Hill Country’s Elizabeth Karmel on Rookie Grilling Mistakes, New York’s Barbecue, and Southern Restaurants


Yesterday, we brought you a the first half of an interview with Hill Country’s Elizabeth Karmel, in which she talked about plans for her new restaurant, Hill Country Chicken, and why she feels women need particular encouragement to fire up the grill.

Here, in the second half of the Q&A, Karmel talks about common rookie grilling mistakes and how to avoid them, the state of barbecue in New York, and the worst mistake she’s ever made in the kitchen.

What’s the most common rookie mistake people make when backyard grilling, and how can they avoid it?

Probably the biggest mistake is not preheating the grill.

Here’s the basic rule of thumb: When you light charcoal, you want to wait until it’s covered in light gray ash. If it’s still flaming you don’t want to cook on it yet. With a chimney, when the charcoal’s ready, I pour it into the kettle grill and then I put the lid on and let the whole inside of the grill heat up for about 10 minutes, so that the cooking grate is good and hot and sterilized, and you’ve got consistent heat inside.

With a gas grill, preheat it with the lid down, just like you preheat an oven with the door closed, right? Preheat it with all the burners on high for 10 to 15 minutes, and then turn the burners down depending on what you’re going to cook. So you can see that charcoal, at its easiest, takes 35 to 40 minutes to be ready, and the slowest gas grill takes 15 minutes.

And then you want to clean the grill with a bristle brush or a piece of crumpled-up aluminum foil that you hold with tongs. Give it a good brush, use a bit of elbow grease. And after you’re done grilling, on a gas grill, turn all the burners back on high and brush it again.

If you brush a grill twice a cook-out — just like you brush your teeth — it will never be a big job to clean up. Like a cast-iron skillet, you don’t want to obsessively clean it. Just that brushing is fabulous. If you really want to get crazy you can clean it with a sponge and soapy water once a year. But you don’t need grill cleaner. Anything that’s stuck on, when you put it over high heat, it will turn to light gray ash that’s easy to brush off. [As with a cast-iron skillet], the more you cook on those cooking grates, the better; it will get that seasoned layer on it and food won’t stick.

A lot of grill writers tell people to oil the grate. No, you oil the food not the grate. When I say this to students, I’ve literally had people break down in tears, like it’s some New Age self-help class. So many people tell you to dip a rag in oil and wipe the grill. That oil is a torch waiting to happen! Can’t you just see it now?

That’s No. 1. Then oil has a low burn point, so the instant it hits the grate it smokes and burns, and becomes tacky and sticky. … Now you’re like gluing your food to the cooking grate. … People perpetuate these myths. I think it comes from short-order cooks. When you go order an egg and cheese sandwich the cook wipes the grill with a rag dipped in oil. But that’s a flattop, that’s different. That’s where I think the tradition came from.

Other than Hill Country, are there any other barbecue restaurants you like in New York?

I love all of my friends who are doing authentic barbecue, from Dinosaur Bar-B-Que to Blue Smoke. They really paved the way for all of us. R.U.B., Fatty ‘Cue — anyone who’s really using a smoker and cooking it at a low temperature for a long period of time using wood, I think they’re doing a good job.

There are barbecue chains that don’t use smokers, which rely a lot on sweet red sauce to make the barbecue, and cook meat in ovens. That’s what used to be pervasive across the country, unless you went to the authentic places on the barbecue trail. It’s not my style, but certainly there are a lot of people who love it.

It thrills me that so many people are opening barbecue restaurants. Who would have thought? It’s a lot of trouble. You have to build the chimney, the vent system. It’s exciting to have this barbecue renaissance in New York.

The Big Apple Barbecue is my favorite weekend in the city. You can walk around Madison Square Park and it’s like a two-week trip on the barbecue trail. New York is bringing the country to the city. … It warms the cockles of my heart to see so many people loving barbecue and being willing to stand in line for an hour and a half to get a taste. That, probably, is even more exciting than restaurateurs opening up barbecue restaurants.

And in fact, Hill Country is often mobbed with an hour-and-a-half wait!

Yes, it’s so exciting! When we were opening, there were some people who said, “People aren’t going to like that market style.” And some people didn’t, but for the most part, people think it’s like taking a mini vacation to Texas. We stuck to our guns. One of the things I pride myself on is that we don’t do North Carolina pulled pork. People come in and say, “What? No pulled pork?” It’s just Texas-style barbecue. You can’t be all things to all people. We chose a genre and stuck with it.

How about Southern food restaurants, any you like in the city?

There are a couple that I really want to try, like Seersucker. I think that’s a fabulous name. I love seersucker. But you know, I haven’t been to many. I’ve been to some of the soul food restaurants in Harlem. But it’s exciting for me, as an expat Southerner to see the wave of Southern food. Once we open our new Southern food restaurant, I’m planning on trying a bunch of them.

If you had to choose just one American regional style of barbecue to eat for the rest of your life, which would it be?

Well, let me turn that question around a bit. I think that barbecue is like Thanksgiving. Everyone has an emotional touch point. Everyone’s favorite is the one they grew up with. For me, it would be hard to pick one because I left what I grew up with and turned barbecue into my life. Long before Hill Country, I traveled and studied and fell in love with all the different regions. My touch point is Texas as well as North Carolina. So if it weren’t North Carolina pulled pork, it would have to be moist brisket and cucumber salad every day for the rest of my life. That’s my favorite combination from Hill Country. I eat it almost every single day. The salad is a really refreshing change from coleslaw. It’s the perfect bite, the perfect counterpart together with that moist brisket.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the kitchen?

Well, can it be a mistake I made at home? This actually taught me a great lesson. My mother did not make tuna fish casserole, but I had one once, and I thought, I bet if I make every part of tuna fish casserole from scratch, it will be the best one in the world …

So every single layer tasted fabulous by itself. The mushrooms were perfect, the cream sauce perfect. There was cheese, cracker crumbs, tuna in there, and while it was baking it smelled divine. And then I took a bite, and it was so incredibly salty. Because I had seasoned every single layer on its own, and then put it all together with salted crackers and salty cheese. It was god-awful salty. I had to throw the whole thing away, after I spent the whole day on it. The lesson is that when you’re making a composite dish you have to think of it as a whole. With so many naturally salty ingredients, I probably shouldn’t have salted it at all. It was devastating, but funny.

What would you like to see more of in New York restaurants?

I’d like to see more simple food. I think that food writers — and a lot of people in the food world — talk over and over again about the best thing to do is to get out of the way of great ingredients. So often restaurants have a tendency to think more is more, and I really believe less is more, assuming you’re buying the best-quality raw ingredients. The other things I think restaurants rely too heavily on are butter and oil as flavor carriers. And pork fat, these days. I love fat, but I don’t think you need your food drowning in fat.

For more grilling and barbecuing tips from Karmel, check out Girls at the Grill or her new collaboration with St. Francis Winery, the Girls’ Guide to Grilling.