All things barbecue
An interview with Giacomo Guizzardi of Broil King
Together with his father Athos, Giacomo Guizzardi is the exclusive Italian distributor of the brand Broil King – what can safely be described as the world’s best barbecues. The partnership between Velier and Broil King stems for a desire to combine our respective work into something unique. In keeping with Velier’s philosophy, we started cooperating with Broil King, a company "still made of individuals”, to pair a selection of our top-quality products with the best barbecue preparations. The following interview with Giacomo offers a glimpse into his work and his world – a true icon of Italian excellence.
Can you tell us about where and how the tradition of barbecue cooking first began? How did it get to where it is today?
We need to start from the substantial difference between barbecuing and grilling. For obvious reasons, the grill has been used as a cooking method since the dawn of time, mainly because cooking food on direct heat enhances some of its organoleptic properties, as well as clearly having a sanitizing effect.
In a way, grilling is part of our DNA: every people in every continent has always instinctively cooked food on a fire. Then, over the centuries we've seen an evolution – quite difficult to accurately trace back in history – which led us from cooking on a direct flame to cooking on charcoal. Over time, with the help of implements like small terracotta coverings, meat began to be cooked for longer and at a lower temperature in an attempt to make the most of even those parts of the animal that are not easy to eat, like for example the toughest cuts.
Then in the 1950s, the history of barbecue as we know it today – namely the cooking device equipped with a lid – took a very important turn in Chicago. A man who worked in buoy manufacturing was inspired by the technique Native Americans used to cook whole chunks of food with heat coming from the sides of a spherical space – in their case, a hole in the ground. The man tried to replicate the same conditions with two half-spheres mounted on four legs and started experimenting with different cooking methods, first using wood, then charcoal. That was the birth of the modern barbecue as we know it, and in just a few decades it had spread to every American backyard. However, each people has its own grilling culture: for example, there are major parallels in Latin American, African and Eastern cuisine.
Based on your long experience in Canada and the US, what do locals usually drink with barbecued food? In the Caribbean we have the Ti’ Punch, what about Canada and the US?
I don't think there's any specific cocktail, save for very localized habits. But convivial drinking is definitely a big part of barbecuing. We could say that every barbecue can double as a bottle opener. In my personal experience in Canada, the choice of drink has always been connected to whatever we were cooking: smokiness is obviously a very important element but there are many others, I've even seen cocktails inspired from sweet&sour marinades. A less frequent but much appreciated technique, especially among expert barbecuers, is to start out by barbecuing the ingredients to make cocktails for guests to drink while the food cooks. For example, caramelizing the sugar in pineapple or lime produces very interesting results.
What do you like to drink with barbecued food? Can you tell us some of your favorite pairings? If you could pick a barbecued dish to go with your drink, what would it be?
My favorite cocktail is Fever Tree Sicilian Lemonade with Bourbon, because it has the same smokiness and vanilla notes as Bourbon coupled with a delicate freshness that cleanses the palate - which goes very well with slow-cooked preparations, maybe seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and aromatic herbs. I for one grew up drinking whiskey and ginger ale while grilling burgers.
Can you compare two of the most famous cooking methods for us, namely low&slow and direct cooking? Italians normally cook on an open grill. What's the difference between cooking on an open vs. a closed grill?
Let's first say that some of the barbecuing techniques used in Italy have been imported from other countries and the terms have been changed slightly to make them clearer for the Italian public.
Although it's not a literal translation, low&slow usually refers to indirect cooking and grilling refers to direct cooking. As the name suggests, the main difference is the position of the food relative to the heat source. In direct cooking, the food is placed directly over the heat source; conversely, in indirect cooking the food is placed away from the heat source.
The lid should always be closed, especially in the indirect method as the heat is only transferred by convection.
What kinds of food can be cooked with the indirect method?
Any large cut of meat and more generally any fatty food. For the former, not placing the meat directly over the heat source makes it possible to reach the desired core temperature without burning the outside.
As for fatty meats, indirect cooking allows you to cook the food perfectly with no smoke or flames. This is because the heat source is not directly underneath the food and the fat dripping down during cooking won't catch fire.
Indirect cooking is usually done over low heat for a longer time, hence the name low&slow. The most interesting part of this technique is that there's no need to supervise or even turn the food because it's the heat that circulates around it.
Even in grilling - or direct cooking - it's very important to close the lid. Direct cooking with the lid closed is indeed the evolution of cooking on charcoal, something humans have been doing for millennia. The main advantages of direct cooking with the lid closed include an even heat distribution across the entire cooking chamber and, even more importantly, a much higher heat penetration power.
While indirect cooking basically mimics an oven, direct cooking with a closed lid simulates the effect of a stove burner inside an oven, because we have both a strong heat radiating directly from underneath the food and the convective effect produced by the closed lid.
This makes it possible to cook a 1.8 kg rib-eye steak in just 8 minutes, bringing the core of the meat to the desired doneness every time.
The most important part of barbecue cooking is temperature control. This ensures reproducible, predictable cooking results every time.
Why was wood traditionally more widely used in Italy, and where does the use of charcoal for barbecuing come from?
Wood is very intuitive to use as well as widely available, but is surrounded by a number of myths, not least that it's considered 'natural': aside from the fact that some trees are chemically treated and are not very 'natural' at all, some even produce resin which can release harmful fumes when burned.
Wood also requires a great deal of experience in cooking because temperature control is very tricky.
When barbecuing, an essential rule is never cook over a direct flame but over hot coals, that is, a combustion stage that generates consistent heat with no peaks and allows for the all-important temperature control. However, there are also many myths about charcoal, which actually speeds up the process compared to wood. Charcoal, which has seen increasing popularity over the years, was first adopted for a very practical purpose: compared to wood, which produces a lot of heat when combustion starts but quickly goes out and requires supervision to ensure a consistent temperature, charcoal is more linear - it starts out slowly, hits a peak and then goes down. In short, it's much more predictable and easier to manage.
In over 35 years on the market promoting barbecue literacy, we started out with wood, then switched to charcoal and eventually settled on gas.
As we know, unfortunately gas has a reputation for being industrial, dirty and artificial, when in reality from a chemical standpoint cooking on a gas barbecue is much healthier than cooking with charcoal or wood, as gas only produces water vapor and carbon dioxide. But more importantly it allows you to easily and accurately manage both lighting and cooking temperature without compromising the flavor.
There is another false myth, especially in Italy, that we have all heard at least once from one of our griller friends or our favorite butcher: "You need to cook each type of meat with a specific type of wood to get that special fragrance." However, if we follow the main rule, namely to always cook over hot coals and never over a flame, this recommendation makes no sense, because cooking over hot coals - whether from charcoal or wood - is completely odorless and tasteless.
In short, fragrance shouldn't be a factor when choosing what type of wood you want to use, because it's only present while there is still a flame. That's another reason why we switched to modern gas barbecues: while there are no differences in aroma or fragrance, there are major advantages in terms of practicality and temperature control.
What modern devices now allow us to do is separate the two roles traditionally played by wood – providing heat and adding aromas and fragrances – and achieving the first one with gas or charcoal.
With gas barbecues, we have completely odorless and tasteless heat suitable for cooking meat, fish and desserts, and we can also use wood chips simply to add fragrance. This allows us to select small amounts of certified wood that is perfectly safe for cooking.
People often marinate meat. Is it essential or can you get good results with unmarinated meat?
Marinating is not essential. Italians, for example, are not big on marinating. Barbecuing with the lid closed, whether on direct or indirect heat, ensures optimal temperature control, which for us Italians is fundamental to bring out the natural flavor of food, especially with locally sourced ingredients or regional specialties.
This cooking method triggers a number of chemical processes that quickly make the food crunchy on the outside and seals the juices inside, which is extremely important.
So while the food is cooking, it loses fat but retains the juices, which is where the flavor is concentrated; this in turn brings out the umami taste and basically allows us to use less than half the salt and oil we would normally add.
The result is so moist and soft that as you master this technique and become aware of what happens inside the food, marinating will no longer be a necessary step. However, I think once you have mastered barbecue cooking it may still be a very interesting option to consider, whether it be a dry marinade – a.k.a. rub – or one with a fatty or tannic base.
Are there any preparations that cannot be cooked on a barbecue?
About twenty years ago we set up the first barbecue school with Igles Corelli, one of the first chefs to passionately believe in the potential of barbecue cooking. We have always tried to include into our courses some unexpected or unusual cooking technique, just to debunk some of the preconceptions people have about barbecuing. Each of our courses teaches how to make a full menu from appetizers to desserts, with preparations participants don't expect like bread, pizza and even risotto.
For anything that we think cannot be cooked on a grill simply because it's too small or delicate, like scallops or shrimp, there are accessories like griddles and cast-iron containers that make that possible as well.
Also, even if you're not looking for that special flavor, barbecuing can still be a very practical solution when you're making large batches of ragout, peperonata, caponata or meat stews. For example, you could fit a cast iron wok into your barbecue, as many of our users do, which also solves the problem of cooking smells in the house. The barbecue is not just a tool for a specific cooking method providing a unique flavor, but very often it's actually seen as an extension of the kitchen.
Globally, what countries have the highest population of barbecue maniacs aside from the US?
The barbecue culture is actually very widespread around the world, but I would say particularly in Europe's Nordic countries, Germany and the UK, where there is also a great deal of educational activities.
Can you tell us a little about what your typical barbecue geek is like?
It's difficult to define because there is no specific type of person, one of the reasons being that barbecue cooking can mean many things. For example, Italians have always had a rather unusual attitude compared to others. We don't like the idea of taking a specific culture like the US culture and adopting it wholesale and uncritically. We Italians really appreciate that the world is full of different cultures, traditions and ingredients, but from a culinary standpoint we are in a very interesting and privileged position, especially in terms of our relationship with ingredients. Our public in Italy generally appreciate the barbecue as a North American cooking tool, but they tend to use it as an actual extension of their kitchen adding an extra touch to traditional Italian preparations. You can eat ethnic food maybe a few times a week, many certainly wouldn't do it on a daily basis, but we have customers who barbecue every day because they have turned their barbecue into an extra tool for their cooking. There are obviously barbecue geeks in Italy who always follow the original cooking directions to the letter and are very passionate, but that's the best thing about this market - everyone is free to do as they like.
How do we know if we're looking at a quality barbecue?
In 35 years of history, we have distributed a variety of brands, and we ourselves have had to develop an in-house method to evaluate a barbecue even before we've had the chance to test it.
What we recommend to those who want to approach the world of barbecue is mainly choosing one that is practical both in terms of lighting and general usage. This is why we usually advise people who are new to barbecuing against starting out with a charcoal or wood device.
The most user-friendly, practical barbecues to start with are definitely gas or pellet.
How can you tell the quality of a gas barbecue?
The first thing to do is open the lid: it should be rigid and heavy. It performs the key function of keeping the heat inside the cooking chamber.
One tip I can suggest is carefully observe the bottom of the barbecue, which should be difficult to see through all of the interior metal parts. If we can easily see the bottom, that probably means the metal elements like the grills are lightweight and this is a major indicator we're not looking at a great barbecue.
A barbecue's job is to keep the heat inside and make it rise evenly. One example where you can clearly see this is pizza. Once you reach 350 degrees it takes about five minutes to cook a pizza, with very interesting results. However, since we're probably not all professional pizza makers, when our pizza is cooked and we open the lid to take it out it takes us about thirty seconds to place another one on the barbecue. So if your barbecue doesn't have a heavy structure with a lot of metal, when you open the lid you can easily lose up to 100° C and you'll have to wait a long time before the temperature rises again and you can cook another pizza. The same principle can be applied to steaks and other high-temperature preparations.
We strongly believe in quality production techniques and materials, because that's what really makes the difference in barbecue cooking.
This is why we offer quality barbecues produced in Canada or the United States, designed for high performance and to last for decades in our garden.
We are often very pleased to hear from customers moving to a new house and bringing their barbecue with them, still in excellent conditions after many years of use.
What about pairing cocktails with barbecue preparations? What would you recommend and why?
I like to make cocktails with a hint of smokiness, or add ingredients I've barbecued first. This is what works best for me and I've often seen it done, especially in Canada. For example, you can pop in a grilled slice of pineapple, maybe blended or diced, and that caramel layer will add an amazing flavor to your cocktail.
Another thing we really like is barbecued rum-flavored bananas. Take a whole banana with the peel on, inject it with rum, then cook it until the peel is completely black. All you need to do is make a light incision and scoop out the rum-flavored banana puree. A very easy preparation with amazing results.
Over the last few years barbecue cooking has become increasingly popular among chefs, whether Michelin-starred or not. Can you tell us about your experience with chefs?
We were lucky enough to start out our experience with Igles Corelli, the first famous chef to believe in the potential of this device. Igles first approached barbecue cooking almost 20 years ago. He has always devoted a lot of time to experimenting, both in the kitchens of his restaurants and as a teacher at the Gambero Rosso school. Something Corelli has always insisted on – whether using a barbecue during service at a restaurant or for outdoor events – is the concept of perfect doneness. Precise temperature control is what actually brought many great chefs closer to barbecue cooking. In addition, consider that these devices are designed for domestic use and are very easy to use, which gives chefs a lot of room for reinventing and reinterpreting and turning an excellent dish into a real work of art. I'm thinking for example of Massimiliano Alajmo, Massimo Bottura and many others, who have achieved incredible flavors and creative preparations with these cooking methods. The barbecue is an extraordinary cooking tool and for this reason it was easily adopted by haute cuisine. Slow, indirect cooking is very useful in preparing large amounts of food and allows to achieve the perfect core temperature and doneness. The food thus prepared is often blast-chilled, portioned, vacuum-packaged and stored. When a customer places an order, the food is finished off with the direct method – grilling – to raise the temperature and enhance the flavor, ensuring an excellent taste experience. This technique makes the job easier and optimizes time management without compromising on the flavor, texture and organoleptic properties of the ingredients.