by, they’re like, wow.”
For more information about Grillworks, visit grillery.com.