By: Max Good
The Grillworks 36 is their most popular residential model. Beautifully crafted from high quality 304 stainless steel, these artisanal grills cook over an open fire using a crank to raise or lower the two 18″ x 19″ grates for heat control. Widely used in Spain, Italy and South America, this design was popularized in the United States in Southern California and commonly referred to as Santa Maria after the namesake town northwest of Los Angeles. There are many variations on the basic vertical lift design. Grillworks DNA comes from Argentina, where they are called parrilla grills. A unique feature of many parrilla grills is the grates: V-shaped metal channels pitched at a slight downward angle toward the cook. These channels collect and divert meat juices from the fire to reduce flare-ups. Grillworks also employs long, detachable catch pans that hang across the front to accumulate tasty drippings from the V-grates.
A crank axel runs across the top. Argentine V-grates are affixed to a lift frame and suspended from the axel with metal cables. A large cast aluminum crank wheel is used to wind the cable up or down and position the grates at the desired relationship to the fire. Grates are said to fit most dishwashers.
Removable catch pans hook onto mounts at the front of the lift frame. Wood is placed in fire grates that occupy a lower shelf. Underneath is a shallow, slide-out ash tray. A “Persuader” tools come with each grill: a single, metal V on a long handle used to persuade drippings down the V channels into the basting pans. Could a row of these V-shaped metal pieces be more efficient?
No models are offered with a hood so this truly is open fire cooking. With nothing enclosed, cooks have easy access to food and fuel. There are no dampers, simply tend the fire and raise and lower the grates as needed. Of course charcoal may be used; however the process for manufacturing charcoal intentionally removes volatile organic compounds that impart the sensational BBQ flavor we crave. Allowed to burn hot, wood easily produces clean light smoke: the kind of smoke Texas pit bosses labor to create while maintaining their low and slow fires.
You may start cooking as soon as a steady fire is established and use the adjustable height grate to hit the desired heat. If using wood, which we highly recommend, avoid softwoods, like pine, fir, spruce, redwood, hemlock, and cypress. All are evergreens (coniferous trees), and have more air, more pungent sap, and burn fast. Go with hardwoods like hickory and apple. Grillworks recommends experimenting with flavors of different woods and pairing them with your creations as you would seasoning or wine.
Aficionados of Argentine grates like to add spices, oils and wines to the catch pans to mix with drippings for basting and/or making sauces. Diverting the drippings from the fire is said to reduce flare-ups and allow cooks to lower meats very close to the flame for powerful searing: perfect for thin foods like steak, but somewhat challenging for larger roasts because there is no lid. Grillworks recommends resting larger meats, like a turkey, on a bed of fresh herbs over a moderate fire. We expect one needs to turn roasts periodically on any vertical lift style grill. The optional rotisserie is also an asset with this design.
Air is pulled from the front, under the grates by oxygen hungry flames and exits upward from the back creating heat zones on the cooking surface: cool front, medium middle and hot back. Eisendrath estimates temperature range at medium heat configurations as 150 to 200F/front, 300 to 500F/middle and 600 to 700F/back. Set for hot cooking, he estimates 200F/front, 400 to 500F/middle and 900F/back. In addition to durability and low maintenance, stainless steel provides an added benefit for Grillworks grates because it heats up and cools down faster than cast iron when raised or lowered.
Grillworks was founded by Charles Eisendrath, a foreign correspondent for Time Magazine in the ’60s and early ’70s. Eisendrath’s assignments required frequent international relocation. France, Turkey, Chile and Argentina were major stops along his career route before settling his family in Ann Arbor to run the University of Michigan’s masters journalism program. Back in the states, he immediately longed for the open fire cooking he’d grown to love abroad. During academic summers he set about designing a dream grill with the help of a local metal shop. After several attempts, he settled on a shining, stainless steel, parrilla style grill with V-shaped Argentine grates and a front catch pan which he dubbed “The Grillery”. Friends and family responded enthusiastically, many pleading for their own Grillery. One has to assume Eisendrath’s friends were well connected because he was quickly summoned to New York to demonstrate his new cooker for renowned American chef and writer, James Beard. Beard immediately fell for The Grillery and refused to let Eisendrath leave with it. Shortly thereafter Grillworks was born, but Eisendrath always treated his grill business more as a hobby, and devoted the bulk of his energies to academia.
Now run by Charles’ son, Ben, Grillworks has grown but remains a family owned business, still hand made in Michigan. We spoke at length with Ben Eisendrath who is understandably proud of his father’s work. Production is typically a few hundred grills per year, Eisendrath is comfortable with that and has no plans for dramatic expansion. Even with limited production, Grillworks name gets around. A number of heavy hitters on the gourmet grill circuit love Grillworks. Steve Raichlen is a big fan. When asked what he likes about Grillworks and he stated, “The raisable and lowerable grates. The cool fly wheel. The ease of front loading and the stylish design of the grill”. Without question certain models are striking to behold.
Grillworks offers several production models. Built-ins are often highly customized. All grills, production or custom, are made to order: they don’t stock inventory. “People who are likely to be our customers have unique design ideas in their heads”, says Eisendrath, “They’re not interested in a big stainless steel box with a bunch of modular cabinets”. Case in point: The Infierno, which represents a true collaboration between award winning chef, Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns Restaurant in New York, and Grillworks.
Grillworks supports US Army Special Forces by shipping specially designed Forward Operating Base grills to units deployed in hot zones for our men and women in harms way. I asked how he became involved with the US military. Eisendrath replied one of the commanders contacted him, further supporting his observation that Grillworks is, “the most famous grill that nobody has”.
For potential buyers, Grillworks states, “Our custom nature means that we welcome your ideas, so if it is within our power and our grilling system we’ll build it. Just please don’t ask us for a gas version.” All models have at least 16 inches of vertical travel for the grates, many built-ins have more and can be tailored per customer specifications. They offer manual and electric rotisseries, a stainless steel fold-out side tray and covers, but no other outdoor kitchen items like cabinets and refrigerators. They also offer FDA approved, kiln-dried oak, cherry, pecan, hickory, mesquite, grape and apple wood packages.
Total Grillworks sales are about 75% residential and 25% commercial. Most are placed direct, but some models are available through Amazon, Williams and Sonoma, and Hammacher Schlemmer.
Published On: 3/25/2014 Last Modified: 3/17/2021
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